Telling a Story Through the Environment in a Scene

Far too often, novices write scenes where two people just talk to each other. Even worse, this scene is usually set in a dull setting like a bedroom or inside a car. Whenever you write a scene, focus on telling a story through the environment.

Environmental story telling is all about letting the audience infer facts about characters based on t he environment. Some ways scenes can do this is through:

  • Possessions
  • Behavior traces
  • Identity claims
  • Mood modifiers

Possessions reflect a character’s personality. Do they live in a luxurious apartment (that they may not be able to afford) or do they live in a dumpy little apartment because that’s all they can afford (or because they’re saving money up for a long-term goal?).

The type of objects a character owns can tell a lot about their personality. Someone who smokes may either care less about their health or do care about their health, but smoking represents an odd contradiction based on a hidden motivation.

Behavior traces are about how characters uses their possessions. Someone who smokes may use a cigarette holder or only smoke the finest cigars. Someone else who smokes may buy cheap cigarettes because that’s all they can afford (or think that’s what they deserve).

Look at someone’s car. What it looks like (clean or dirty) can tell you a lot about that person. Is the interior clean or heavily used but organized?

Identity claims represent items that people use to tell themselves or others who they are. This can include flashy jewelry (real or fake), clothes, hair style, and even the type of drinks they enjoy (martini, shaken, not stirred).

Mood modifiers represent items characters use to change their mood such as the type of music they like, the paintings they hang on the walls, or the colors of their car.

The next time you describe a scene, don’t just describe a generic setting and ordinary characters. Let us know how those characters are dressed, how they behave in a setting, and how they present themselves to others through their appearance or where they feel comfortable (or uncomfortable) in a particular setting.

Some people are perfectly at home inside a dive bar while others will be distinctly uncomfortable in that same dive bar. Both will reveal a lot about that character.

So when writing scenes, keep these ideas in mind to give your character more personality through the interaction with the setting. By making the setting an integral part of telling a story, you can write a more effective screenplay.

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