Today, a brief opinion piece on setting.
My favorite thing about Ava DuVernay’s A Wrinkle in Time movie was how well it established a sense of place. There are a whole bunch of stunning and beautiful sci-fi planets, of course, but the most powerful one might also have been the most understated: the Murry household. It was warm. It was welcoming. Magical in the sense that it could absolutely exist in real life. Nested with books and plants and windows and wood paneling. Mrs. Whatsit even has a line about how nice it is. How good a job Mrs. Murry has done in keeping out the dark.
The movie presents the house not just as a place we could live in, but a place we are, in fact, invited to.
This sense of place—of setting—is often what gets the most shortchanged in current discussions about story. Pixar’s 22 Rules of Storytelling, brilliant and helpful in their own right, are all plot and character based. (And honestly, it’s mostly plot. Even the rules on character are just backdoors into figuring out how a sequence of events unfolds.) Every decision is about setting a train in motion and driving the narrative, uninterrupted, toward an endpoint. I’ve started thinking of this as the Disney model of storytelling, and you can see it spreading from its animated films to the Marvel movies and into the Star Wars universe.
(I’m looking at you Force Awakens and Rogue One. Last Jedi, you were excellent. You can stay.)
There’s nothing inherently bad about this model. These are important writing tools, and many of these movies are good movies. It’s crucial to understand that stories need to move. That excesses should be trimmed, darlings killed, and scenes kept brisk and tight. Don’t start a scene with someone opening a door, the wisdom goes. Start with them already in the room.
But plot and character are only two parts of the storytelling triad. Just as crucial is the third: setting.
The stories that really last are the ones that present themselves as places to visit—not merely thesis statements acted out by characters in service of a plot. I’m reminded of this essay about My Neighbor Totoro from the magazine Bright Wall/Dark Room. The author critiques the movie against more Hollywood styles of storytelling, which she characterizes as roller coasters.
Being continuously interested in a film like My Neighbor Totoro requires this kind of childlike mindfulness. It’s less like a ride you can strap into and more like a place you can go. And this grants Totoro that elusive cinematic virtue so prized by both children and parents: rewatch value. You can only ride a ride so many times before the thrill wears off. But a child can never exhaust the possibilities of a park or a neighborhood or a forest. Totoro is travel and transit and exploration, set against lush, evocative landscapes that seem to extend far beyond the frame. We enter the film driving along a dirt road past houses and rice paddies; we follow Mei as she clambers through a thicket and into the forest; we walk home from school with the girls, ducking into a shrine to take shelter from the rain; we run past endless green fields with Satsuki as she searches for Mei.
Anime in general is really good about this. From the bathhouse in Spirited Away to the village of Itomori in Your Name, by far my favorite part of the genre is the way it continually, without indulgence, depicts the pleasantness of time and place. The best part of Ghost in the Shell, a movie I otherwise don’t care for, is the nearly four-minute intermission that is nothing more than shots of daily life in the city set against wistful choral music.
This is different from just creating interesting locales or exciting set pieces. Settings that storytellers want to invite their audiences to live in must feel, well, lived in. Cared for, not just by the characters, but by the storytellers themselves. To care about a setting means to linger on the small things, to allow time—whether through establishing shots or descriptive language—for the audience to breathe the air of another world.
Even if that other world is nothing more otherworldly than Meg Murry’s house in a quiet suburban neighborhood.
Plot structure and character arcs are vital parts of storytelling, but the books and movies I really connect to are the ones that relax their framework a little. The ones that linger and meander and invite others into the places they’ve created for the sheer pleasure of exploring, taking shelter, and admiring the view for a while. Places where things happen that don’t necessarily contribute to the immediate throughline of the piece.
These kinds of stories tend to be extraordinarily generous to their audience. They don't insist on themselves, they merely offer a hand.
And extend an invitation to explore.
• • •
Speaking of A Wrinkle in Time, I’ve been listening to this song from the soundtrack, “Flower of the Universe” by Sade, basically non-stop.
And speaking of movies that came out recently, you might remember I said I was really hyped for Annihilation, because I really loved the book. I saw it. I was not let down. It is weird and beautiful and disturbing. Talk about a sense of place.
And speaking of Annihilation, author Jeff VanderMeer recently wrote one of the most helpful things I’ve ever read about the writing process.
And speaking of the writing process, this video from John Green about the broccoli tree is a beautiful look at the things we create…and the things we destroy.
That’s all I’ve got. See you next week.