The Importance of Place

Where does a story take place?

Sometimes, giving a story’s location is unavoidable. If a story takes place in outer space, on Mars, or in Wonderland, the laws of physics might affect the characters completely differently than they would on Earth.

But sometimes it’s not so simple. I’ve had conversations with multiple authors about the settings of their stories, only to find myself frustrated with some of the answers.

“It’s in a town,” some say. “A small town.”

When pressed for more information, they might elaborate: “oh, it could be anywhere, really.” Often they’re making a case for their story having universal appeal.

While some things– hope, grief, tragedy, teenage impulsiveness– really are universal, the intimate customs of a given place usually aren’t, and plunging on without giving the readers at least some inkling of what to expect can leave the reader playing catch-up as they try to figure out the context of the story they’re reading.

If a story takes place in 1990s small-town Georgia, walking in on two men making out might make the viewpoint character uncomfortable. In New York City in 2016, it might not even register to the viewpoint character unless they know one of the men personally. In 1980s  Iran, it might be a matter of life and death.

Even for smaller, less plot-important details. Two strangers pass on the road going through a snow-covered forest. One glances at the other and smiles at them. If they’re in rural Canada, that’s just an afternoon stroll. If they’re in rural Russia, the smiling stranger might be committing a faux pas.

 

If the reader assumes that the story takes place in his or her own home state, they’re going to be making assumptions based on the laws and cultural mores as they understand them. One of the easiest ways to avoid confusion is to simply tell the reader where this is.

Is it a rural southern American town? The streets of Cairo? The beaches of Malaysia? A friendly desert town in Southwestern America?

Have you ever gotten mixed signals about where a story takes place? Let us know in the comments!

 

 

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