February 26, 2013

Location Location Location

by Gary Fearon, Creative Director, Southern Writers Magazine

They say it a lot in Real Estate, but "location location location" plays a significant role in storytelling too.  Where you plant your characters can be vital to the plot, as well as give it strong visuals in the reader's mind.

Since the Academy Awards were on this weekend, revisiting the nominees for Best Picture would be a good way to review how important setting can be in a story.

These first few films, based on real-life events, could not have taken place anywhere but where they happened:

Ben Affleck has international-sized problems in the Oscar-winning Argo
A CIA agent (Washington, DC) recruits a movie producer (Hollywood) to set up a fake film crew to rescue hostages (Iran).

During the Civil War, the 16th president seeks to abolish slavery (Washington and Virginia).

A CIA agent's aggressive pursuit leads to the death of Bin Laden (Washington and Pakistan).

During the French Revolution, a parolee agrees to care for a poor woman's daughter (France).

Now, an ex-con caring for a young child is a plot that could be taken anywhere. But adding the backdrop of war elevates a story into epic proportions, and Frenchman Victor Hugo is one of countless authors who have utilized this device.

The disaster of Hurricane Katrina provided inspiration for this fantasy drama. A flooded Louisiana bayou was a fitting setting for these backwoods characters.

Too much water also engulfs this fantasy adventure, in which a boy from India is stranded for months on the ocean. While most of the story takes place on the high seas, the spiritual undercurrent gets a running start through multicultural first scenes in India. 

When you think of spaghetti westerns you may think of California or Texas, but the Old West gets some Southern exposure in this Mississippi tale of slaves, plantations and revenge.

An elderly French couple face life and death challenges when the wife becomes critically ill.  This is another story that could have taken place in any city, but the real setting is the couple's apartment. Most of the drama takes place there as the figurative walls of life close in on them.

Even what the characters wear can reinforce location
The protagonist's father is an obsessive Philadelphia Eagles fan, a subplot that provides moments of conflict as well as victory. It's not a football film, but that tie-in brings depth to the "playbook" title. This is another story which could have taken place anywhere, yet the place it chose was used to dramatic advantage.

When we choose (and use) a strong locale, we don't give our characters merely a generic home, but a real, living place in which to experience real life.

As we write our own Oscar-worthy words,  let's remember the words of Eudora Welty:

"Fiction depends for its life on place. Place is the crossroads of circumstance, the proving ground of, What happened? Who's here? Who's coming?"

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