Setting is one of the most important aspects of a good screenplay, but how does it affect your writing and the production? In this article, we’re going to explore the major elements of a screenplay that are affected by setting and how you can use those elements to create a better final product.
Building a story’s setting
To help visualize what you are writing about, it may be helpful to do some location scouting on Google to inspire you. While location scouting will not be your responsibility as a screenwriter, location research can make writing about a place much easier.
Once you have a list of locations, the Celtx catalog system can help associate your locations with your scripts simply and easily. Organizing your production before hand with a platform like Celtx will help you bring your ideas into reality.
When you’re writing long-form fiction like a novel, you have time to describe the setting of a story in detail. Depending on the point of view that you’re using, you can give your readers extensive context about the location, time period, and social condition.
These three elements make up what’s called a complete setting. Setting a screenplay is unique because you have much less time to convey a similar amount of information as a novel, and you have to do it visually. You may have heard the phrase “save it for your novel” before, which means settings need to be established faster in your screenplay.
Elements of a complete setting in a screenplay
Below we have broken down the three elements of a complete setting and how they can be accomplished in a screenplay.
The location refers to the physical location where the story is taking place. This could be a country, city, or town and how specific you make it will determine a lot about your narrative.
Usually, you want to have your location defined early to help give your audience context, but there are also times where less is more. A vague or ambiguous location can lead your audience to feel ungrounded which will make them want to latch on to something, ideally your characters.
How it’s done in a screenplay: The easiest way to introduce location is through a title card at the beginning, but it’s not always the most effective. Try to give your audience contextual clues that tell them where the location is, this could be done through store signs or casual dialog. The more about your setting that you let your audience discover on their own, the more engaged they will be.
Much like the location, the time period can be as broad or as narrow as your require. If your story is about a group of Neanderthals, then a specific date is probably not important. However, if your film is all about the events that lead up to the Watergate scandal, then you might want to tell everyone it’s the early 1970’s.
How it’s done in a screenplay: Again, you can always go the easy route and include it on a title card, but you can also be subtle about how you convey time. If the film is set in the 1950’s, simply having all the cars from the 50’s and music from the time period playing on the radio might be enough.
The last, and possibly most important element of establishing a complete setting is the social condition. The audience needs to understand the basic rules of the society that our characters are living in order to understand why certain things are happening.
Take Romeo and Juliet for example, this story wouldn’t make sense if it was set in a social climate that cared little about who loved who.
How it’s done in a screenplay: You can set the social tone in a screenplay through character interaction and commentary. In our Romeo and Juliet example, this was accomplished by showing the bitterness between the two families early on.
5 Ways a Story’s Setting Influences the Screenplay
How does the setting influence the Characters?
The setting of a screenplay has a profound impact on the characters that goes well beyond the obvious. Of course, the setting will dictate how characters speak and dress, but it will also affect how they think and feel. The same characters in one setting might act completely differently in another.
Characters from 1775 are going to think and act much differently than characters from 1975. Character behavior is also heavily influenced by the location. Characters in rural locations will handle situations differently than characters in the city and vice versa. Some of the most impactful screenwriting comes when you let your characters become products of the setting they find themselves in.
How does the setting influence the Action?
Action is what drives the plot and how the action unfolds from scene to scene has a good deal to do with the setting. The setting can establish what kind of action can take place, it can also lead the characters to act in certain ways. Sometimes this can feel limiting as a writer, but it can also be liberating.
If your movie is set on a cruise liner from the early 1900’s you probably won’t be able to do a high-speed chase scene, but it doesn’t mean you can’t have it crash into an iceberg.
How does the setting influence the Mood?
The mood of a scene is how it looks and feels emotionally to the audience. Nothing impacts the mood more than the setting. It’s common to hear people in the industry refer to the setting just like they would another character. When you build a complete setting properly it comes alive and has a direct influence on the mood of the entire scene.
The colors that you choose to have in your location can feed into how the characters are feeling. As the plot progresses, you can use the setting to show changes in the world brought on by the actions of the characters and situation.
How does the setting influence the Dialog?
The way your characters talk to each other is directly correlated with their environment. Environmental influences can be as simple as dialectic changes, to more complex ideas like when certain character are able to speak. The environment will dictate the words used and if your characters need to whisper or yell. If you’re not thinking about the setting when you’re writing dialog, then you can be sure it will fall flat.
How does the setting influence the Budget?
While it can be a sore subject for some, every screenwriter should consider budget while they’re creating their setting. As a creative, you shouldn’t limit yourself when it comes to what the story needs. That being said, you need to make sure you’re thinking about what will be possible within the budget that the director is likely to be working with.
Finding affordable film locations has never been easier, and directors are learning to stretch budgets better everyday. However, the more practical you make your screenplay to film, then the more likely somebody will want to film it.
Where you choose to set your story has a widespread impact on the screenplay. By focusing on setting at every phase of your writing you can introduce some serious depth to both your characters and your overall writing.
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