Monday, July 30, 2012

Establishing Place

Place matters a great deal in your novel/short story. For me, it's up there with the fundamentals of plot and character. The place in which your characters interact and your story is played out colours the story and changes the action. So it really is worth you thinking long and hard about the place your story is set.

A published author once told me that a scene with two lovers in the Sahara desert is very different to the same two people in the Arctic circle, even if the dialogue is identical. Because their surroundings will cause them to act differently, behave differently, and ultimately send the story in different directions.


Photo Courtesy of Rich Holman on Flickr

A good rule of thumb is that less is very much more when describing scenery. Ask yourself: what is the minimum I need for the reader to know in order for the scene to make sense to them? Does the reader really need to know that there's a family photo on the mantelpiece in the living room? Only if the photo will provide a juicy plot twist, or deepen the backstory of one of your more intriguing characters later on. If you're just descrbing it for the sake of it, or showing off how wonderful your prose is, then it's safe to say you should dispose of it.

Place is hugely important, whatever your genre. It may well be true that Historical Fiction is the classic example of where you need to get your facts right, and have descriptions of place that are particularly evocative of the era. But place is crucial in, say, Fantasy as well. Is your hero fighting a dragon on top of a volcanic mountain in a desolate landscape, or is he fighting it outside his local tavern? Again, whichever it is, it goes a long way in determining the direction your story is heading in. And that's why establishing place is very important.

A longer version of this blog post originally appeared in the Litopia Writers Community


  1. Great post, Joe. I can't even start writing a scene until I've established exactly where it's going to take place. In fact, I'm hoping to do a mini-research trip somewhere this week for that very reason!

  2. Thanks Emma. Hope the research trip goes well, and that you're lucky enough to be going somewhere nice for it! Most of my reccy trips end up taking me to less, er, salubrious parts of town...

  3. True, I had to consider this earlier in the year, as I weighed up an idea for a outline was all about how three characters related to each other. I then had an idea for a subplot that would be the 'challenge' and had to ask myself about the place...spaceship? medieval style fantasy world? Futuristic dystopia? A burned out post-apocalyptic world will lend itself to a different than a burned out old castle or a battle-damaged spaceship. The social conventions we'd be able to assign to those three scenarios are also different and therefore change the feel of the interaction between the characters.

  4. Spot on Katja. I hope the scenario you decided upon in the end was the best for your story! :-)

  5. Love the example of two lovers in the Sahara or in the Arctic...brings all kinds of images to mind. So you see? Less is definitely more. I'll remember your words because I'm a complete waffler at times.

  6. Nice, succint comment. No waffling here! ;)