“Every story would be another story, and unrecognizable if it took up its characters and plot and happened somewhere else.” – Eudora Welty
We as writers all know that setting is one of the main literary components to storytelling, providing a specific time and place to give the story itself some form of context. It’s also well known that, in certain circumstances, the setting can become a character in and of itself – 12 rooms, 12 vacancies anybody? In other cases, a story’s setting can provide a dichotomy of contrasts for rich exploration such as a troubled, but poor genius working as a janitor at one of the most prestigious technical institutes in the world who’s smarter than the professors teaching there (Good Will Hunting.) But there’s another element to setting that often goes unnoticed – and subsequently unused – by many writers: setting as an extension of the main character’s mind, or more specifically, as a representation of their inner conflicts and struggles.
In a previous discussion regarding The Shawshank Redemption, it was discussed how the world of the story itself, the prison, is the context in which the theme is placed: finding hope in the most hopeless of situations. The dark, cold place is a reflection of Red’s worldview with regard to the theme, but also a mirror to his personal problem of conformity. By conforming to the system in an attempt at some form of self-preservation, Red has given up any semblance of his authentic-self. He, in essence, has become a prisoner in both mind, body and spirit – problems that continue to not only exist, but magnify, once he’s plopped down into a different setting altogether: the free world. As a result, the prison – albeit a very real setting – acts as a metaphor for something larger than just physical imprisonment that Red must overcome.
In every scene that there is a ray of light, of hope, metaphorically or otherwise, it’s due to Andy’s presence. It’s these sepia-toned moments – and their settings, drinking suds on the rooftop or “missing one’s friend” that clash and contrast with the bleakness of the daily prison existence, heightening Red’s inner conflict between the safety of institutionalism he’s come to know vs. the uncertainty of freedom he’s come to admire through Andy:
Christopher Nolan took the notion of imprisonment and made it both figurative and literal in his mind-bending film Inception, trapping his main character Dom Cobb inside his own dreams. Physically, Cobb is a prisoner in the sense that he’s barred from seeing his children in the United States because of a murder charge – but it’s much more complicated in that he’s also prisoner to his feelings of guilt and the role he played in his wife’s death which results in his subconscious having a big impact on the story’s numerous settings. The clip where Cobb explains the machinations of the setting to Ariadne below exemplifies the very nature of the setting as an extension of one’s mind:
The world Cobb and Mal created together in the past from shared memories has turned into a crumbling sea-side paradise in the present representing their state of decay in his mind as he’s built a prison of memories to keep her locked away in. Ariadne questions this, asking Cobb if he truly believes it will contain her – the runaway train Mal and Cobb discussed in their dreams from their time in limbo repeatedly manifests itself in various settings as a reminder of Cobb’s internal struggle:
Cobb: “You’re waiting for a train. A train that will take you far away. You know where you hope the train will take you, but you can’t be sure. Yet it doesn’t matter. Now, tell me why?”
Mal: “Because we’ll be together!”
Interestingly enough, the movie – about dreams and memories – opens on a beach and features the deteriorating dreamworld on its shores, giving it not only a sense of time working on physical elements, but spiritual as well (and of course, “Time” is perhaps the most popular track from the Hans Zimmer soundtrack – something that’s also an important element to The Shawshank Redemption.)
Going from limbo to permanently erasing one’s memories, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind also uses its settings to represent its main character’s state of mind – often to unique and hilarious effect – in a movie that seems almost the antithesis of Inception: whereas as Christopher Nolan’s film was about a team creating an idea by infiltrating someone’s dreams, Michel Gondry’s take on Charlie Kaufmann’s original screenplay somewhat inverts the notion by having a team specializing in erasing customer’s memories. Of course things don’t go as planned and Joel Barrish attempts to hold onto at least one good memory of Clementine, the resulting story just as much a labyrinth of plot and character as Nolan’s Inception.
Opening with Joel heading to the beach in Montauk on a train after having his memories of Clementine erased, the setting is bleak and cold – kind of reminding one why Valentines Day falls in the middle of the grey beast known as February. The journey compelled by his subconscious and last words of Clementine, “meet me in Montauk,” as he desperately tries to hold onto his remaining memories of her, Joel admits to being in a funk – but not knowing why. The rest of the film examines how he and Clementine got to where they are in terms of their life together and apart, the setting becoming increasingly more important as it takes on physical attributes of Joel’s memory much like Cobb’s dream world did for him in Inception.
