Sense of Place: The Setting for Desire

Sense of Place: The Setting for Desire

There are several things that drive a novel’s fictional story from the first pages. Think of a story as a kind of journey, something with forward motion. If you think of the metaphor of an automobile, the plot of a story might be considered the engine, the motive power.

But something is needed to propel a car: fuel. For a story, that should be the deep desires of the characters.

You can have a perfectly decent story (a nice car). But it you don’t have the fuel of desire, it doesn’t really go anywhere. No means of propulsion. If the plot moves forward, it will seem forced, like people running out of gas and having to push their car down the road. Or calling for a tow truck. The story moves (sort of), but not in a fluid, compelling way.

The other thing that’s needed for a good story’s journey is the reality of the road. In fiction, you need a plausibly tangible “road” going through an imaginary (but clearly imaginable!) landscape. This is the story’s setting . . . or more powerfully, its sense of place (a deeper, more emotion-rich version).

If you don’t have a well-developed landscape (or any at all), the journey of this car (your story) will be somewhat generic, floating in the fog of banality or nothingness. You need the reality of place – the hum of wheels on dry pavement, the bumps, the times of rain or sun, the delight of things seen out the window – to make the journey come to life.

Let’s look at an example that combines desire and place:

Here’s a bit from Ann Patchett’s 2001 novel, Bel Canto (PEN Faulkner Award). It’s an amazing work; I read it in a few wonderful evenings. A beautiful piece of writing, a mix of suspense and romance . . . with lots of unspoken advice for other writers in its pages.

The novel relies on a clear and definite “sense of place.” From the first paragraph, it is bound (except for a few memories of the characters that take them elsewhere) to a single location: a mansion in a South American county. After the set-up scene, a grand dinner party (visiting opera star, international businessmen, diplomats), a band of gun-wielding terrorists take over and all hell breaks loose. Then, remarkably, as they settle down for a long hostage situation, unexpected human emotions begin to emerge: empathy, romance, passion, love.

Here is one passage that sold me on the story in the first five pages (note Noah Lukeman’s The First Five Pages rules). On page four, a central character, Katsumi Hosokawa, recalls a memory of going to his first opera in Japan as an 11-year-old child, with his father. For the performance of Rigoletto, “They did not have especially good seats, but their view was unobstructed.”

They climbed the long set of stairs to their row, careful not to look down into the dizzying void beneath them. They bowed and begged to be excused by every person who stood to let them pass into their seats, and then they unfolded their seats and slipped inside.

[Nice motion, entering a place . . . encountering it for the first time.]

They were early, but other people were earlier, as part of the luxury that came with the ticket price was the right to sit quietly in this beautiful place and wait. They waited, father and son, without speaking, until finally the darkness fell and the first breath of music stirred from someplace far below.

[Time passing . . . anticipation . . . then, a beginning of something.]

Tiny people, insects, really, slipped out from behind the curtains, opened their mouths, and with their voices gilded the walls with their yearning, their grief, their boundless, reckless love that would lead each one to separate ruin.

[Patchett is cleverly laying down the central themes of the novel: the mystery and danger of love.]

A few lines later:

It was early in the second act, when Rigoletto and Gilda sang together, their voices twining, leaping, that he reached out for his father’s hand. He had no idea what they were saying . . . he only knew that he needed to hold to something. The pull they had on him was so strong he could feel himself falling forward out of the high and distant seats.

The small gesture of a moment – and the whole brief memory with its powerful sense of place – sets the stage [pun unavoided] for a lyrical and suspenseful novel, full of fascinating characters and their passions.

With her mastery, Patchett has used a small “sense of place” scene (a brief memory by a main character of a place so meaningful to him) to establish a theme of deep and nonverbal desire (the power of music, the drive of deep emotions beyond language). This novel, that returns immediately to the main setting of the novel, the South American mansion, will careen forward like a finely-tuned (and expertly driven) race-car with the powerful drive that comes from the deepest desires of the key characters.

All set in a specific place, one that comes to be familiar, like a second home for the reader. At least it was for me, as I picked up the novel each evening and returned to that mansion.

Bel Canto is a novel that presents place as a setting for desire.

Four walls. Within them, all the world.

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