Going off of my last post about originality in writing, I figured I’d do another list of things. So with that being said, here is my list of settings slash places that are underused, or that I wish were used more often
Lighthouses aren’t necessarily underused in fiction, but rather are primarily utilized as symbols. They usually function as a symbol of hope, or a beacon of safety. The giant swinging beam of light that spirals out around the spire of the lighthouse becomes a powerful image. Let’s take a look at an example of its use. The outset of the video game Alan Wake features out titular protagonist experiencing a nightmare where darkness is consuming the entire world. The only sanctuary this nightmare is a lighthouse on a cliff, cutting through the dark gloom with its beam of light. This lighthouse becomes the protagonist’s objective during this nightmare, who tries his best to reach it before he is swallowed by the darkness.
Like I said, lighthouses may not be underused in fiction, but they almost never progress beyond their use as symbols. Sure, you do reach the lighthouse in Alan Wake, but it only serves as an end point to the dream, when the light abruptly shuts off. But very rarely to we get to see the inside of this fascinating buildings. A lighthouse is a perfect emblem of the old melding with the new. Here in Duluth, if you travel down to the Canal Park waterfront, you can see two small lighthouses sitting at the end of the pier. But I would like to see them function as more than symbols. They deserve to be explored, to have their old mysteries and inhabitants brought to life.
Besides, lighthouses are just cool.
For example, the game Dark Fall 2: Lights Out is set inside of a lighthouse for the majority of the game. The story moves back and forth through time, as you explore the lighthouse first in 1912 and then in the modern era, experiencing it as it once was and then as the tourist attraction it becomes. It’s an interesting meld of old versus new, a theme I don’t see often explored anymore. And besides, a haunted lighthouse is much more intriguing than a haunted mansion or a haunted forest, wouldn’t you say?
I want to see lighthouse progress beyond being pure symbols and become actual fixtures of the setting they are in. There’s nothing quite like the view of the water from the top of a lighthouse. Or at least, I assume there isn’t. I’ve never actually been inside a real lighthouse myself, as far as I can remember. One of those things I plan on doing sometime.
But I can see it now, standing in the light room as the fog rolls in. A foghorn sounds in the distance as the giant bulb cuts a swath through the fog, illuminating the way for hapless sailors lost in the thick foggy night. The rain patters down on the windows, pinging off the glass. Atmosphere, it’s all about atmosphere.
2. Small Coastal Town
We’ve all seen San Francisco and Los Angeles done to death in movies and television, so why not give somewhere smaller and off the beaten path a shot? This past year I played through a game called The Lost Crown, which featured a small little harbor town known as Saxton for its setting. More than anything, I enjoyed the constant presence of the water. Almost everywhere you looked during the outside portions of the game, you would see the water. Even the cottage that the main character takes up residence in has a small docking area below the foundation that was once used for shipping. Again, that melding of old and new.
Small towns on the coast usually feature some non-standard architecture due to the demands of building next to a lake or an ocean. Duluth I know has some curiosities in it, remnants of an earlier time. Many people know of the concrete ruins that sit in the water along the lakefront, still standing the test of time. Little details like that can really make a setting pop and stand out in your mind. Of course, I may be biased because I live in Duluth (number one outdoor city in the country, wouldn’t you know), but I feel like stories tend to gravitate towards these larger places because they’re so much more iconic and recognizable to an audience. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
These places would be great for a mystery/adventure story because of the sense of discovery. Many of these places tend to lie on the outskirts, far away from the hustle and bustle of modern city life. They are nestled in nature, surrounded by wildlife, trees, and the water. Because of that, there is this feeling of mystery that surrounds places like these, legends that tend to live on. The Lost Crown for example, deals with the mystery of an ancient king’s crown. The boundary between the normal and the supernatural blurs in this game, as much of the puzzles involve using ghost hunting equipment to uncover clues. It creates an omnipresent sense of mystery and unease that few games or movies reach, and all without using obvious tropes or jump scares.
I’ve always thought these smaller places were much more interesting to look at than the skyscrapers of any modern metropolis. They tend to have a much more vibrant and intriguing history. I mean hey, Stephen King wrote plenty of stories taking place in small towns along the coast, so they’ve got to have something to them.
Seems like water is becoming a pretty prevalent theme in this post. It’s a personal thing, I will admit. I’ve always been fascinated with the ocean, and in particular, what is below it. I was really big into the idea of shipwrecks when I was younger, reading up on ships like the Titanic and the Lusitania.
