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Back to the Chalkboard: Location, Location, Location

One of my favorite classes to teach is a topics course on scene writing. In that class, we discard the macro elements of structure and character arc, break out the microscope, and take a closer look at the tiny cells that make up any piece of dramatic writing – its scenes. We focus on specific scene types and styles, as well as the many individual craft elements that should be found in all good scenes. As a writer, each of these specific elements presents you with a choice. Writing a screenplay requires you to make hundreds of decisions, and the one we’ll put up on the chalkboard today has to do with choosing locations.

Location Location Location

Real Estate should be a huge consideration for screenwriters way before they sign a seven-figure deal and go shopping for a bungalow in Brentwood. Remember, cinema was about images long before it was about words. We go to the movies to see brand new places, or, to see familiar places in new ways and to feel a strong sense of mood and atmosphere in every shot of every scene. Where you set what happens in a scene is hugely important to making what happens there work well. I like to read scenes where it’s clear the writer made strong, clear, well-considered choices.

Here are some questions to ask yourself about your location choices:

  1. Is this location cinematic? Is there a strong visual component? Clearly, not every scene in a movie features sweeping vistas, stunning cityscapes, or fantastic visual action. That said, how could you maximize the cinematic elements of your location? What is going on in the background, and what can you show us through the business of the location that makes even a mundane space feel cinematic? Bring the place to life as a character.
  2. What is the mood and atmosphere of your location? A barn, for instance, can be playful, romantic, or horrifying depending on the weather, the time of day or year, and the choices you’re making in your story. Can you hint at color, décor, and sound to quickly and efficiently paint the fullest cinematic picture possible without overwriting it?
  3. The best location for a scene is often the worst location for your character to do what it is he or she needs to do. Discrepancy heightens conflict. What is the best worst place to stage the scene? Think about When Harry Met Sally, a great movie that makes awesome use of locations. Harry gives us the exposition about his coming divorce while doing the wave at Giants Stadium. Sally fakes an orgasm in a crowded restaurant. Harry encounters his ex again while singing karaoke at Sharper Image. And the two protagonists have a massive falling out at their best friends’ wedding. Scenes are almost always better when things don’t happen where or how they are supposed to.
  4. That said, it’s fun to see the best-laid plans go utterly wrong. When I proposed to my wife, I took her to Santa Monica Beach at sunset on the first day of her first visit to LA. It was a beautiful night, the moment was right, and just as I pulled out the ring and was about to pop the question, a man turned over a trash can right behind us and began rummaging through the mess, lending less than ideal aromatics to my magic moment. I had chosen what I thought was the perfect time and location, but, as would happen in a good movie, it went wrong despite my choice. We had a good laugh and she still said yes. We sent the guy to In ‘N Out with $10. He wished us all the best.
  5. What props come into play at your location? What items do your characters have at their disposal, and how can they use them to enhance a scene?
  6. Is there emotional resonance to the location that develops throughout the film? Can you plant an important memory or moment in this space to payoff later, showing growth, change, or character arc? Do your characters’ impressions or feelings about this place change over the course of the movie?
  7. What kind of transition does this location provide? What are you cutting from and to entering the scene? What is the best opening image for the scene within this location, and how does it relate to the last image of the previous scene? Cuts are story-telling choices, too. That little bit of white space between the end of your scene and the next slug line is a choice. A decision. An edit. Smooth or engaging transitions show polish and professionalism, and are often very memorable movie moments.
  8. Research your locations. It’s often impractical to visit the places you’re writing about, but it’s hugely beneficial if you can. The more measured authenticity you can imbue into a location, the better. Given the great resources of the Internet, this shouldn’t be a problem.
  9. Thinking about locations should be a function of outlining and planning, as well as rewriting. The more you consider locations before you write, the more engaging your script will be cinematically. One cautionary note: writers often think that the more locations, the better. In a James Bond movie, yes. In an indie horror movie, no. Economy should be a consideration, too.
  10. Interesting, visual locations are exciting to actors, directors, and audiences. Use this to your advantage in building critical mass for your project. If your story can happen anywhere, make a strong, interesting choice. If your script is location specific, do everything you can to let that vibrant, interesting place come to life in every scene of the script.

Changing, combining, and altering locations in the rewrite process is almost always a must. And, if all goes well and the script someday makes it into production, it’s a lock that the locations will change. More than in any other medium, screenwriters must be nimble and flexible. So why not practice? A good locations exercise is to rewrite the same scene exact scene for three different types of movies: horror, comedy, and romance, for instance. Thinking hard on the differences involved in the mood and atmosphere of each genre will sharpen your chops and help you develop a creative sense of play in your location choices and writing style.

Up next on the Chalkboard: Notes on Notes.

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