Set the story in time and place

Stories are about particular people in a particular place at a certain time. This seems obvious but it is sometimes hard for beginning writers to wrap their minds around this. Think about movies and stories and how the place is so important. A movie has to be shot somewhere, so it’s a little easier to establish the place. The story has to happen somewhere. And that somewhere affects the story.

“Moonlight” happens in a drug-infested neighborhood in Miami. One of the most important scenes happens when the boy is taught to swim in the ocean. “Hell or High Water” happens in small towns in  West Texas. The bank robbers use a front-end loader to bury their getaway car in the sandy soil of their mother’s ranch.

I’m getting A’Kayla to write about a special teacher at her undergraduate college. I neglected to tell her part of the story is to describe the college. We must see the characters in their surroundings. Sometimes beginning writers get so focused on the characters that they neglect how the setting, the place, the environment is essential to making the story seem real.

A place can have the status of a character in a story. It creates conditions that the characters react to. Places have history. How did the history of a place create those conditions?

And time is important. When the did the story happen? How old are the characters?

Here is a passage from the first long paragraph of The Fire Next Time, by James Baldwin:

…I became, during my fourteenth year, for the first time in my life, afraid–afraid of the evil within me and afraid of the evil without. What I saw around me that summer in Harlem was what I had always seen; nothing had changed. But now, without any warning, the whores and pimps and racketeers on the Avenue had become a personal menace. It had not before occurred to me that I could become one of them, but now I realized that we had been produced by the same circumstances. Many of my comrades were clearly headed for the Avenue, and my father said that I was headed that way, too. My friends began to drink and smoke and embarked–at first avid, then groaning–on their sexual careers.

From the beginning, Baldwin wants you to know exactly where the story–note the word Avenue–takes place and he wants to make the place as alive as he, the narrator, looking back, is alive. Look for passages in other stories that establish place. Identify a passage and send it to me. Place creates character.

What is the role of place in your story?


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