Setting and Tone by Talia

We're talking about setting this week. As someone who got started writing scripts, I tend to write a lot of dialogue first and often have to fill in sensory details later. In script writing, those details were always filled in by directors, producers and set designers. And the choices were limited by budgets.

But where a story takes place can be just as important as what happens. The setting might mirror the mood or tone of the action, or sharply contrast with it, giving the exact same scene a completely different feel. A marriage proposal on an ocean pier would probably be very different from one blurted out while exiting a subway.

I’ve come to realize that the time and place for a novel, a chapter, or a scene are just as critical as the characters who will populate them. Sometimes moreso. If I'm struggling with the sensory details or setting for a scene, I’ll write a paragraph describing the scene with no dialogue, focusing on how the sensory details of the scene follow the action.

Take for example a scene where a young couple is breaking up:

They’re talking on a deserted playground just as a storm rolls in. The wind whips around them, getting increasingly violent as their argument escalates. Rain falls, in drops at first, but then in sheets that mask the tears on the young man's face. The girl shouts to be heard, each word a blow. Then, just as she hurls the words that she can never take back, the rain stops. And that's when he knows it's really over.

That’s okay, but it might work even better if the setting contrasts with the action.

Imagine the same couple in an amusement park on a perfect summer day. All around them other couples laugh, tease, hold hands. Just as the argument starts, a parade of dancing characters comes by. A princess stops directly in front of them. The only indication that the girl even notices the parade is the fact that she leans in closer, her mouth pressed close to the boy’s ear so he can hear every angry word. But the boy can’t help seeing the way the princess looks longingly at her prince, every sweet note a reminder of what he'll never have. The girl's face is pinched as she says the words that will end their relationship, but the boy’s eyes are pinned to the princess. She never stops smiling. Somehow that makes things worse.

Admittedly, in most scenes, the setting won’t be as obvious as these two extremes. But it’s always there, and the choices we make about what details to reveal or not, have as much of an impact on the story as what the characters say and do.

And you have an unlimited budget.


OOOOH - I love the contrasting scene best. I think I tend to think of the scene complimenting the action, but a contrasting scene works good, too.

I'll keep this in mind in my next really intense scene.

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