When I read Robert Blake Whitehill's thriller Deadrise, I was struck by the vividness of his depiction of the setting of his story: Smith Island and the Chesapeake Bay. As the winner of screenwriting awards at the Hamptons International Film Festival and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Screenwriting Fellowship
(for UXO (Unexploded Ordnance)) and the Hudson Valley Film Festival (for Blue Rinse), and as a finalist in the Telluride IndieFest (Blue Rinse), Robert obviously knows a thing or two about setting a scene.
I asked Robert if he would be willing to share his thoughts on the setting as character, and he provided the wonderful post below. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did, and that it will inspire you to check out Robert's books!
Smith Island, in the Chesapeake Bay, is really a low-lying archipelago of stream-riven bluffs and sandy hummocks. The few hundred hardy souls living there in two small hamlets can communicate via walkways and footbridges. A third village can be reached only by boat. In between, the wild beauty of the marshes in fog might conjure a sense of misty English moors. Four hundred years ago, when the original Cornish settlers first arrived, they must have felt at home. And yet Smith Island’s bedrock is sinking, even as the waters of climate change rise. This beloved place is slowly trying to kill its people, or drive them off to safer elevations. This tells you something about the spirit of the folks who choose to live there. (Isn’t that the value of any hero’s hardship?)
I have made an effort to ensure that the settings of the Blackshaw thrillers are well-developed and intriguing in their own right. Reviewers have remarked that my take on the Chesapeake Bay makes it more like a character than a mere place where the business occurs. Certainly the Chesapeake’s weather is mercurial, moody. Its depths can obscure astounding truths and horrors lying on the muddy bottom. It can stretch mirror flat for miles, or it can hide an enemy just beyond the horse’s mane whipping off the crest of the next steep looming wave. The Chesapeake can feed an entire island, an entire nation, or drown every last soul biding there. Its salty alluvial scents can evoke memories of love, of childhood, of plenty, of home; its dark brackish depths can flood lungs and clog throats with suffocating bitterness; the watery chill of death.
In a thriller, the setting serves many turns. The most important characteristic of a locale for dynamic action is isolating the main characters the way a boxing ring contains the fighters, the way a stage helps us know where the actors will do their thing. This isolation on a closed stage also requires a character to work only with what he can forage or make from the immediate environment as in Apollo 13 scripted by William Broyles Jr. and Al Reinert. A writer can also carefully, plausibly trickle in outside influences according to her plot’s requirements. In the case of Apollo 13, the outside influence was just information and ideas from Ground Control about using foraged materials to help the heroes save themselves.
An island can sequester characters, preventing escape, as in Defoes’s Robinson Crusoe, and William Broyles Jr.’s script for Cast Away. Total containment can be guaranteed by reefs, sharks (as in Anthony Jaswinski’s script for The Shallows), or simple overwhelming distances that prevent one from being found, or which hinder rescue once found. James Bond villains love their island lairs because the isolation confers a naturally defensible perimeter, bolstered by man-eating crabs or armed guards who cannot shoot straight, but who can be relied upon to pitch screaming off a high palisade or cliff to a watery grave when they themselves are plugged.
There are all kinds of figurative islands in fiction. In Dov Simen’s Two Day Film School, he recommends making one’s first low budget film a horror movie by ‘locking a bunch of teenagers in a cabin in the woods and chopping them up.’ Isolation. No hope of escape or rescue. The clichéd, “No one will hear you scream” applies here. A science fiction setting on an alien planet, such as The Martian, or on a spacecraft, like Event Horizon, or on an underwater habitat, as in The Abyss, fulfills the same isolating function, with the added frustration that well-meaning rescuers might know exactly where the endangered protagonist is, but they cannot hope arrive in time across vast hostile distances.
What if a setting fails to offer enough dramatic isolation to match the tale’s stakes? In Deadrise, I added a hurricane to further jeopardize all the characters on the storm-tossed Chesapeake. The bad weather also reduced visibility to a claustrophobic minimum allowing characters to be nearly on top of one another, but still not see each other. Underwater, clouds overhead nulled sunlight, and conspired with curtains of silt to prevent Blackshaw from noticing important plot developments immediately in his vicinity until I chose the precise moment to let the silt clear just enough for the story to begin. Later, the eye-watering ammonia-guano stench of a great blue heron rookery serves to protect a cache of buried gold from discovery by casual trespassers.
