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That’s not to say that you need a new location for each act, you just need a new setting within that location. Minimum. But, don’t worry about that, we’ll get into it in much more detail when we talk about the first and second turning points.

WITNESS (1985) is a very good movie to talk about when it comes to settings (and screenwriting in general). It’s written exceptionally well, and has an extremely strong story-structure.

The first act introduces us to Detective John Book, who is charged with protecting a little Amish kid who witnessed a murder (inciting incident). The setting is the police station. At the first turning-point, Book finds out that the police are the bad guys! He has no choice but to flee with the kid - to Amish Country.

The Second Act happens entirely at the Amish farm. The First Act was at the police station, the Second Act at the farm.

Safe, for the time being, Book falls in love with an Amish Girl (the love-story) and learns to overcome his anti-Amish views and accept the Amish people as they accept him (the character-arc). At the second turning-point, the bad guys arrive at the farm looking to kill.

The eagle-eyed amongst you may have noticed that the location didn’t actually change there! Yes, that’s true, the location didn’t change, but the setting did. We’re still at the farm, but now it’s not just a regular farm, it’s a farm with armed killers roaming about. The setting doesn’t seem like it changes, but it actually does. It goes from safe - to completely unsafe.

You should probably think of your setting as one of your characters. It’s that important. A good setting enthrals the viewer, draws them in, makes them a part of your world. A bad setting just looks and feels fake.

And, I shouldn’t say ‘setting’ there - you’ll almost surely need more than one setting! Each act typically requires its own setting. And, these changes usually happen at the act-breaks.

The Setting

Screenwriting 101:

PROPER SCREENPLAY FORMAT

SCREENWRITING SOFTWARE

SCREENPLAY TEMPLATE

SAMPLE SCREENPLAY PAGES

BEGINNER SCREENWRITERS

FILM SCHOOLS

SCREENWRITING DEGREES

SCREENPLAY STORY STRUCTURE

HOW LONG SHOULD EACH ACT BE?

THREE ACT STRUCTURE

START WRITING NOW

STORY-STRUCTURE TEMPLATE

THE FIRST TURNING POINT

THE SECOND TURNING POINT

PROTAGONIST’S CHARACTER-ARC

GET COVERAGE


FORWARD Audiences Remember the Setting

What do you remember about Apocalypse Now?

The hotel-room where Martin Sheen really cut himself up (in real life) in a drunken fugue?

The trip up the river, with surfers and explosions and strippers and that french plantation out of the 1800’s (in Redux, at least)?

Finally arriving at Kurtz’s compound - only to find an insane photographer, sycophantic bushmen and an even more insane Kurtz?

Notice how those three settings are not just dramatic and visually-stunning - they also change at the act breaks!

Apocalypse Now is about a guy (protagonist) who goes up a river (first turning point) to kill an insane AWOL colonel (the climax).

Each setting-change is typically accompanied by a dramatic rise in stakes (for the main-character). In the first act in Apocalypse Now, Martin Sheen is safe in the city. He’s not in any danger from anyone but himself. In the second act, he’s in a ton of danger, he’s literally in the middle of the Vietnam War. It’s hard to get any worse than that, but Francis Ford Coppola and John Milius manage it. In the third act, Sheen’s surrounded by inane armed bushmen who could kill him at any second. Each act, the setting changes, and things get worse for our poor protagonist. As always.

Your setting is more than just a location to shoot at. It’s more than just where your main-character is standing. It’s integral to the plot. It’s integral to the story-structure.

But, it also has to look good - and make sense - and fit the story. A lot goes into a good setting. Well, three good settings, anyway...

Three Settings in One:

In Back to the Future, the first act is in Twin Pines (in the present), the second act is in Lone Pines (in the past), and the third act is at the school dance.

In any time-travel movie, the first act is typically in the present, the second act is in the past or future, and the third act is often a chase or fight for control of the machine.

In Serenity, the first act is in a space-world much like the wild west. The second act is them on the run. The third act is them crash landed on the broadcast tower.

In Titanic, there are again three settings, despite the fact that it sure as hell looks like there’s only one: on the Titanic.

First, they are safely at a dock and on a perfectly-healthy ship. Once they hit the iceberg, they are no longer on a healthy-ship, they are now on a sinking-ship. And, finally, they are actually in the icy water.

In Back to the Future, the first act is in Twin Pines (in the present), the second act is in Lone Pines (in the past), and the third act is at the school dance.

In any time-travel movie, the first act is typically in the present, the second act is in the past or future, and the third act is often a chase or fight for control of the machine.

In Serenity, the first act is in a space-world much like the wild west. The second act is them on the run. The third act is them crash landed on the broadcast tower.

In Titanic, there are again three settings, despite the fact that it sure as hell looks like there’s only one: on the Titanic.

First, they are safely at a dock and on a perfectly-healthy ship. Once they hit the iceberg, they are no longer on a healthy-ship, they are now on a sinking-ship. And, finally, they are actually in the icy water.

In OLDBOY (2003), Joe is trapped in his hotel room for decades in the first act. He’s freed into the real-world in the second act. And, he takes revenge on his tormentor in the third.

In Inception, the settings are real-life, dreams and Limbo.

In Interstellar, it’s Earth, Space and a tesseract or whatever the hell you call it.

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