The place where a scene occurs should always be special. Generic settings simply fade into the background. Unique places make the characters’ actions even more interesting. If a scene occurs in a diner, don’t make it an ordinary diner. Make it a seedy diner, an upscale diner, or an old fashion diner. Then force the characters to interact with that unique place in a way that would be impossible if it were just another generic location.
In “Pulp Fiction,” one scene takes place in a diner, but this isn’t an ordinary diner. Here’s how the script describes the diner:
EXT. JACKRABBIT SLIM’S – NIGHT
In the past six years, 50’s diners have sprung up all over L.A., giving Thai restaurants a run for their money. They’re all basically the same. Decor out of an “Archie” comic book, Golden Oldies constantly emanating from a bubbly Wurlitzer, saucy waitresses in bobby socks, menus with items like the Fats Dioxin Cheeseburger, or the Wolfman Jack Omelette, and over prices that pay for all this bullshit.
But then there’s JACKRABBIT SLIM’S, the big mama of the 50’s diners. Either the best or the worst, depending on your point of view.
Although this description may be a bit wordy, there’s no mistaking that the location is unique. Now the characters don’t just eat and talk in this diner, but they also interact with 50’s style characters and dance to 50’s music in ways that can only take place in this particular location.
Even if a place is normal, the screenwriter’s job is to give that place a personality. In “Fargo,” a man heads to a meeting with two other men in a bar, which is described as follows:
We are pulling into the snow swept parking lot of a one-story brick building. Broken neon at the top of the people identifies it as the Jolly Troll Tavern. A troll, also in net, holds a champagne glass aloft.
The bar is downscale even for this town. Country music plays not he jukebox.
Notice that the specific details (broken neon, troll) and opinion (“bar is downscale even for this town”) helps paint a visual image of a distinct location. A good rule of thumb is that if a scene describes a location so that you could easily recognize it if you saw it in the real world, then that location description is vivid and descriptive enough.
Most locations are familiar to most people such as a diner or a bar. However, sometimes locations take place in unusual settings. In science fiction or fantasy settings, the location often is compared to a familiar area. In “Star Wars,” Obi-wan Kenobi’s home is described as follows:
The small, spartan hovel is cluttered with desert junk but still manages to radiate an air of time-worn comfort and security.
Even though this home is located in a science fiction world, the description must ground us in the reality of what we know today. That’s why the description is light on specific details and emphasizes feelings such as “time-worn comfort” instead.
Interior locations can increase a sense of claustrophobia such as in the bar scene in “Star Wars” where the hero finds himself surrounded by aliens of all kinds. Interior locations can also isolate the hero so they can’t get away from a villain, thus increasing their sense of feeling trapped such as the prison interior scenes in “The Shawshank Redemption.”
Exterior locations can make a hero feel helpless and powerless. In “Alien,” crew members walk across the desolate landscape of an unknown planet and then spot the crashed remains of an alien spacecraft in the distance. In “Thelma and Louise,” the hero drives across the wide open country, which makes her look small in comparison.
Similar to location is the time. In most cases, the time is either day or night. In rare cases, the time can be different such as morning or evening, but only if the scene absolutely requires such preciseness in timing.
As with the location, the time of the scene should work against the hero. A brightly lit scene can work against the hero if the hero is trying to avoid being seen. In “The Hunger Games” when the games first begin, everyone rushes towards supplies and weapons at once, creating a bloodbath. Because this scene takes place in broad daylight, everyone can see each other so the hero can’t hide easily.
A dimly lit scene works against the hero if the hero is trying to find something or a way out such as in every horror movie. In “Night of the Living Dead,” the darkness helps hide the zombies so they can get close to the hero, increasing their threat.
In your own story, identify the purpose of a scene and pick several possible locations that can work against the hero. What time period (day or night) works against the hero? What interior or exterior location can work against the hero?