In Nitro Express, I create an itinerary of international settings with darkness, distance, the heights of skyscraper rooftops, a field of steaming fumaroles and geysers in the high Chilean Atacama desert, as well as a labyrinthine cathedral of vaulted ice sheets on the bottom of Canada’s Wakeham Bay at low tide. Obscuring a character’s view, blocking any sensory input really, is key to keeping him ignorant of imminent dangers, allowing a writer to string the plot with near-misses and direct hits of fortuitous or catastrophic nature.
In Tap Rack Bang, Blackshaw is holed up on a man-made island of sorts; the wreck of a Liberty Ship in the Chesapeake Bay. There is a handy fog-bank in play as well. The story climaxes in the makeshift cells of a human trafficking ring in dark catacomb tunnels beneath a liquid natural gas facility.
In Geronimo Hotshot, the Arizona border wilderness offers hills to hide and fatigue footsore travelers, ravines for entrapping, handy crevasses for stashing corpses, and arroyos to block the sight of closer dangers. I added in a vast and dark cavern system below (complete with a fast-running subterranean river), as well as the obscuring, choking smoke plumes of a raging wildfire on the surface. The setting is as much a hero’s path as a place, and it must be strewn with obstacles.
My hat is off to Lee Child for his canny use of wide open space in his Jack Reacher novel, Worth Dying For. Like George Lucas in THX1138 and his agoraphobia-inducing featureless white rooms that seemingly have no walls, Child sets his action in Nebraska, a Great Plain State, and centers it in a remote small town built around a crossroads. One result of this setting is keeping law enforcement local, corrupt, cowed, or apathetic by turns. Child makes it clear that Reacher could walk out, or hitch-hike out, if he wished. Reacher’s moral enforcer conscience pins him to the locale until he sees the action through.
I must also salute my father, Joseph Whitehill, and his use of setting as the denouement of his short story entitled Marshmallow World, which appeared in the April, 1954 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. The world potentate was afraid of the strongest man in the world, who though peaceful, could burst steel ball bearings between thumb and forefinger. How to contain such a man if he turned traitorous? In the end, the threatened potentate marooned the strong man on an island surrounded by a marshmallow sea, a medium against which his mightiest swimming strokes would yield no distance in the fluff. To my mind, that setting is perfect.
As has been noted, there are many qualities of a setting. They can become clever devices for leaking information to readers and watchers. It is fine to let your audience learn things at the same time as a character. Let the audience see something before a character does, what’s just around the corner, and that’s getting interesting, building tension. Let the audience learn something after the character, that in simplest terms is your unreliable narrator, and all bets are off; the reader or viewer can trust nothing until the story’s end, and sometimes not even then.
The cell phone and setting. These devices, so helpful in real life, are the bane of any good thriller author. The mobile phone dispels tension too easily, makes the cavalry just a phone call away. That’s why, true to the real Smith Island, cell phone reception in Deadrise is anemic at best. Add a crippling storm, and the island’s few rickety cell towers come down. Likewise, the land lines are toast. No dialing for help, no data, no encouraging word or clue from a friend. Instead, Blackshaw eventually forages an enemy satellite phone, which does not need cell towers; but now Blackshaw can only gather intel from, or spread disinformation to, his enemy.
If a setting is character, I first use the five senses to help readers to perceive it. How does a place look, smell, taste, sound, and feel to a character, and most importantly, what memories or emotions are evoked in a character by those sensory revelations? I tend to pick one impactful sense on which to focus, though I might eventually refer to all the others to round out a character’s—and therefore a reader’s—experience. The setting in a thriller is the very matrix in which the plot unfolds. Without a keen eye to developing a vivid sense of place, an author short-changes the audience, and fails to exploit one of the most subtle, yet powerful agents of progress and setbacks for the hero.
Robert Blake Whitehill is the critically-acclaimed, award-winning, bestselling author of the Ben Blackshaw Series, which is available in English and German. A proud native of Maryland’s Eastern Shore, he lives in New Jersey with his family.
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