by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)
Locations are a key part of storytelling. Sometimes, the right location can act as a metaphorical character in the story itself. If you’ve spent any time trying to sell a script to producers, you know that the fewer locations a story has, the more lucrative the project can be, but only if it also tells a compelling story in those locations.
While initial drafts of our stories shouldn’t be concerned with limits like locations or casting, eventually these considerations will matter if you want your work to have commercial appeal. Make no mistake: it’s difficult work to tell a powerful story based around a single location. The ability to move a character about their world is one of the most impactful tools we possess as storytellers. At the same time, scripts can contain so many varying locations that the story becomes confusing and has little grounding. Telling a story in a single location is an advanced exercise in script writing. It’s also one that can help you stand out to producers looking to get the most bang for their buck.
Here are ten films where the writer managed to keep the story interesting and confined to essentially a single location.
The newest film from A24 and Ben Wheatley takes place in a deserted warehouse. Set in Boston in 1978, two rag-tag gangs shoot it out while the backstory and plot unfold. Wheatley demonstrates that masterful comic dialogue can make a film a delight and somehow manage to expand the small location where the entire story takes place.
Not only does Duncan Jones manage to tell a compelling story inside a single spaceship docked on the moon, he also manages to do it with essentially one actor. The film doesn’t rely much on dialogue other than several interchanges between Sam Rockwell’s character and his computer, GERTY. Instead, the activities and work Rockwell engages in walk us through the internal journey of a character in unusual external circumstances.
THE BREAKFAST CLUB
John Hughes became an icon telling stories about high school students. However, most of the stories he told didn’t exclusively take place in a high school. The Breakfast Club has been heralded as a film that gave voice to the spectrum of an entire generation. Hughes accomplished this by using a single location as a powder keg that would bring out the vulnerable truths about the students inside and what united them, instead of their external differences.
MY DINNER WITH ANDRE
While The Princess Bride made Wallace Shawn a household name, My Dinner with Andre is largely celebrated as his greatest performance. The simple story of two old friends sharing dinner acts as a philosophical exploration on the meaning of friendship, love, and life.
DOG DAY AFTERNOON
Robberies have been a staple of American cinema since the very beginning. The Great Train Robbery is usually credited as the first American film that told a story. Bank robberies also have a long history in storytelling and more than a few films have largely set their story inside a bank during the process of the crime. It’s not the act itself that makes Dog Day Afternoon great. Instead it’s why the protagonist of the story is robbing the bank, which comes to light over the course of the narrative. Understanding why a character is in a single location can be a powerful way to give the location enough charge to carry an entire feature film.
Some stories casually place their characters inside a single location. Other stories trap them there. In Green Room, watching characters plot and attempt escapes is only half the fun. Watching the brewing pressure that takes place just outside the door is the other.
Trapping a character inside a room creates one sort of tension. Trapping a character and her diabetic daughter in a room without insulin is entirely another. Cleverly placed dialogue mixed with increasing stakes make Panic Room a story that leaves the audience as breathless as the characters trapped inside the location.
People have different reactions to being forced inside a single location. Some fight to get out and others simply get bored. Kevin Smith’s classic film entertains us with the creative way clerks working inside a single location pass the time, as well as the ranging topics their conversations manage to cover.
Influenced by earlier single location stories, Quentin Tarantino set his breakout hit inside a meeting spot where a band of criminals tries to determine who was responsible for a jewelry heist gone bad. While Tarantino’s dialogue makes the time in the location enjoyable, the conversation is spiced up with tension, action sequences, and shoot outs. In other words, it’s a good story.
Perhaps the most beloved of all single-location films is Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window. The master of suspense manages to combine plot twists, reveals, and memorable dialogue between Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly for an end-product that audiences still fawn over today. While the story takes place entirely inside Stewart’s apartment, it’s what he observes outside his apartment through his binoculars that keeps the plot moving and the story unraveling.
John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and Master of the Cinematic Universe: The Secret Code to Writing in the New World of Media. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to U.S. Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his site, tellingabetterstory.com.