Geography of a Story


I recently listened to Screenwriters John August and Craig Mazin say something interesting in their ScriptNotes podcast on Follies, Kindles and Second-Act Malaise:
Geography symbolizes story.

They didn’t say it that way, but John said that one of the things that bothered him about the Broadway play Follies was returning to the same stage sets, and that doing so made him feel like the story wasn’t progressing. Craig talked about Star Wars: You can return to a set if it’s a vehicle, like the Millenium Falcon, that’s going places, and you can return to a set if it has been destroyed to prove that you can’t go back (Luke returning to his foster parents’ house and seeing their burnt skeletons outside its wreckage).

Craig mentioned Casablanca as a counterexample, and I immediately came up with my own list of counterexamples: Death of a Salesman takes place almost entirely in the family house. The “third act” of Jaws stays on the boat. Night of the Living Dead takes place in one room. So do Rear Window, Wait Until Dark, My Dinner with Andre, and The Breakfast Club. Marty McFly returns over and over again to his hometown in the Back to the Future movies. Characters return to where they started in The Hobbit and Toy Story.

My Dinner with Andre and The Breakfast Club are oddities because the “journeys” the characters are taking are not physical. But the others all turn out to be exceptions that prove the rule. (That’s what the phrase really means: You make a rule, and you find exceptions, and then you discover that the reasoning behind the rule also explains the exceptions.) 

Casablanca, Death of a Salesman, Jaws, Night of the Living Dead, Rear Window, and Wait Until Dark all have something in common: The people in the story are trapped. The boat, the house surrounded by zombies, and the apartments are all death traps. Everyone in Rick’s Cafe is trapped there and trying to escape. The characters in Death of a Salesman are trapped in the house by the mortgage and the refrigerator payments, just as they’re trapped in their small lives by Willy’s deluded faith in the power of friendship and of being liked. The characters return to or stay in the same scene to show that they’re trapped.

Marty keeps returning to his hometown, but in different time periods and alternate universes, so that it’s a strange and alien place. The changes he discovers in it are the plot. The Hobbit and Toy Story have triumphant returns, where the victory is for the protagonists to be able to return, and to show how much they’ve grown after doing so.

So in each case, physical movement symbolizes what’s happening in the story. It appears, then, that you shouldn’t send characters back to an earlier location just because the plot demands it; change or stasis in physical location must symbolize change or stasis in the character’s situation. That means you shouldn’t write a story like this:

Act I: Penny leaves her dress making business in Snoozeville and goes to Excitement City to meet a big distributor who will help her establish a boring but lucrative line of executive leisure suits in Excitement City
Act II: Penny returns to Snoozeville to sew a bunch of suits.
Act III: Penny goes to Excitement City with the new suits, suddenly realizes that she hates suits, and dumps them into a shredder, The End.

Act II is “wrong” because Penny is returning to Snoozeville physically, but story-wise, she is moving away from Snoozeville. Act III is “wrong” because she is still in Excitement City physically, but has returned to the dress-making business that she began with, and so should end up where she began physically.

Maybe screenwriters think about this consciously. I never have. But I thought it was interesting.


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