Any event happens sometime and somewhere.
We have discussed time a great deal in this blog. Of course, the spatial dimension may be just as relevant.
The Story World
We may distinguish between the overall story world location and specific locations. By story world we mean the entire setting and logical framework of the story. This is always unique to the story, although that becomes most obvious in stories set either in a fantasy world (like The Lord Of The Rings) or in stories that have a setting tightly bound to a geographical feature, such as Heart of Darkness, Apocalypse Now, or Deliverance. In each of these latter examples, a river – and the journey up or down it – provides the story world. Yet story world is more than just physical location. It describes an entire environment, including the ethical dimensions. Consider Wall Street or The Big Short, stories that describe “worlds” where making money comes first.
The setting is usually established in the first part of the story, and the rest of the story should be true to what has been set up at the beginning.
Within the entire “world” come the specific locations in which each scene is set, which is all the places where the characters do something – that is perform actions that become part of the narrative. Often enough the choice of location ensues logically from the action of the story. Yet more often than not, an author makes a choice where to set which plot event. The choice may be motivated by the symbolic nature of specific locations.
When it comes to choosing locations, authors of novels probably enjoy the most freedom. Elmore Leonard, for instance, creates great effects of dramatic irony by letting the reader keep track of the geographical movement of his characters – the audience might know that one character is bound to meet another if both of them are heading to the same place, even if the characters don’t realise the likelihood.
In film and TV screenplays, the norm is to begin each scene description with three items of information: interior or exterior, time of day, specific location. This has organizational benefits for various members of the film crew: interior might mean studio, whereas exterior might imply location shooting; time of day conveys information about lighting conditions; the amount of specific locations a film is set in determines how many sets or locations will be needed, and is therefore directly related to production costs.
In radio plays, particular sound effects might denote particular locations. And in theatre, location is relevant too. In this ancient story medium, it is possible to create locations by minimal means, with just some basic props. Theoretically film could do this too (consider Dogville), but on the whole, the language of film has settled on more realistic conventions.
A Discursion on VR
It will be fascinating to see how Virtual Reality technology affects storytelling.
The VR viewer wears special goggles and occupies a space within a virtual holodeck, which is created by two diagonally opposing little boxes shooting lasers out at right angles. The viewer can move within this virtual space, which might be the stage for a story. The goggles will show the viewer whatever program is loaded, Matrix-like. The 360° view is created quite conventionally, by filming a location in all directions, the camera at the centre, pointing outwards and panning all the way round.
So far, so good. It gets more interesting when such virtual locations are populated.
For VR, actors are filmed not with one or two cameras from a couple of angles, but with 40 or more cameras from all angles, the cameras all pointing inwards with the actor at the centre. The resulting 40 or more images are stitched together. The VR goggle wearer can therefore walk around the actors and see them from the front, from behind, from any point of view. The actor was never at the location, but is superimposed into the virtual space (this already happens a lot in cinema with green screen technology). And what you get is the viewer as a ghost, moving around the story characters at will. The effect is like intimate theatre.
So theatre folk might actually find VR easier to handle. Film directors of stories told in VR can’t use the same techniques they use in film. For VR, the conventions of storytelling have to be learnt afresh, the language of the medium has to be found – just as editing had to evolve for film. When the viewer is immersed in a virtual reality, in the illusion of populated space, the film convention of cutting from one scene or image to the next has a very jarring effect. Therefore one of the great tools of film editing – juxtaposition – cannot be employed so easily. Having said that, maybe it is just a matter of getting used to the technology, and soon VR viewers will be as little irritated by editing as we all are by edited films.
Today in VR, the viewer is as yet hardly able to interact with the characters, but it is just a matter of time before technology will make this possible too. To chance for the recipient to influence or change the story, or rather choose the storyline to follow, is a technique the games industry is familiar with. That is a far more drastic change to storytelling than VR is per se. Storytelling in the classical sense, from campfire tales to 3D cinema, involve the recipient taking in and experiencing a story as told by a teller. When the recipient becomes the author of her own tale, making the recipient feel the emotional effect of a story becomes much more complex than it already is.
So initially, we must assume that authors writing stories for VR will have to think like theatre dramatists, or at least a little like they are writing a one-shot movie. Furthermore, authors and directors will have to create effects in the action that will direct the viewer’s gaze to where the relevant action is taking place. If the viewer is busy investigating an actor’s bald patch, that viewer might miss the vital clue happening elsewhere in the virtual holostage.