The plot of any story is driven by the choices its protagonist makes. However, the other major factor that affects the plot is the setting–the time and location the story takes place. Not much thought is given to setting of movies in general; if a movie uses a contemporary setting, then it’s obvious that it’s now and where ever the production happens to be located. We’ve gotten used to seeing the suburbs of Los Angeles to represent Anywhere, USA. If a movie is a period piece or a genre like horror, science fiction, or fantasy, then setting becomes more important. Obviously, Marty McFly travels back in time in Back to the Future, thereby changing the setting. The town of Hill Valley is as much a character as any of the humans. Setting should be considered for all movies, not just specific ones.
If you have a typical everyday storyline about a character living his daily life and struggling with some conflict, does it matter where the story is set? The filmmakers aren’t going to go out of their way to move across country just to set it in Kansas when they can just as easily use their own back yard; that’s the reason why we see so many California license plates on movie cars. Similarly, there would be no reason why they’d place the story in the past or future and incur the extra expense of finding appropriate costumes and props. Rob Reiner actually did this very thing when he made Flipped. The book was a contemporary story, but Reiner decided to set the movie in the early ’60’s in order to avoid modern trappings like cell phones and Facebook. It was in the story’s best interest to set in a simpler time where kids didn’t have those distractions and we could focus on the characters themselves instead.
That’s one problem with setting a movie in the present–not only do you have to think about the decisions the character makes, but you have to think about the technology and the world he lives in. Can we really write a story today about teenagers and not include smart phones, texting, video games, and social networking? To avoid these things is to make the story seem dated and out of touch with reality. Technology has changed the way stories are told. In the past, you could easily have a character run out of gas and struggle with the dramatic or comedic consequences of being left on the side of the road trying to get help. If you had that scenario today, the audience would question why the character didn’t just call for help on a cell phone or post it on Facebook with a dozen snarky comments made about it by friends. Either that or OnStar would send out a tow truck to assist you. You can’t have a character isolated by the phone lines going down–who has land lines anymore? The trope of a character quickly struggling to unlock a car door as danger approaches is meaningless when a car door can be unlocked by pressing a button on your key. In your story, you have to work around these things that are now taken for granted and create an excuse for why technology doesn’t matter. The cell phone doesn’t work because they’re out of range of service or the battery went dead. Unless you do as Reiner did and make all your stories period pieces (which brings about a whole slew of other technological issues), you need to address the modern age head-on, which directly affects your story.
As far as location, this has to be taken into consideration even with stories where it doesn’t seem to matter. Would Elliott have found E.T. if he lived in Manhattan or a coastal town in Alaska? Would the shark in Jaws have mattered much if it swam in the waters around Haiti or Honolulu? Not long ago Dick Wolf added another series to the Law & Order repertoire, this time set in London. Law & Order: UK took the scripts from the original series and adapted them for England. Could they have used the stories verbatim? Of course not, because UK laws are much different from US ones. The scripts had to be dissected and rewritten to reflect the different society and legal system that this new setting had. Even moving the show across country had its own issues, as Law & Order: LA illustrated. A character transplanted from the New York-set original had difficulty dealing with the differences in California laws. Also,the shows set in New York had a gray, gritty look to them, with glass and concrete skyscrapers looming overhead, crowding the streets to create a confined, claustrophobic feel. In contrast, L.A. is bright and sunny and sprawls out over many miles and hills, which L&O: LA captured. It was a different show, and the audience didn’t go for it. Even the characters who made up the two shows were completely different; Californians simply aren’t New Yorkers. The writing was still good, but the plots could not help but be affected by the change of setting and the show only lasted a season.
As an exercise, you can take any story and change either the time or place that it’s set and see what you come up with. it’s inevitable that the plot will be affected by it. Characters existing in the societies created by a specific time and place see their world view in a very unique way. Let’s take a standard storyline like a young man falls in love with a young woman he just meets, but does not meet the approval from her parents. We’ve seen that set-up countless times. What makes each re-telling different is the setting. The couple lives in New York and the guy is Irish Catholic but the girl is Jewish. The two live in Russia at the height of Communism. The teenagers are surfers in Daytona Beach in the 1960’s. The young lovers are villagers in 1800’s Transylvania and there are strange goings-on in the nearby castle. The settings are countless, and so are the plots that are derived by these settings. Try to picture the possibilities the next time you watch a movie.
As a writer, you need to be aware of how setting changes the plot. Don’t just make the location a vague non-entity that could be dropped into any town or city. Be specific and think about the ramification of using that particular location or time period. This will enrich your story and make it more believable and realistic. And who knows? You might give the audience an experience that they would not normally have gotten simply by exposing them to a culture or attitudes brought about from your story’s setting.
Read more musings on film and television by Jamie Helton at FilmVerse.
This article was originally published at FilmVerse on October 8, 2011. Republished with permission.
copyright © 2011 Jamie Helton
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