Environmental Storytelling: Crafting Details that Immerse the Audience

by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)

“It’s the little things.” The saying has become so common and overused that it has nearly lost its meaning. However, the sentiment behind the phrase still rings true. The details that we use to flesh out our characters and the descriptions we craft to build our worlds can mean the difference between an audience that casually checks in and out of the story we are telling and viewers sitting literally on the edge of their seats.

Many creators make the mistake of randomly assigning colors, textures, and details to the worlds they house their characters in. However, without meaning behind the choices, there is little for the subconscious to calculate. Meticulously planning significance with respect to the environment the characters are in creates layers in your story that make audiences desire multiple viewings in order to fully appreciate the work.

Here are four ways to craft details that will immerse your audience in your story and possibly even bring them back to explore your world after their first experience in it.

Colors in the Environment

The particular hue of an object, a piece of clothing, or even a sunset can drastically affect our emotional reaction. The deliberate use of color can subconsciously communicate information to an audience. It can also communicate aspects of the story that the audience is very much aware of. It can be tempting to lean toward the most basic uses of color. For example, using black clothing to communicate an evil character can be effective in the right type of narrative. However, some audiences will feel such a move is on the nose and pandering. The use of gray might instead indicate a preference for moral ambiguity, a quality that might also be fitting for an antagonist, while not being as obvious as black.

In the same way, the walls of most homes and apartments are some shade of white. However, a character whose bedroom walls reflect the deep blue depths of her imagination is far more interesting. In The Shape of Water, ocean-like blue and green hues cover environments and costumes. While production designers will be responsible for executing these color schemes whether they are in the script are not, it never hurts to add meaningful chromatic details to the descriptions of scenes, props, and costumes.

Size of the Environment

One of the most classic ways to increase the conflict in a story is to close in the protagonist’s time or space. We can’t tighten the space around a character if we don’t have any idea of how large the space is to begin with. Descriptors about space don’t have to be lengthy or all encompassing. Like so many other aspects of storytelling, we look for the efficiency of a few words that will communicate the ideas we are trying to convey. Describing an office study as cavernous paints a much different mental image than describing it as large.  If a character begins to research a case and fills the room with books and files, to the point where it becomes difficult to navigate through, we can visualize a space that begins closing in on the character, increasing the conflict in the story.

Understanding a character’s size in relation to the space around them also adds to the environment being communicated. With such descriptions, we can react as objects are near the character or further away. With external environments, the size of the world gives us an idea about the scope of the narrative. One environment might indicate a long journey that is ahead (a road that stretches out for miles before a character) while another might indicate an intimate internal journey (inside the cabin of a stagecoach). In Black Panther, the tall waterfalls we see in some scenes, indicate the vast power and expanse of Wakanda, even though we don’t see much of the country in the story.

Obstacles in the Environment

Obstacles are a key part of the conflict in any story. While many times these obstacles are ideas, people, or even the words spoken against a character, it is also often necessary to incorporate actual obstacles into the environment of your script. These obstacles may be quite literal in their meaning and are also sometimes metaphorical for a much larger obstacle the character is trying to overcome. In Tomb Raider, Laura Croft encounters a number of obstacles she must climb over, battle past, and destroy completely.

However, some of the obstacles become metaphors for the distance between her and her father. Rocks or large trees in a character’s path are commonly used in many stories. However, finding unique and clever ways to portray obstacles causes the viewer to think on deeper levels, unpacking the layers that writers take time to craft into their narratives.

Props in the Environment

In the same way that obstacles can beset a character’s journey, certain props can become tools in assisting them. Other props can give a character business to occupy them while they deliver lengthy monologues or attempt to avoid eye contact with another character. Certain environments lend themselves to useful props to incorporate into your story. For example, restaurants offer up toothpicks, flatware, and salt shakers – all of which have been used to engage characters further into their environments – and give the actors an action to do other than just speak.

Like many of the other suggestions above, the key to successfully using props in your story is motivating them, giving them meaning, and being deliberate about their use. The spoon and tea cup in Get Out have a practical meaning in the scene where we initially see them. They also give the actor organic business to perform. And brilliantly, they also become significant to the plot of the story. Finally, they also offer us a metaphor for the psychological frustration of African Americans dealing with racism in a cycle that seems never-ending and repetitious, much like the spoon rotating around the rim of that teacup.

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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.

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