Sunday, April 13, 2008

Remember Where You Are

It’s easy to forget where a story takes place when you’re deeply engrossed in a character’s struggle.

But place–like character and plot–is one of the essential elements of a story, and, if you ignore it or treat it like a simple backdrop, you’ll miss the chance to deepen your reader’s experience of your story.

Every story must have a setting, a place where the action occurs.

“Setting exists so that the character has someplace to stand," writes John Gardner, "something that can help define him, something he can pick up and throw, if necessary, or eat, or give to his girlfriend.”

And Eudora Welty observes: “Place conspires with the artist. We are surrounded by our own story, we live and move in it. It is through place that we put out roots.”

Sometimes it takes nothing more than a few brush-strokes to create a sense of place:
There is no lake at Camp Green Lake. There once was a very large lake here, the largest lake in Texas. That was over a hundred years ago. Now it is just a dry, flat wasteland. (from Holes by Louis Sachar)
Sometimes it takes a different kind of brush work:
My name is Vahan Kenderian. I was born in Bitlis, a province of Turkey, at the base of the Musguneyi Mountains of the East. It was a beautiful city of cobbled streets and horse-drawn wagons, brilliant springs and blighting winters, strolling peddlers and snake charmers. Beyond sunbaked mud-brick houses were fields of tall grass, rolling hills, and orchards of avocado, apricot, olive, and fig trees. Steep valleys of stone climbed sharply to grassy plains and pastures, and higher still to the slopes of snowcapped mountains where every summer evening the sun set in deepening shades of red and blue. (from Forgotten Fire by Adam Bagdasarian)
What’s interesting about both of these examples is how the narrators of each description offer a reader a way into their individual stories through place.

The way into the story isn't only through the physical descriptions of place–the dry, flat wasteland that was a lake over a hundred years ago or the beautiful city of cobbled streets and horse-drawn wagons, brilliant springs and blighting winters–but through the way the narrators feel about the settings that they describe.

In Holes, the narrator has placed himself smack in the middle of that wasteland with the word “here” in the second sentence. By placing himself in that setting, he’s raised an essential (and gnawing) question in the reader’s mind: why would anyone want to live in such a dry, desolate place? He also challenges the reader to look closely at the scene and to understand--the way he has come to understand--that appearances can be deceptive.

Unlike Sachar’s narrator, Bagdasarian’s narrator in Forgotten Fire has a name--Vehan Kenderian--and his description of his birthplace is filled with longing. It’s a lush, evocative description bursting with love in the same way that his memory bursts with images of ripe avocado, apricot, olive, and fig trees. Bagdasarian’s description is colorful ... full of life... in ways that Sachar’s description, is colorless and, hence, lifeless... except for the life breathed into the narrative by the narrator himself.

What we see in each of these examples–and what we’ll see in the third example below–is how descriptions of setting can reveal the emotional state of the narrator and can be used to intensify the reader’s sense of the character’s central struggle. In this way, setting can offer the reader a deeper understanding of the conflict at the heart of a story.

Here is how Sandra Cisneros presents the setting in The House On Mango Street:
But the house on Mango Street is not the way they told it at all. It’s small and red with tight steps in front and windows so small you’d think they were holding their breath. Bricks are crumbling in places, and the front door is so swollen you have to push hard to get in. There is no front yard, only four little elms the city planted by the curb. Out back is a small garage for the car we don’t own yet and a small yard that looks smaller between the two buildings on either side. There are stairs in our house, but they’re ordinary hallway stairs, and the house has only one washroom. Everybody has to share a bedroom–Mama and Papa, Carlos and Kiki, me and Nenny.
Such a description of place lets the reader not only “see” the setting but “feel” exactly how the narrator feels about her surroundings.

The house... is not the way they told it at all... No, it’s not the narrator’s dream house, and you can feel the narrator’s frustration, maybe even her anger, at having to live in a house made of crumbling bricks and a swollen front door and a small yard and only one washroom that six people have to share.

It’s small and red with tight steps in front and windows so small you’d think they were holding their breath... Those “tight” steps give a reader a sense of the same constricted feeling the narrator must have felt when she climbed the steps. And the tiny windows, so small, it’s as if you can feel the narrator holding her breath, not quite wanting to admit that this place might be her house, the place where she and her family might live out their lives.

As you read these and other stories, notice the interplay between a character’s dreams and the setting within which those dreams are framed.

And as you revise your own stories, try to become aware of the place in which your story is set, and how you might use it to reveal your character’s emotional life on a deeper, more profound level.

For more information on place and setting, visit:

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