You’ve sat down at your computer or notepad, or typewriter (if you’re pleasantly old-fashioned and/or a time traveller) You have a fantastic premise – a brand new horror/murder-mystery/thriller/whatever, and you have your characters. Mum’s a cop, Dad’s a lawyer, kids are acting out, the mysterious stranger may or may not be a long-lost twin brother.
But you’ve forgotten a character – and quite an important one: the setting.
I like to think that the setting of a good piece of writing can be just as important as the characters. I honestly believe in narrative being ascertained from characters’ surroundings.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with writing the greatest kitchen sink drama you can muster, but think – where is the kitchen sink? What fantastic place can my drama be set in? What unexplored realm or quirky backwater town can enhance my ideas – enhance my storytelling – and hopefully tell some story itself?
I found myself re-watching HBO’s supernatural mystery-drama The Leftovers recently – the second season in particular. The framework of an interesting family drama is there, but there’s that other character too – the town of Jardin. It’s got eccentric locals; it’s got weird traditions – and without spoiling the show – it’s got a weird history. You feel the world come to life when the setting becomes itself a mystery. It feels real, familiar, unique – aren’t these qualities you’d want to assign to a character? Fargo too – the living, breathing surroundings of Fargo are as much an interesting and constantly developing character as its human residents.
‘Precinct’ is a term you should familiarise yourself with, as a strong one is something that producers look for. At one point in the industry, a ‘precinct’ was a singular building or enclosed locale where the drama was set, such as a police precinct, hospital, bar, etc. As original voices are becoming sought after, ‘precinct’ is becoming a wider umbrella term. In my eyes, these quirky villages with their history and characters and legacy are excellent precincts. They can be defined by the needs of the story and can constantly grow with your characters. Look at Stranger Things, Hamish Macbeth, Twin Peaks, where the setting – the precinct of curious small town – becomes itself a major player in the story. Always present, always adapting, always opening new possibilities, always interesting… doesn’t that sound like the basis for a strong character?
If you have a strong, well-thought-out precinct that can keep lending to your narrative, you have a series. You have a film. La Casa de Papel (or Money Heist) excels at this – a series set inside a bank, with the characters and the setting interacting synonymously. The characters need the setting. The setting gives back to the characters. And a high-tech bank with sweeping staircases, printing presses and an in-house museum? Look at all the narrative and interaction you have there.
A huge focus currently in the industry is original voice – new and unique ways of telling familiar and relatable stories. Original voice can be found within characters or narrative techniques, but I believe that a huge part of it can be achieved with careful study of your setting and how you use it. Did you grow up in a curious little village on the outskirts of everything? Use it. How about a major city that isn’t London or NYC? Use it.
And if you did grow up there, what was it like for you? Name the streets. Paint in the details. Tell us about the graffiti, and the price of milk in the local store, and the burnt-out bar on the corner. Bring the world to life – by grounding it in yours.
The phrase ‘write what you know’ is thrown around a bit – yes, do write what you know, but that doesn’t mean don’t write what you don’t. Use your strengths, your memories, familiar places and familiar scenes. Just because your script is set in space doesn’t mean you can’t include the communal feeling of small-town America or island living – everyone knowing each other, the feeling of confinement, etc. If you know those settings well enough, you’ll find they are characters in their own rights. You know their qualities, their quirks and where you can garner narrative from them because you’ve lived with them and learned from them.
When I write, I always try to inject in some Glasgow. I find it adds personality and layers to your setting if you have a knowledge and genuine love of it. I’ve read so many scripts set in NYC or London that never express why it should be set there – why choose that particular place as your backdrop if you aren’t going to exploit it, or make it feel real? Your setting shouldn’t be random or inspired simply by what you’re watching… it should enhance your ideas and be as interesting as your premise. I should walk away from your script feeling that I’ve gained enough character, tone and narrative from your setting alone.
Your characters live there – make me feel like I do too, or if you don’t want me to live there, give me a reason to relocate...
Eden Luke McIntyre is a Scottish writer, editor and script consultant. His qualifications include a Master’s Degree in TV Fiction Writing and Bachelor of Arts with Honours Degrees in Film & Media Studies and English Studies, specialising in Scriptwriting, Creative Writing and Researching the Media. Beyond consulting on scripts, Eden writes original content for radio, stage and online and was appointed as a BBC Writers Room Scottish Voice in early 2020.