Ships at sea used to be a big story setting some time ago, but it has since faded away, replaced by the glamour of big cities and the like. It’s sad now that one of the only modern analogues I can think of is the movie Battleship, which is based on the board game, but of course involves an alien invasion. Because why not?
In all seriousness, ships are one of the more fascinating things to explore. They were commonly used as settings for like ghost stories, with many of them involving a hapless crew coming upon a ship dead in the water with no sign of any visible crew. The creepy ambiance of the area is commonly amplified by the fact that everything else seems to be in working order. There’s just no one there…
The metal creaks as you walk through the dimly lit corridors. The boat pitches back and forth as the deep blue waves lap at its bottom. A clanking generator sounds in the distant, churning away at the gasoline that powers it. The faint aroma of uneaten food enters your nostrils. Everything is as it should be, but nothing is right.
This is one of my all time favorite settings for a story, just because of that sense of isolation. Those that have followed my blog for a while now know that I am a big horror aficionado. I also probably come off as a slight hipster, bemoaning the fact that so many modern horror movies and games depend on loud, in your face scary moments than developing any real sort of atmosphere. You brace yourselves for these not because you’re scared, but because you don’t want something screaming in your ear, which is why we flinch at loud noises.
But I digress. These vessels are also a perfect emblem of the changes in technology. Just looking at the history of naval ships can show you just how far and fast humanity has come. From clunky wooden rafts to massive wooden war machines all the way up to gigantic metal beasts, boats have evolved and changed in ways people probably never expected. This makes them great for a story setting, because the large number of variations means there’s a lot of leeway for creating new and interesting places to experience.
In space, no one can hear you scream. But underwater, your screams sound like “blrrrrrrrblrrrrrrblrrr blub blub blub”.
Was that last bit pointless? Oh yes. Do I care? Not really.
I remember watching movies like The Abyss when I was younger and thinking about how cool and terrifying being deep underwater would be. It’s a setting ripe with isolation and danger, not to mention mystery. It’s been said that we know as little as ten percent of the creatures that live in the ocean. This is because the underwater environment is just so dangerous for us. Going beyond a certain point means subjecting yourself to immense amounts of pressure, so much so that it could crush an improperly shielded craft (just ask the bad guy from The Abyss). But we humans are nothing if not curious and foolish in equal measure.
I imagine that, at least for a movie, making underwater scenes and getting them to look right must be a daunting task. The potential for atmosphere is great, but it is incredibly tricky to pull off. The Abyss was one of the more difficult movies for James Cameron to pull off because they had to shoot a lot of the scenes inside a giant tank of water. There’s even a bit where they use this breathable liquid later on in the movie, and the actor actually had to have a helmet full of real liquid. It made shooting that part of the movie dangerous and problematic, but the result was probably my favorite James Cameron movie.
Video games tend to have an easier time with this, because they don’t have to subject actors to things like that. They do, however, have to focus a lot of graphical power on the water, which is why the water in the game Bioshock looks so gorgeous. It had to, being a game set in an underwater city. Ever since playing games like Myst, I’ve had a great fondness for atmosphere because it immerses me in a game like nothing else ever could.
An underwater setting brings new elements of danger and mystery to the table that not many others can. It’s a singularly unique and unknown area, and we can often just look out the window and see the surface of it. What lies beneath the surface? What sits at the bottom depths of the sea? Our natural curiosity drives us forward.
Well it turns out that settings involving water became the primary theme of this post. Being that we live on a planet that is three-quarters water, it’s not really that surprising. It’s especially not surprising to me that my mind would trend in this direction, because I have been fascinated by the ocean for a long time. As I said before, when I was young I was really into the idea of shipwrecks. I read plenty of books about them and was especially into the Titanic story. I even had a little model of the Titanic (probably still do) that sat on my bedroom bookshelf.
Other themes that I noticed popping up when I wrote this list were history and old versus new. The first three settings in particular demonstrate that. I’ve found that I love old things like lighthouses and ships, finding their stories to be intriguing. But more than that, I love old, unsolved mysteries. The disappearance of some ships on the water, never to be seen again, is a fascinating subject. It’s always interesting to speculate as to what might have happened to them or where they ended up, because they might never be found again.
But more than anything, I like the little details in settings, those non-essential tiny things that just make a world stick out. A little sign on the wall of a building. The sound of a foghorn. The creaking of a door as it opens to an old house. These little details are often overlooked. Never underestimate the power they have. They can add so much to your setting, even if they don’t seem important. It helps it stand out from all the other similar settings. It’s all about the specifics.
And that’s all I have for this week. Next week’s post will be shrouded in the fog of night. Until then, have a great week everyone.