Setting Matters: 5 Simple Tricks To Bring Your Script To Life

Setting Matters

by Armaan Uplekar

“The setting felt like a character.” You might have heard these words before – maybe reading a movie review, or through a conversation with friends, walking out of a movie theater. It’s a high compliment meant to convey that the setting that the story takes place is just as iconic, important and indispensable as the actual antagonist or protagonist of that story. Sure – maybe you can look at that as an exaggeration, but some of the most classic and memorable films and television series of all time are tied irrevocably to the locations they take place in. Try imagining Taxi Driver taking place somewhere besides New York City or Batman being set anywhere other than Gotham City. The same goes for TV as well. Breaking Bad and CSI (Miami/ Las Vegas) masterfully used their respective cities as integral “characters” in each iteration.

Sometimes the ultimate setting of movies and TV series are determined by production particulars such available tax incentives or talent scheduling. But that shouldn’t stop you from trying to prioritize how you use setting to elevate your screenplay. You’ll want to use every tool at your disposal when writing a script, and setting is one of the most important aspects of any story; it can influence your story in a variety of ways. In the following sections, we’ll dive into how you can make your script’s setting feel not just necessary, but essential to the story you are telling.

  • Be Specific

“OK,” you might be thinking. “I’m thinking of setting my story in New York City. How much more unforgettable can you get?”

The answer: Plenty. Even when writing for an iconic and well-known city such as New York, you’ll want to be as specific as possible in order to make your audience really believe that they’re reading a story that takes place in the City That Never Sleeps. If you write New York City to be a bland metropolis with slug lines reading INT. APARTMENT, you’re missing out on a valuable opportunity to color and texturize your story with memorable details.

Instead of a forgettable APARTMENT, why not a park avenue penthouse, or a Brooklyn Brownstone? Why set your story in a generic city park when you can instead write for Central Park or Washington Park? Use well-knows neighborhoods to set a scene. Coney Island, Wall Street, Little Italy each offer your world a specific color or context. Specificity gives your audience a better sense of what you imagine the world to be like and allows them more opportunity to immerse themselves in the story you’re telling.

  • Make the Details Matter

Writing for setting in a screenplay can be a difficult endeavor. You don’t want to overload your readers with so much detail that your story begins to read slowly, but you do want your story to feel rich in authenticity and color. The details you decide to include on the page will often influence what your reader thinks of your story, the characters, the tone and the overall atmosphere of your piece.

Let’s return to the earlier example of writing for New York City. What details might you decide to touch upon if you’re writing a scene where your character strolls down a busy street? If you make the decision to focus on the chaos and persistent hustle that is typical of a Monday afternoon in Manhattan, the details that you invoke will likely create the impression of a frenzied and similarly chaotic story that moves at a fast pace. If the streets are noisy, is it because dogs are barking, kids are playing stickball, car alarms are blaring or is it a screaming ambulance speeding by?

If you instead decide to describe the setting in other terms – think chirping birds and gleaming sidewalks, imagery that wouldn’t be atypical in a romantic comedy – then audiences will likely understand that the story you’re telling is one of uplift. The details matter when it comes to conveying setting. You have a limited amount of space to convey these details, which is why it’s very important you pick out the kind of information that will best influence your audience’s impression of your story.

  • Use Locale to Highlight Theme and Character

Setting is an invaluable tool for a storyteller. One of the most consequential things it can do for your script is give your audience a greater sense of the thematic underpinnings of your story. Consider Joker, whose interpretation of Gotham City invokes the New York City of the 1970s and 1980s in order to recall films such as Taxi Driver and King of Comedy. This reimagining of Gotham City helps invoke some of the bigger ideas expressed by the story, particularly regarding the protagonist’s alienation from a crumbling and increasingly violent society. Titanic is another film that uses setting to provide a physical manifestation of the class divide.

Whether it be the rainy, futuristic vision of Los Angeles present in Blade Runner or the stratified small towns in Hell or High Water, these movies use location to better express and exemplify theme. Setting also can help your audience better understand your character. If your character is a recluse who lives in relative isolation, the audience might get a stronger feel for who they are if they were to live amid the cornfields of Nebraska versus a non-descript city suburb.

  • Force the Setting to Influence the Story

One excellent way to make your setting feel inseparable from your screenplay is to have it exert a direct influence over the story. We already mentioned how Titanic is a film that uses its setting as a way to provide commentary on some of the script’s themes. In addition to that, however, Titanic is a film that literally weaponizes its chief setting against its heroes.

When the luxury ocean-liner hits an iceberg and begins to sink, the location itself becomes an obstacle that the characters are forced to overcome. It heightens the story’s sense of tension and directly affects the fates of the characters. By using setting as a source of conflict, you have made your locations inseparable from the story itself – it directly contributes to the chain of events that unfold within the plot.

  • Contain the Location

For some writers, limiting the amount of locations and settings that your story takes place in can be a very useful tool. Consider a film like Buried, which is almost entirely set within the confines of a coffin. Locke almost exclusively takes place inside a moving car, while the thriller The Guilty is confined to the point-of-view of a 911 operator in a police station. These limitations in location not only typically reflect a budget-conscious writer but could also communicate a willingness to tell a story in a creative and out-of-the-box manner.

While it’s certainly not for everyone, embracing limitations can be a novel way to help your use of settings stand-out. It’s an unorthodox way to really dig into the minutia of a setting, whether it be a phone booth under siege by a sniper (Phone Booth) or a jury deliberation room (12 Angry Men). By forcing your story to take place in a restricted number of locations, you also get your audience to consider how those limitations affect what they might see. You’ll likely find new and exciting ways to communicate interesting story beats and might come up with fresh ways to address potential conflicts. While it takes considerable skill to really embrace limitations, doing so can really help your approach to setting feel all the more unique.  

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