How To Write a Screenplay Set in the Wilderness

By April 17, 2015Screenwriting 101

From westerns to war movies, and disaster movies, movies set outdoors and in the wild usually make for a thrilling ride. We see people struggle with their humanity and their natural inclinations as they battle to survive their stay in the wild and their conflicts. Wild is one movie where we see the protagonist written as wanting to finish a trail to prove to herself that she can accomplish what she sets her mind too, despite her mistakes. It’s a moving and well-written screenplay and deals with people in the wilderness in interesting ways. We understand quickly that our lead craves change

If you’ve caught the wilderness bug and want to write a screenplay set mostly outdoors, keep these suggestions in mind.

Per Usual, Establish The Setting and Tone Early

The very first scene of Wild opens with a description of a panoramic view of mountains, trees and sky of the Pacific Crest Trail. And to juxtapose the beautiful view, the script tells us that we hear laborious breathing. We then see Cheryl, our protagonist, suffering in her hiking boot. Then she has a grisly experience, amidst the serene trees and mountains, with her toenail.

In this poignant opening sequence, we see her curse her boots and express her frustration with the trail. It isn’t raining and a wild animal isn’t chasing her. She’s fighting her conflicts and demons in the wild, while fighting the trail. The weather and conditions do change throughout the screenplay and so does Cheryl’s attitude about things and being on the trail, but we know that the two are connected. Writer Nick Hornby creates an adapted screenplay from Cheryl Strayed’s memoirs wherein the setting is the Pacific Crest Trail, along with locations in Cheryl’s past that help define her present, and the tone is a redemptive one, made of struggle, progress and development. In your screenplay set in the wilderness, let the audience know what they're in for early on and build on it.

Present a Protagonist That Is Barely Up For the Task

In many movies set in nature or the wilderness, there is usually a character that is not prepared to be in such conditions. In disaster movies, there are characters that don’t know a thing about nature. In Wild, Cheryl starts off as probably the worst long-distance hiker on the PCT. Her pack is too heavy and is full of junk and she barely knows how many miles to hike without overexerting herself.

Presenting a character that is in the wild without being prepared to deal with it is effective in showing the audience how difficult it is to be in the wilderness. Such a situation is instrumental in setting up growth and development with that character. The audience will root for the character and the character will, hopefully, continue forward and get to where he or she wants to be.

Throw Personal Conflicts at The Protagonist

In addition to the problems the protagonist deals with while being outdoors, they need to have human conflicts to hold the audience’s investment. Wild shows Cheryl frustrated and hungry and at one point desperate for drinkable water. The screenplay also shows Cheryl deal with painful memories from the pastimes with her mother and her ex-husband. She also deals with strangers she meets on the trail that aren’t all friendly.

We see Cheryl frightened at the possibility of a small animal crawling into her tent. We also see her encounter men on the trail with malicious intentions. In all instances, she deals with the challenges presented to her and moves forward. We also see her deal with her personal demons, getting past the guilt and the frustrations that weighed on her like the cumbersome pack she learned to strip down to the optimum weight. Show your protagonist deal with natural and personal conflicts to show their mettle.  

Show How The Protagonist Grows, And Its Results

As we see her face more and more hardships over the course of the screenplay, we see Cheryl overcome her troubled past and her rigorous present on the trail. Like I said earlier, she learns how to shed unnecessary weight from her pack and gets better boots after learning from her mistakes. The same is true for her overcoming her memories and guilt. By the middle and end of the screenplay, she is comfortable not only on the trail, but in her own skin, too. It doesn’t come without a bit of conflict, but it’s worth more because it came despite some struggle on the part of the protagonist. Take your characters on a journey though the wilderness. Wild shows Cheryl Strayed’s journey on the trail and through life in a way in which they parallel each other. Cheryl gets better at hiking and putting her past behind her as she confronts both.

Your goal should be to show growth in your protagonist as he or she traverses the natural and personal terrain around them; be sure to do so with his or her actions, realizations and progress.