The Sun Singer's Travels

Malcolm R. Campbell's World

Without a sense of place, your story floats in limbo

“Place matters. That’s what so many people seem to have forgotten. Is it because they spend most of their time indoor or online–so that they’ve lost touch with their environment? Is it because every city contains the same neon-and-concrete gauntlet of Targets, Little Caesars, Subways and Great Clips–so that every place looks like every other place else?” – Benjamin  Percy, “Move Mountains, Activating Setting,” in “The Writer’s Chronicle.”

I wish every aspiring writer would read, study and discuss this article because–in my view–if they fail to deal actively with the places where their stories are set, they will forever remain aspiring and never emerging.

Percy says that some aspiring writers are vague about place–or perhaps, too lazy to consider it–because they want readers to think their stories and novels could have happened anywhere. I agree with Percy when he says, “huh?” Stories don’t happen in nowheresville; they happen at specific places, and if you handle them well, the reader will still see that those stories have universality running through them from start to finish.

There's a lot going in in this busy street scene from the style of the buildings, to the trees, to the people and their conversations. What a shame to miss it by not showing it to the reader.

There’s a lot going in in this busy street scene from the style of the buildings, to the trees, to the people and their conversations. What a shame to miss it by not showing it to the reader.

I noticed this article because I feel strongly about the statement “place matters.” Percy has done too good a job with this feature article for me to try an sum it up in a post. But here are two things that stand out–possibly not the two things he would pick, but so it goes:

  1. Never start a story with dialogue. Yes, that can work. Usually it doesn’t. Why not? Because the voices doing the talking aren’t anywhere–words out of the fog in no room or house or field or forest. When you do this, the reader is lost, and s/he remains lost until you finally deign to say where the conversation is happening.
  2. Place–in modern stories and novels–isn’t a dry recitation of facts. Some readers say they only scan descriptive text (especially in the older novels we were assigned to read in high school) because nothing’s happening. The way to “fix this” is to show movement, characters or natural phenomena, so that something is always happening there.

I’ve approached this in multiple ways in my Florida Folk Magic Series. People move through places, talk about places, fight strange weather in places, talk about the magic lurking in places, and live in places that look one way and not any other way and go about their day to day activities in a setting rather than on a blank slate. When people talk, they might be sitting on a sofa on the back porch, spitting tobacco juice into the back yard, listening to the creek or throwing things off the bridge over the creek. They exist in a place the reader comes to know well.

Percy quotes a favorite passage of mine from the Great Gatsby to show that the description of a place can have activity and movement, a style that’s certainly more interesting than saying a room had some chairs and windows in it:

“We walked through a high hallway into a bright rosy-colored space, fragilely bound into the house by French windows at either end. The windows were ajar and gleaming white against the fresh grass outside that seemed to grow a little way into the house. A breeze blew through the room, blew curtains in at one end and out the other like pale flags, twisting them up toward the frosted wedding cake of the ceiling—and then rippled over the wine-colored rug, making a shadow on it as wind does on the sea.

“The only completed stationary object in the room was an enormous couch on which two young women were buoyed up as though upon an anchored balloon. They were both in white and their dresses were rippling and fluttering as if they had just been blown back in after a short flight around the house. I must have stood for a few moments listening to the whip and snap of the curtains and the groan of a picture on the wall. Then there was a boom as Tom Buchanan shut the rear windows and the caught wind died out about the room and the curtains and the rugs and the two young women ballooned slowly to the floor.”

Okay, so may not like this novel or even this passage. I won’t try and convert you. But it shows movement rather than dry objects. You can do the same with a sex scene, a car chase, or a killer stalking his victim through an old house or a dense forest.

Food for thought, but for more of a full course meal, read the article or check out the fine writing books by Donald Maass, including Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook: Writing Exercises to Put the Instruction into Action.




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3 thoughts on “Without a sense of place, your story floats in limbo

  1. Excellent post, Malcolm!

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