Where Is Your Character Going?
By Jacob Krueger
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I’m writing this from the air on my way to Costa Rica, thinking about the importance of location, both in screenplays and in life. We behave differently in different places, and so do our characters. Travelling abroad, we speak to people we wouldn’t necessarily speak to, face fears we wouldn’t normally face, and get in touch with aspects of ourselves we wouldn’t normally recognize. New locations break us out of our routines, and open us to new experiences.
And of course they do the same for our characters.
As writers we know our job is to take our characters on a profound journey. But oftentimes we pay so much attention to the emotional side of that journey, that we forget the value of the physical side. Simply choosing the right physical location for a scene to take place can completely change the value of that scene, the given circumstances for your character, and the feeling it gives to your screenplay.
There are many ways to take your characters abroad.
The concept of home is important for everyone, and we tend to be attached to the places we consider home, whether they are working for us or not. We stay in places we find unsatisfying simply because it feels safe, normal or routine. And our characters do the same thing. Taking your characters abroad means forcing them out of the places they think of as home: the places are comfortable and normal for them. You can do this by taking them to a foreign place or an unexpected location. Or by choosing a location that already has a strong value for them and allowing that value to change.
Make your characters confront their fears, go to a place they are afraid of and allow something beautiful to happen to them there. Or, pick a place that seems comfortable and safe and violate that safety with something out of the ordinary. Force them to confront an old memory in a location in a place where they grew up, and find something different than they expected. Or allow an element from a location in their past to enter their present day life.
When you break your characters routine, you force them to take profound journeys.
And the great thing is, when you choose the right location, the place itself can do half the writing work for you! In Toy Story 3, think about the value of the daycare center, which begins as pure heaven, the answer to the toys’ desperate need to be played with, and ends up turning into a living hell, run by a satanic teddy bear. The contrast between the value of the daycare center and the shifting value of home helps us understand the character’s journey, simply by understanding the location.
Think about the value of a location in a movie like Into The Wild, as a character travels toward his imagined paradise of Alaska, only to realize he’s said no to all the real paradises that were offered him along the way. Think about any haunted house movie, or a twist on the genre like Cabin in the Woods, and once again you’ll see how important the specifics of a given location can be to your storytelling and your character’s journey.
Your scenes can travel too.
If you’ve ever tried to get anyone to change, you know it doesn’t happen easily. Our characters cling to familiarity just like our loved ones do. And we cling to familiarity as well. One of the unconscious ways we do this is by writing familiar scenes in familiar locations: the breakup at the fancy restaurant, the argument about dirty dishes in the kitchen, the drunken binge at the bar. We end up unconsciously writing scenes that feel cliché, simply because we’re attached to the locations that feel familiar to us.
When you switch your location, magic can happen.
Allow your breakup scene to happen at the top of a ferris wheel. Move your argument about dirty dishes to midnight mass, or allow your drunken binge to happen in a nursery school, and suddenly you transform a scene that feels cliché into one that feels fresh and exciting.
I’m reminded of a student who wrote his very first scene in my Write Your Screenplay class. It was a lovers’ quarrel, taking place in the bedroom as the couple got dressed. And it read pretty much like every other lovers’ quarrel. I suggested that he change the location, and he came back next class with one of the most hilarious scenes I’ve ever read. And the dialogue was exactly the same. All he’d done was switch the location, from the bedroom, to a skydiving lesson. The characters were delivering the same lines to each other, but they were doing so as they plummeted toward the earth. The result not only made us laugh—but also made us recognize just how bad things actually were between them, because they were still discussing it, even in this totally ridiculous situation.
Location forces your character to do something interesting.
One of the big problems many writers have is that their characters aren’t doing anything. They stand around posed, delivering their lines, or doing their normal routine. But when you allow them to interact with a new location, they suddenly start to do fun stuff that roots your scene in action, and creates those movie moments that people can really connect to.
Remember the scene from When Harry Met Sally, when they’re “doing the wave” at the ballpark? Set this scene in any other location, and it’s going to be one of the most boring scenes in history. It’s purely exposition: Billy Crystal catching his friend up on his breakup with his ex-wife. There’s no conflict, and in the lines themselves there’s not so much comedy. But watching the two of them seamlessly continue their conversation, standing and sitting to do the wave each time it comes around to them, transforms this scene into one of the most memorable scenes in the whole movie.
Change Your Location Today
As writers, we all know we need to spend our time in front of the computer. But we also need to force ourselves to explore new locations and new paths in our own lives. It’s these experiences that feed our creativity, shake us from our routine, and inspire the journeys of our characters. This is what I love about travel. Whether you’re heading to a different country, or simply to a different grocery store, changing your location will change your writing, and change your life.