Going on Location

Talking writing here. Location is not simply what “frames the picture.”

As the scribe of your story, if you consider yourself its cinematographer or cameraman and the reader as projectionist, then location is your film stock. (Yeah, so it’s also your art department, but let’s stick to one analogy for now.) It provides the context against which everything else is staged. There’s a literal chemical reaction with the performance that’s burned into it.

Do you want something grainy? Vibrant? Black and white? High contrast? Fogged?

Determine what needs to happen in the scene, how the characters use each other for these needs, and then place the whole thing somewhere that provides its own set of additional obstacles. It’s all about heightening conflict. Write a shootout in a daycare center. A breakup in church. A homosexual’s outing during a KKK rally. You get the idea. Location amplifies tension. Enough talky diner scenes; if dialogue is all that’s on your characters’ menu, at least have them do it at a swingers party or in the back of an ambulance.

Location can become (and be written like) another character, be it unstable, comforting, evil, intoxicating—whatever. Make it breathe. This personification is known as pathetic fallacy, and lies in the details. Even a mundane setting like a bookstore can raise the stakes with some background quirks like the nauseating smell of overpriced coffee, talkative ghosts of dead authors, or an aisle full of sexual dysfunction books that mirror a character’s insecurities. Don’t beat the reader over the head with excess description, but let us know that it pervades the proceedings via a quick cutaway to the environment now and then. Anthropomorphize it; give it some human characteristics:

• The portraits eyeballed us along the lonely corridor, whispering for us to press onward.

• The bed swallowed her whole, while figurines danced on the nightstand and those glow-in-the-dark ceiling constellations mapped out her immediate future.

Especially in screenwriting, where you’re limited to visual and sonic descriptions (no feelings or inner monologue permitted), an effective technique is to use the external to reflect the internal. Emotionally. Sometimes it’s obvious, like an airplane experiencing turbulence while its passengers bicker, or an envious crush wearing a green dress. But it could also be a walk through an empty stadium by a struggling athlete, or a cold-feet bride who spots her parents arguing in the congregation.

If you don’t quite have a scene figured out yet, and need a little inspiration or solution-engineering, a dynamic location can help spur those ideas. A mausoleum, the drunk tank, a champagne room, the 6 train … fucked-up shit just happens there sometimes. Select the right film stock and your imagery will jump off the page.

About Gordon

Gordon Highland is the author of the novels Flashover and Major Inversions, with short stories in such publications as Word Riot, Black Heart, Noir at the Bar Vol. 2, and Warmed and Bound, among others. He lives in the Kansas City area, where he makes videos by day and music by night.
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2 Responses to Going on Location

  1. editordie says:

    The idea of location as character is not a new one. Still, there’s some great tips here. Why the hell do they call it pathetic fallacy, anyway?

    Keep it up!

  2. G says:

    Well, a fallacy’s just a misconception. But pathetic doesn’t always mean lame, it can just be emotional, as in “pathos.” But even then, yeah, a bit of a reach, so I’m not sure. It’s one of those techniques that’s probably best just used without being mentioned specifically.

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