May 11, 2020

How to Make Your Location a Character [With Examples]

The locations in your movie or TV show are characters unto themselves. 

When you're writing, you tend to focus on the characters, dialogue, and plot. While those are all incredibly important to nail, you could be neglecting your locations. Locations are not just where the story happens but they can become a character unto themselves. 

What's Breaking Bad without the Arizona desert or The Sopranos without the Bing? 

I mean... you can't have The Office without... well... an office. 

Today I want to go over how locations can become a character within your story. How you can deepen the narrative with a great location, and even build an entire story around a specific spot. But first, if you haven't already downloaded our FREE ebook How to Write a Screenplay During Quarantine, do so now. It's packed with TONS of tips, tools, guides, and infographics about screenwriting. And it's free. 

How to Write a Screenplay (During a Quarantine)

Your Location is a Character

When you study character development and character arcs as much as we do here, you start to get a feel for where things are going in every story. But the things that continue to surprise us are the locations within stories. 

Not just how creative people get with where things are located but also how these locations embody the themes and motifs of the story. 

So let's look at how that's done in movies and TV. 

Locations in Movies

Your locations have a lot to say. They can also be folded into the folklore of your world. I'm thinking of places like the Shire or even Shawshank prison. 

But for me, there's no more mythical location than Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. 

Hogwarts is the primary location for everything happening in the seven Harry Potter films and books. 

It has its own personality and lore. It lends to the believability of the make-believe world and even adds depth to every character within it. Its unpredictable stairways and hidden doors also add to the intrigue. 

But what about a location that's the reason for the story to happen? 

Billy Wilder's The Apartment is not only one of the best movies ever made but the title refers to the location that the movie is sort of about. It's a place people take their love trysts and eventually where a man and woman find common ground. 

Without the location of the actual apartment, there is no movie. 

And the interior of the place changes with the story. Decorations, new appliances, and eventually new tenants. 

In a 2018 essay on The ApartmentDavid Verdeure writes, "Do these empty rooms conjure up joy, because we remember Wilder's unique brand of gracious humor? Does the deserted hallway fill us with giddy awkwardness at the memory of the movie's many romantic entanglements? Or is the sight of this site (without the radiant Shirley MacLaine and without the affable Jack Lemmon) one of sadness and melancholy? And what if you've never even seen the film, what feeling do these uninhabited rooms evoke then?"

Those are deep questions inside the space. 

But locations also can cover your ass and keep the budget low, as they did in the Ryan Reynolds thriller, Buried. 

Buried takes the story of a man stuck in one location and elevates it to the next level. We spend the entirety of the movie in a tight space. There were very specific reasons things were written that way. 

In an interview with Writer's Digest, the film's screenwriter, Chris Sparling, said "Buried was born out of financial necessity, really. My intent was to make a feature film to direct, produce, and self-finance, so that made it paramount that my locations, props, and actors were kept to an absolute minimum. In other words, it had to be on the cheap. After I settled on the concept (of a man buried alive, talking to the outside world through a cell phone), I then had to come up with a compelling enough reason for why he'd be buried in the first place. I didn't want to go the horror film route, so I started searching for what would be an engaging premise for a dramatic thriller. In the course of doing so, I learned how frequently civilian contractors are being taken hostage in Iraq. Thankfully, none of them have ever been buried alive, but they are often held in small rooms and in squalid conditions as their hostage-takers are attempting to get paid ransom. My goal was to write something that seemed socially relevant, and telling the story of these contractors—a story that is seldom told in the mainstream media—answered that call."

Locations in TV 

Think movies are the only place where a location can also be a character? Think again. 

Storytelling in television is almost more reliant on locations as characters because you return to them week in and out. Some of that has to do with the nature of how television is created. 

For multicamera sitcoms, the location is king. 

Just think about Cheers. 

Every episode in the first two seasons takes place entirely inside the bar. 

The show's creators designed the story and came up with the logline that way. 

Les Charles said, "A bar is a place where everything that happens in life can end up. You go to celebrate, drown your sorrows, meet and fall in love, break up. It's an interesting spot for human dynamics."

His co-creator Glen Charles followed, "People will talk to a bartender in a way they wouldn't any other stranger. There's an immediate opening up and frankness."

What about shows whose primary locations evolve with the story? 

Take a place like Mad Men

In the beginning, the office is just a place where work gets done. But as the show progresses, more names are added on the outside of the door. 

As these names get added the status of the people inside the office changes. And they play musical chairs with who runs what division. 

In this way, the changing location and who inhabits it directly mirrors the arcs of the people involved. 

Sometimes locations are the inspiration for the story itself.

Like in David Milch's Deadwood. 

When trying to come up with an idea for a TV show, David Milch didn't even consider a western. He told Terri Gross, "You know, I didn't really have a particular interest in the genre. But I was interested in certain themes, which - originally, I had hoped to engage in a series about the city cops in Rome at the time of Nero. They were called urban cohorts. And what I wanted to examine was how forms of order are imposed or discovered in the absence of law, but HBO was doing another show set in Rome. It's like the old joke about the ostentatious Jewish family that goes to Kenya to have their kid bar mitzvah-ed, and they have to wait because there's another Bar Mitzvah ahead of them. Anyway, they were doing a show about Rome. And so Chris Albrecht and Carolyn Strauss suggested that I try and find another venue in which I could engage the same themes, and that's how I came to Deadwood."

That kind of visceral inspiration allowed for the three seasons and the movie that summed the story up. 

It wasn't just the location, but what the location was emblematic of that got Milch writing. 

the actual place got him to find the characters and as Deadwood the town got tamed, so did its people. 

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