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Using setting to show your story

March 2, 2012

My son went to see Star Wars episode I in 3-D today. I told him when they get to the decent ones, episodes III-VI, I’d go with him.

Jar Jar Binks: A big reason why Star Wars episode I is apcray.

Edited to add: The picture link to Jar Jar Binks is broken. Even the Internet hates him.

Our discussion allowed me to pontificate on what all intelligent people know about the Star Wars saga: episodes I and II are horrible; IV-VI are great, and III was only saved by the end fight on the lava planet.

Though there’s no way two mortal humans could have survived a fight that close to running rivers of molten rock, the lava planet was awesome. It was as close an approximation of the popular conception of hell as I have seen in a movie.

I might be reading too much into it, but the lava planet is an incredible tool used to help convey meaning in the story. It literally is hell for three of the major characters.

For Obi Wan Kenobi, it’s the place where he begged his Annakin Skywalker–someone who’d gone beyond a protege to a friend–an incredibly close and valued friend–not to force a fight to the death. It’s the place where he had to dismember his friend and leave him for dead. His hatred had grown beyond immediate redemption. Annakin Skywalker was so warped with hate that he ceased to exist and Darth Vader took his place. Obi Wan ran away not just to avoid death, but because the weight he carried from the fight and its aftermath.

For Annakin, too, this place was hell. It was the place where his friend Obi Wan turned on him and betrayed him. It was also the place where he killed the woman he had warped himself to save, Padme. As a result of his actions, he had no choice but to follow the Emporer, a man he must have known would manipulate and eventually discard him. Without Padme, his life was a void. That he killed her made her a monster.

And for Padme, the hellishness of the lava planet was clearest, as seen when she pleaded with Annakin not to take the approach he did. “You’re breaking my heart,” was more than a statement of her condition, it was her understanding that the man she loved and believed in had already turned into a monster when he killed the Jedi children, who were very similar to the children she carried inside of her. The man she’d once given her body to was now a threat to the very children he helped to create. Dying of the broken heart is a little melodramatic, but…

The lava planet very clearly depicts hell, and shows an example of how setting can amplify the mood and help tell the story. Most stories can’t be told on a lava planet. But maybe if your characters are going through hell, it can be hot out. Or maybe of they are desolate and alone, it can be cold and snowy and rural, as in Misery.

Using setting in this way is an chance to show and not tell your story.

What settings have you used or can you think of to help show your story?


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