Often times setting is so integral to a story that it becomes a character in itself. Fantasy, science fiction, and historical stories all demand detailed and precise settings. Most mysteries will demand at least one scene set in a police station or morgue. Many thrillers and suspense stories have found great success by confining their boundaries to an airplane, island, or small town.
Setting is an inherent and vital part of all stories. Without a setting that immediately grounds him in the characters’ world, a reader is going to find himself floundering… and the author is, more than likely, going to find himself out of a job. Finding the right descriptive words to bring to life the Wyoming plains, a river in Syria, or the bombed-out streets of war-torn London, requires an excellent grip on the English language, a clear vision of color and space, and a vivid imagination.
In provoking the immediacy of setting, movies have a decided advantage over the lowly novelist. After all, a movie director hardly requires pages of evocative description when he has the ability to simply inundate his viewer with a minute’s worth of color and light and spectacle. In that regard, novelists are at a certain disadvantage compared to their brethren of the silver screen.
But there is one way in which all authors of fiction can share in the cinematographic grounding of setting. And that is in what I term “throwaway settings.” All stories, be they on the written page or the movie screen, possess two kinds of setting: the concrete and the “throwaway.”
Concrete scenes are those that demand a particular kind of setting. Allow me to use three movies as an example. In the 2005 movie Pride & Prejudice, the scene in which Elizabeth Bennett and Fitzwilliam Darcy are reunited after Lizzie’s refusal of his first proposal, could have taken place in no other setting than the sumptuous grounds of Darcy’s Pemberley estate. The Patriot (2000), which took place during the American Revolution, featured innumerable battle scenes that, to be true to historicity, could have taken place nowhere but South Carolina. Likewise, the majority of The Last of the Mohicans, which takes place during the French siege of the English Ft. William Henry, could not conceivably have been set elsewhere.
In these same movies, however, we find many throwaway scenes—scenes that do not demand a particular setting. For instance, the scene in Pride & Prejudice in which Elizabeth refuses Darcy’s proposal could have taken place almost anywhere. In Jane Austen’s book, upon which the movie is based, the scene is acted out in a drawing room. At first glance, nothing can be said against this choice of setting: it’s sensible and realistic. But how much better was the setting chosen by the director of the movie—the opulent monument, in a lush landscape, to which Elizabeth runs to escape the rain? Jane Austen’s original drawing room setting may have gotten across the scene’s point, but the movie’s version explored so many deeper levels of tension and beauty, simply by changing the setting.
In The Patriot, the hero, a militia captain, must select a hidden base camp, from which he can harass the enemy and then melt back into hiding. The writer and director of the movie could easily have gotten away with parking the camp in the middle of a forest. Instead, they chose to set it in a graveyard-cum-swamp, with the headstones lurking half-submerged in the water. In conveying tone, the swamp was far more effective than a simple forest setting could ever have been.
Finally, the splendid sense of setting we find throughout The Last of Mohicans is nowhere more evident than during the prolonged escape scene, in which the heroes launch their empty canoes over a waterfall, then seek a hiding place in the caverns behind the water. Not only does the idea work marvelously in the plot itself, it also manages to submerge the viewer in a mysterious world of mist, water, and shadow, thereby bringing an entirely new and exceptional tone to the scene.
The simple use of setting in all three of these movies proves how easy it is to transform a scene with a few keystrokes. In fact, as authors we are able to make these changes with far greater ease than that of movie producers and directors, who must hunt out strange and interesting locales.
The next time you sit down to write a scene with a throwaway setting—a scene in which the setting is not inherent—stop and think. Could you bring a new level to your scene by adding an interesting or unexpected setting? Changing the setting could add depth to your scene, heighten the tension, and even lead to story angles you never suspected were present. Consider your settings carefully, even those that initially seem unimportant. You never know when you may find an unexpected gem!
K.M. Weiland writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in the sandhills of western Nebraska. She is the author of the historical western A Man Called Outlaw and the recently released medieval epic Behold the Dawn. She blogs at Wordplay: Helping Writers Become Authors and AuthorCulture.