One Thing the Movies Can Teach You About Setting

Often, setting is so integral to a story that it becomes a character in itself. Fantasy, science fiction, and historical stories all demand detailed and precise settings. Most mysteries will demand at least one scene set in a police station or morgue. Many thrillers and suspense stories have found great success by confining their boundaries to an airplane, island, or small town.

Setting is an inherent and vital part of all stories. Without a setting that immediately grounds them in the characters’ world, readers are going to find themselves floundering… and the author is, more than likely, going to find himself out of a job. Come up with the right descriptive words to bring to life the Wyoming plains, a river in Syria, or the bombed-out streets of war-torn London, requires

1. An excellent grip on the English language.

2. A clear vision of color and space.

3.  A vivid imagination.

What Can Novelists Learn From Movie Settings?

In provoking the immediacy of setting, movies have a decided advantage over the lowly novelist. After all, a movie director hardly requires pages of evocative description when he has the ability to simply inundate his viewer with a minute’s worth of color and light and spectacle. In that regard, novelists are at a certain disadvantage when compared to their brethren of the silver screen.

There is, however, one way in which all authors of fiction can share in the cinematographic grounding of setting. And that is in what I term “throwaway settings.” All stories, be they on the written page or the movie screen, possess two kinds of setting: the concrete and the “throwaway.”

Concrete Setting

Concrete scenes are those that demand a particular kind of setting. Allow me to use three movies as an example.

  • In the 2005 adaptation of Pride & Prejudice (affiliate link), the scene in which Elizabeth Bennett and Fitzwilliam Darcy are reunited after Lizzie’s refusal of his first proposal, could have taken place in no other setting than the sumptuous grounds of Darcy’s Pemberley estate.
  • The Patriot (affiliate link), which took place during the American Revolution, featured innumerable battle scenes that, to be true to history, could have taken place nowhere but South Carolina.
  • The majority of The Last of the Mohicans (affiliate link), which takes place during the French siege of the English Ft. William Henry, could not conceivably have been set elsewhere.

Throwaway Setting

In these same movies, however, we find many throwaway scenes—scenes that do not demand a particular setting. For instance:

  • The scene in Pride & Prejudice in which Elizabeth refuses Darcy’s proposal could have taken place almost anywhere. In Jane Austen’s book, upon which the movie is based, the scene is acted out in a drawing room. At first glance, nothing can be said against this choice of setting: it’s sensible and realistic. But how much better was the setting chosen by the director of the movie—the opulent monument, in a lush landscape, to which Elizabeth runs to escape the rain? Jane Austen’s original drawing room setting may have gotten across the scene’s point, but the movie’s version explored so many deeper levels of tension and beauty, simply by changing the setting.
  • In The Patriot, the hero, a militia captain, must select a hidden base camp, from which he can harass the enemy and then melt back into hiding. The writer and director of the movie could easily have gotten away with parking the camp in the middle of a forest. Instead, they chose to set it in a graveyard-cum-swamp, with the headstones lurking half-submerged in the water. In conveying tone, the swamp was far more effective than a simple forest setting could ever have been.
  • Finally, the splendid sense of setting found throughout The Last of Mohicans is nowhere more evident than during the prolonged escape scene, in which the heroes launch their empty canoes over a waterfall, then seek a hiding place behind the fall itself. Not only does the idea work marvelously in the plot itself, it also manages to submerge the viewer in a mysterious world of mist, water, and shadow that brings an entirely new and exceptional tone to the scene.

Are You Choosing Your Throwaway Settings Wisely?

The simple use of setting in all three of these movies proves how easy it is to transform a scene with a few keystrokes. In fact, as authors we are able to make these changes with far greater ease than movie producers and directors, who must hunt out strange and interesting locales.

The next time you sit down to write a scene with a throwaway setting—a scene in which the setting is not inherent—stop and think. Could you bring a new level to your scene by adding an interesting or unexpected setting? Changing the setting might depth to your scene, heighten the tension, and even lead to unforeseen story angles.

Consider your settings carefully, even those that initially seem unimportant. You never know when you may find an unexpected gem!

Tell me your opinion: What is the last concrete setting in your story? How about the last throwaway setting?

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  1. Wow, once again, excellent post KM!

    Every time I sit down to watch a movie with the family, no matter how young or old an audience it is aimed at, I always find myself asking the same question: How would you put that into words? Sometimes it can get a little annoying, for example, in the middle of the high action climax scene, when all of a sudden this little voice pipes up – How would YOU put that into words, huh?

    lol, despite the slight annoyance though, it has helped me come up with many a good idea 😉

    once again, excellent post. I’m very glad I stumbled upon your blog, all those months ago 😉


  2. Hah, I do that too. Some things we find in the movies just plain *aren’t* translatable into words (just as some things we find in books can’t be translated on the big screen), but the act of scrutinizing what we’re watching from an author’s perspective is always a useful exercise.

  3. Great points. Movies *have* to pick setting consciously, and since we have the Infinite Budget we ought to take advantage of the option too.

    By the way, there’s one other reason for The Patriot using a swamp: Gibson’s “Benjamin Martin” is partly based on Gen. Francis “The Swamp Fox” Marion. But often good symbology’s just an extension of the logic behind things.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I remember reading about Martin’s being based on the Swamp Fox. Many layers of reason = always a good thing!

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