Writing Tip — Maximize Your Setting

If there was one Hollywood director who knew how to maximize a setting, it was Alfred Hitchcock.

I hadn’t realized this until I came across a quote in Halliwell’s Harvest. The author Leslie Halliwell stated that Hitchcock believed “the location must be put to work”. That’s why so many of his scenes are still remembered.

  • North By Northwest: The hero is pursued by enemy spies. When he finds himself on a lonely road out in the country, a crop dusting plane tries to kill him. At the end of this movie, the villain owns a house near Mount Rushmore. The hero and heroine almost fall off the famous faces, trying to escape.
  • Foreign CorrespondentThis movie from 1940 races around Europe with the hero trying to figure out what Nazi agents are up to before WWII. While sneaking up on spies in a windmill in Holland, the hero’s sleeve gets caught in the gears, and he must free himself, silently, before his arm gets crushed.
  • PyschoHitchcock used the Bates’s home (see photo) so well that it has become the symbol in America for the kind of rundown, creepy house you don’t linger in front of if you walk past it.

Hitchcock wasn’t the only director to  work a location to maximum effect. I recently saw the movie Niagara from 1953. A young couple, taking a much-delayed honeymoon at the Falls, become involved with another couple, an older man married to a much younger, adulterous wife. The director had scenes shot on the boat Maid of the Mist. Two key scenes occur during the walking tour on the Falls. The Carillon Bell Tower, overlooking the Falls, is the setting for a plot point and a murder. After viewing this movie, I felt like I had traveled back in time to 1953 and was taking a vacation with the characters.

One of the reasons I love The Bourne Identity is that the director made such effective use of driving through Europe in winter. It was a setting I hadn’t seen before in movies, and he conveyed the desperate road trip so well that I want to drive across Europe to see the sights.

So wherever you choose to place your stories, be sure to research it well enough to maximize the setting. Some idosyncracy about a particular location can inspire a character, a plot point, or simply elevate your setting from good to great.

What’s a memorable setting from a movie? Or have you written about a unique setting?

Writing Tip — Locations Must Be Put to Work

isolation-2420514_1280For  an interesting opinion on world-building, check out this post “Why World Building Comes First” on Gabrielle Massman’s site “Write for the King”.

Her post emphasizes how world-building in speculative fiction affects character development. As I stated in my comment, I believe all authors engage in some kind of world-building to draw readers into a setting they are not familiar with.

This reminded me of a rule, attributed to Alfred Hitchcock, which I found in Halliwell’s Harvest“the location must be put to work”.

Hitchcock is remembered for his wonderful use of locations to enhance his plots. A man is dropped off by a lonely cornfield and is attacked by someone flying a crop-dusting plane in North By Northwest. Not a truck or car or motorcycle. Since the hero is in a cornfield, Hitchcock uses a plane. Because Foreign Correspondent has a scene in Holland, Hitchcock has to work in a windmill in which the hero gets his sleeve, almost his arm, crushed in the grinding gears of the mill.

I am reading A Fool and His Monet by Sandra Orchard. The main character is an FBI agent who specializes in art theft and works out of St. Louis. The author uses a lot of place names to ground her story in St. Louis. I don’t know the city, but I have a cousin who lives there, and I’m sure if I check, those names will be true.

Whatever you location, make it work for your story. If you pick a city that’s been used a lot, like New York or London, try to find some quality that other writers might not have taken advantage of. Jeff Rice wrote the book for the TV movie The Night Stalker about a vampire prowling through Las Vegas. Mr. Rice had lived in Las Vegas and said a significant part of the population lived and worked at night. A vampire would go unnoticed.

If your story is not coming together as you like, maybe it’s the location. Try several different ones and see if  a change gets the story back on track.

How do you make your location work for you?


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