The Art of the One-Location Screenplay

One of the main budget concerns a screenplay can raise is too many locations. An increasingly popular way to work around this is to bunker down and limit the action of your story to a single location. The chamber piece is a subgenre as old as Hollywood itself, and one that’s made a comeback in our socially distanced times for reasons both psychological and COVID-precautionary.

Writing this kind of story brings many unique challenges and limitations to your screenplay, from overall plot and character motivations to screen direction and the use of space. Now might be a good time to refer to the old Orson Welles quote: “The enemy of art is the absence of limitations.”

Here are some important tips to help you use those limitations to your advantage and write a compelling screenplay.

1. Why Are We Here?

Find your script’s reasoning for staying locked down. In 12 Angry Men, it’s jury deliberation. In The Hateful Eight, there’s a blizzard raging outside. In William Friedkin’s Bug, a woman hides in a motel room from her abusive husband. A dinner party does the trick in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and the more-recent The Invitation.

Figuring this out will unlock many questions for you to ask about your characters and help you understand why the characters find themselves in these situations. Ask yourself: what are they hiding from? 

2. Know Your Space

Perhaps the most crucial element of a chamber piece is knowing what that “chamber” will be. While you may not know the specifics, it’s important to know the basics and general scope of the space your characters will inhabit. This can be as simple as knowing the film will never leave the inside of a car as in Locke, or knowing the various rooms in one house, as in Malcolm & Marie. As for bigger spaces, the venue in Green Room is laid out with clockwork precision in the script, from the bar to the outdoor sheds to the titular room in which the protagonists barricade themselves.

Mapping out your script’s territory will make scene changes and even character dynamics easier to feel out.

Malcolm & Marie (2021)
Photography by Felicia Tolbert & Dominic Miller

3. Flesh Out Your Characters

Since the setting will not change, the humans in your story must: the relationship between each character needs to constantly shift in each scene to keep the audience on their toes. This can be achieved through plot, of course, with many thrillers from The Thing to The Hateful Eight depending on a conspiracy or impending threat to amplify the character’s emotions. But it can also be done through raised emotional stakes: in Locke, a man’s relationship to his wife, children, mistress and employers are all it takes to fashion a gripping story. In Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Malcolm & Marie, the central relationship is the ticking time bomb.

4. “Cheating”

Of course, many of the examples listed here don’t exactly stick to a single location. They may have rising action that takes place in vehicles, adjacent areas or entirely different cities, and they may have brief excursions during or after the main events of the film. For the purposes of your screenplay, challenge yourself to adhere to the logic of your story. Just because a certain character goes somewhere doesn’t mean you have to follow them there; maybe sit with the remaining character(s) and feel their absence. 

Writing a one-location screenplay could be the exercise in constraint that your storytelling skills need. It may even help you sell, since production companies are always looking for feasible and low-budget stories. But what your screenplay lacks in scenery it must have in character. Using dialogue and changes in interpersonal dynamics will help you find that the most basic elements in drama that make readers turn the page are those that can be felt.

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