Make Your Setting Its Own Character In Your Story

When athletes train, they often practice exercises that don’t seem related to their actual sport. For example, boxers jog and jump rope even though running and jumping have little to do with boxing. That’s because jogging and jumping builds stamina and that’s what boxers really need to cultivate.

Likewise with screenwriting, study screenplays and watch movies, but go one step beyond. Study stage plays because that will teach you how to write better dialogue. Since theater can’t rely on exotic locations and dramatic set changes, stage players are forced to rely less on setting and more on dialogue and character interaction.

Study novels because that will teach you how to get into the minds of characters and learn what they think and what they feel. Although you can’t get into the mind of a character in a screenplay, you must still help the audience get into the mind of characters indirectly.

Study video games that tell stories because that will teach you the importance of using the setting as a character.

Play any story-driven video game and you’ll find that the setting plays a heavy role in defining the game. Unlike movies that can jump from setting to setting in an instant, video games tend to act more like stage players in defining a setting and keeping the characters within that setting for long periods of time. That’s because creating a setting in a video game is expensive so the designers can’t afford to switch to drastically different settings all the time.

In the book “Dramatic Storytelling and Narrative Design,” author Ross Berger emphasizes that you should treat your setting (world) as a character by giving it a back history.

For example, in horror stories, the setting is usually a spooky mansion with a history where the previous owner took an ax and wiped out his entire family. That past history plays a role in the current horror story.

Think of “The Shining” where the hotel is isolated in the mountains and a previous caretaker had gone crazy and wiped his family out with an ax. Then the current story is about a man going crazy and trying to wipe out his family with an ax.

Every setting has a unique characteristic that makes that setting harder for the hero. In “Die Hard,” most of the story takes place in a skyscraper, but it’s not just any skyscraper. It’s a new skyscraper so that explains why nobody else is around who can help the hero and there are no telephones connected so the hero can call for help.

The setting often reinforces the theme. In “Die Hard,” the hero is trying to get back with his wife so he’s alone in empty rooms most of the time. In “Titanic,” the setting is a luxurious ocean liner that’s a death trap. That essentially mimics the feeling that Rose (the hero) feels as she’s being forced to marry a rich man she doesn’t love.

Your story’s setting is more than just an empty stage. It’s a crucial part of storytelling that needs to emphasize the theme and make life harder for your hero. Just as Rose is trying to escape a potential future stuck in a loveless marriage, so must she also try to escape from a sinking luxurious ocean liner at the same time.

Setting is crucial to your story. Make it unique and make it memorable. That will help make your story unique and memorable as well.

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