Even the smaller moments in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind are filled with subtext via the setting. In one particular scene early on, Clementine goads a wary Joel into having a “honeymoon on ice”. Joel, trekking like a penguin out onto the ice, laments that he should go back, worried that the ice may break. Clementine asks, “What if? Do you really care right now?” What we don’t realize yet is that Joel’s subconscious is impacting his present: the ice isn’t the only thing he’s worried about breaking and his reaction to the setting with Clementine is a result of having been in a relationship with her previously that left both erasing their memories of one another.
Though not quite as cerebral in setting as Inception or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Spike Jonze’s Her is nevertheless firmly rooted in science fiction and uses its story world to help shape Theodore Twombly’s inner conflict as a writer struggling to move on after a failed marriage. Set in a futuristic Los Angeles, the film was also filmed in Shanghai to give it a futuristic, if not altogether alienating feel that helped to establish Theodore’s loneliness. Whereas a beach in the middle of February with two people at opposite ends of the frame connotes a feeling of disconnect, so too does a man in a stark red coat lost in his melancholy thoughts and flanked by couples.
Theodore is another example of a character imprisoned by his past, unable to let go and move on from his failed marriage. The story’s setting, particularly the technology and surroundings, help to convey the feeling of disconnect he has with others. From playing video games by himself, calling into a char room service, or his work creating emotional cards for others, Theodore lives in a world that strangely seems to mirror our own with society’s increasingly reliance on technology for communication needs – and much to our own detriment.
Granted, the film’s story is not about technology per se, but about relationships and their inherently complex nature. Theodore, through Samantha, experiences the ups and downs of a real relationship and the vulnerabilities that come with it (vulnerability being one of the key hurdles to Theodore’s inability to connect). The story’s settings factor throughout his emotional journey: the sun-drenched scenes on the beach where he walks happily amongst the masses with Samantha in his pocket vs. the stark cold, snowy scene in the mountains when everything starts falling apart both serve as a reflection to what Theodore thinks and, perhaps more importantly, feels. Despite how their relationship turns out, Theodore is able to grow from it and reconcile with his ex-wife and make an important connection by the end of the film.
Last but not least – and far removed from science fiction overtones – is Hal Ashby’s 1971 cult classic, black comedy Harold and Maude. The main character, Harold, is a young man obsessed with death who falls for a 79 year old who’s equally obsessed with life. Both share an odd passion for attending funerals, but for very different perspectives. Harold’s infatuation with death causes him to enact any number of pseudo-suicides in an effort to obtain an emotional response from his socially affluent yet emotionally unavailable mother. As we find out later in the film, it was Harold’s supposed death and bearing witness to his mother’s emotional reaction that seemingly gave him any sense of truly being loved, hence is “reenactments” to garner a similar reaction.
The setting for the film explores some of the counter-culture of its time, perhaps being one of the reasons it became the cult classic it is today. As one might expect from a character obsessed with death, many of the film’s settings involve funerals and cemeteries – not to mention couch trips to the psychiatrist for Harold – all in an effort to help convey his inner sense of malaise. Harold is, in essence, to The Shawshank Redemption‘s Red as Maude is to that film’s Andy Dufresne, a character imprisoned by his thoughts who’s drawn to another who provides a counterpoint.
Through Maude, the film’s settings take a different context via her attitude, beliefs and actions – all of which Harold finds himself drawn to. In one memorable scene rich with symbolism, the two discuss flowers and which kind they each would prefer to be. The contrasting settings – along with their answers – allow us a peek inside each of the inner workings of their minds:
Just as Harold falls in love with Maude, she informs him of her intention to die – something briefly hinted at early on – leaving him crestfallen in an ending that’s very reminiscent both tonally and structurally to Her: as with Theodore’s learning to be human and vulnerable through Samantha, so to has Harold with Maude. Both are faced to make a choice to learn from their painful experiences and losses and to move on – and of course both end up physically, and metaphorically “at a higher level” as a result, Harold peering over the cliff to his destroyed “Jaguearse” below on the shore of the ocean – the motif reappearing once again as a symbol for renewal.
In each of these instances, the films’ settings not only give its story a strong sense of time and place, but also a reflection and sense of the character’s inner struggles, too. Some settings, such as those with Inception and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, are part of their story’s conceit as they take place directly in the mind itself. Others, such as The Shawshank Redemption and Harold and Maude, use various settings in a more subtle ways through symbolism and subtext.
Whatever your setting may be for your own story, looking at it as an extension of your main character’s mind, perspective and inner conflict will enable you to more readily find those opportunities for subtext and symbolism, adding another level of richness to your story and making it a more cohesive work. As Eudora Welty alluded to in the opening quote, make your settings count!