How To Build a Better Story – Sense of Place

How To Build a Better Story – Sense of Place

A good story has a richly imagined setting that is visual, interesting, and contributes to the story, just like a character would.

Unfortunately, too many beginning writers have a place that can only be called sadly generic. It is hastily sketched, with few concrete details, and those that are provided tend to be stereotypical.

Place helps explain who we are and why we are different from others. Pay as close attention to it as you would to a beloved character. If drawn fully, the place will bend your characters to it with its great gravitational force. It will move your characters to action; it will fuel their passions; it will silence them with reverie. Such is the river in The Wind in the Willows, seen by moonrise in this beautiful passage:

The line of the horizon was clear and hard against the sky, and in one particular quarter it showed black against a silvery climbing phosphorescence that grew and grew. At last, over the rim of the waiting earth the moon lifted with slow majesty till it swung clear of the horizon and rode off, free of moorings; and once more they began to see surfaces—meadows widespread, and quiet gardens, and the river itself from bank to bank, all softly disclosed, all washed clean of mystery and terror, all radiant again as by day. . . .
—Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows

The same magical spell of place is found in Redwall series of Brian Jacques, in his descriptions of the great halls, kitchens, and wine cellars of Redwall Abbey; the paths of Mossflower Woods; and the exotic places beyond.

It was about an hour after dawn when Trimp [a hedgehog] opened her eyes. . . . Feigning sleep, the hedgehog maid peeped out from under her blanket, savouring the day. Downstream looked like a long winding green hall, with alder, bird cherry and weeping willow trees practically forming an arch over the sundappled stream, which was bordered by bright flowering clubrush, sedge and twayblade. Blue and pearly grey, the firesmoke hovered, making gentle swirls between sunshine and shadow in diagonal shafts. Snatches of murmured conversation between early risers were muted in the background, with the sweet odors of smouldering peat and glowing pinebark on the fire. Trimp wished that she could stay like this forever, happy amongst true friends, in tranquil summer woodlands by a stream.
The Legend of Luke, Brian Jacques

Beginning writers too often either ignore a sense of place, or perhaps they avoid it. Incorrectly, they fear that a generic setting will somehow draw in more readers with its commonness.

But it’s the specificity found in a given place – the details of the environs of Lake Wobegon or Mitford or Middle Earth – that give a work of fiction a compelling sense of reality.

(For more on writing a great piece of fiction, see the book How To Write Your Best Story.)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *