Posted in Film, Writing

How to Pick the Best Setting for Your Novel


Watching Like a Writer is a movie review series that looks at films from the perspective of a fiction writer, complete with one writing takeaway, and an exercise that will help better your fiction!

Review — Hearts in Atlantis (2001)

One can’t help but compare Hearts in Atlantis to The Green Mile. Both are based on books by Stephen King, both have a similar tone in atmosphere, both are set in the past, both feature actor David Morse, and both feature a certain character with an extraordinary power. Which is the better film? The Green Mile. Is Hearts in Atlantis still worth seeing? Absolutely.

The film stars Anthony Hopkins as Ted Brautighan, a mysterious individual with a strange power, and while this character is quite prominent in the film, Hearts in Atlantis is primarily about 11-year old Bobby Garfield (a young Anton Yelchin), a boy who gets picked on by bullies, lives with a selfish mother, and dreams of getting a bike. But he does have two great friends, one of which is a beautiful girl named Carol. “You will kiss her, and it will be the kiss by which all others in your life will be judged,” Brautighan eventually tells young Bobby.

It’s unfair that Stephen King has often been typecast as a “horror writer,” because he’s actually superb in a variety of genres, whether he’s writing terrifying fare like The Shining and Misery, or more dramatic works like Different Seasons and Hearts in Atlantis.

This film has to be the least plot-driven Stephen King story brought to the screen, as it’s more about character development and the atmosphere in this 1960s town. Hearts in Atlantis is slow, especially in its first third, and it’s not a film for everyone, but the film moved me considerably.

First of all, the performances in Hearts in Atlantis are terrific, ranging from Hopkins’ brilliant portrayal of a troubled man with a secret, to Hope Davis and David Morse, and especially Anton Yelchin, who plays Bobby. Another excellent showcase of the film is the visual style. Director Scott Hicks and Cinematographer Piotra Sobocinski created a beautiful film that captures the 1960 period brilliantly. The use of mirrors in the film is especially unique. And there are villains in the movie called Low Men, who creep around in fog and shadows.

I didn’t love Hearts in Atlantis, but I liked it, and it’s definitely worth checking out for Stephen King fans currently getting a heavy dose of Castle Rock and Mr. Mercedes on television. This is a King adaptation that slipped by mostly unnoticed in 2001, and it’s well worth seeing!

Watching Like a Writer

Movies like Hearts in Atlantis make me think about how to detail the setting of a small town in my fiction. I just watched another mostly forgotten film on HBO a few nights ago called Paradise, released in 1991 and starring Elijah Wood and Melanie Griffith, that is made more emotionally involving purely through its quiet small town setting which really does feel lived in and specific to these characters. Setting is something I’ve often struggled with in my fiction, whether I’m writing a short story or novel or screenplay. I don’t give it as much attention as I should. But I’ve tried to improve on this aspect of my writing in the last few years, and what certainly helps is having the characters interact with the town in a way that supports the character’s journey, both internal and externally.


Look at your current work-in-progress and tell me WHY it has to be set where it is currently set. How does the town your character lives in add substance and meaning to the story and to the characters’ lives?

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