Several years ago, I sent a draft of a new story to an editor for feedback. It opened with a ding-dong argument between two characters, who I had fully imagined in all their stand-up head-to-head fury. Back came the story with just one small and pointed comment in the lower right margin: ‘Where are we?’
Well, we weren’t in John Gardner’s ‘vivid and continuous dream’ of good fiction, that was for sure. The reader was unable to buy into the dream I was conjuring for her simply because it was taking place in a vacuum, and therefore impossible to visualise. That fundamental question of where you are asking the reader to be in a story clarifies the essential task of establishing place and setting as prime elements in creating a world that feels visceral, palpable and substantive.
The more skillfully you are able to render this, the more the story feels, for the reader, like a real experience rather than an abstract set of concepts. What makes a dream vivid, after all, is that you experience it in ‘sensaround’.
I had this in mind last year when I gave a lighthearted talk at Melbourne Writers Festival in ‘The Story Hospital’, asking the audience to imagine their reader as someone in a hospital, coming out of a coma. Everyone was clear about the series of questions a waking disoriented coma patient would ask: ‘Where am I?’ ‘What happened?’ ‘What time is it?’ ‘Who are these other people with me?’ ‘What’s going to happen to me now?’ Once those questions are answered, a relieved sense of orientation follows, and each provides a crucial element of unfolding narrative be addressed if a story is to be compelling, but that primary question, ‘Where am I?’, the audience members agreed, is always going to come first. A story can’t get started until we know where we are, and why it matters.
There is a huge range of ways to do this beyond simple description, and all work to create the mysteriously amalgamated thing which is a memorable story. Where ARE we? And how can I integrate it into a coherent, compelling sequence – into the particular, startling, strange universe of my story?
Eudora Welty had much to say about how integral a precise sense of place is in fiction, and how much hinges on rendering it well. ‘Place in fiction is the named, identified, concrete, exact and exacting, and therefore credible, gathering spot of all that has been felt, is about to be experienced, in the novel’s progress,’ she wrote. ‘Every story would be another story, and unrecognisable as art, if it took up its characters and plot and happened somewhere else.’*
Establishing place, setting and timeframe early in a story provides, then, exactly what a reader needs to feel immersed and engaged. They give context and a sense of purposeful momentum by anchoring your characters in particularity. This specificity creates a potent opportunity to being crystallising your story’s meaning in scenes, rather than generic exposition.
‘Two people go shopping’ is vague, generic and hard to engage with, while ‘A couple get stuck in the traffic on the way to a bed sale at Slumberland’ is not only a clear and potent scenario for your reader, it’s much, much easier to plunge into as a visceral and sensory opening scene for you, the writer, to start inventing.
Now place can not only anchor and orient your reader but also start to open up some of the subtextual layers waiting to be explored and embodied. Like the establishing shot in a movie’s opening images, choosing a specific and potent place directs your reader’s attention towards what is causal and integrated, not random, general, or accidental.
A story needs to take place in ‘real time’, and when a writer delays situating a story in a specific time and place, it can feel amorphous and abstract, with passages of summarised information (‘I grew up on a farm in a big family. Over the years we experienced many hardships including a few bushfires’) which start to feel like a delay in ‘the real story’ starting. When the significant dramatised action the reader is waiting for fails to materialise, they disengage.
Placing them into a deliberately specific time and place creates immediacy and momentum. (‘The year I turned twelve, we kept a pile of hessian sacks ready by the water tank, for the fire my father was sure was going to come that year. 7pm, on the sweltering night of the summer lightning storm, it started.’)
Speaking of the weather, see how specificity helps the author out here, too. Potent and specific locations add to the reader’s understanding of characters, building the atmosphere and providing an arena in which the story pushes itself forward. ‘That makes it ... the responsibility of the writer,’ Eudora Welty maintained, ‘to disentangle the significant – in character, incident, setting, mood, everything – from the random and meaningless and irrelevant.’
The reader only has what is on the page. If they sense the physical or psychic world you are conjuring is not serving and enriching the story but is merely gratuitous or filler, they will stop reading. As Elmore Leonard famously advised in his ‘10 Rules for Writing’*. ‘Never open a book with weather. If it’s only to create atmosphere, and not a character’s reaction to the weather, you don’t want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead looking for people.’
If you don’t want them to leaf ahead, place, time and setting must be more than a mere generic backdoor abstraction. Great authors commandeer our attention with a verve that makes us sit up and see and hear what’s happening. I defy any reader to leaf ahead of the opening passages of Barbara Kingsolver’s ‘The Poisonwood Bible’, in which she takes the unusual and highly authoritative step of addressing the reader directly and positioning them alongside an unwavering, omniscient ‘voice’ which roves through a jungle like an all-seeing eye:
‘Imagine a ruin so strange it must never have happened. First, picture the forest. I want you to be its conscience, the eyes in the trees. The trees are columns of slick, brindled bark like muscular animals overgrown beyond all reason ...’
The mesmerising pull of Kingsolver’s evocation of place is literally ‘cinematic’, right down to the way she directs our attention, finally, to the cast of characters entering the frame: ‘Away down below Image by Robert Waghorn from Pixabay. 8 T V W now, single file on the path, comes a woman with four girls in tow, all of them in shirtwaist dresses.’
Or the crisp, urgent voice which opens Tim Winton’s ‘Breath’, which hooks us with immediacy and momentum as the characters ‘come sweeping up a tree-lined boulevard with siren and lights’ and see a house incongruously ‘lit like a cruise ship.’
We are avidly attentive of cinematic art onscreen, teeming with visual and auditory detail which is carefully composed and codified, quickly established, and causal to story. We are primed to understand that nothing we are being shown, in Welty’s words, is random, meaningless or irrelevant.
When an author can render a similar effect on the page, we are effortlessly transported into that longed-for ‘vivid and continuous dream’. We’re oriented, immersed, hypnotised. Now we’ll go anywhere, into whatever place they direct us.
Kingsolver, Barbara, ‘The Poisonwood Bible’, (Faber, 1999), p5
Leonard, Elmore, ‘Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle’ (‘New York Times’, 2001): https://www. nytimes.com/2001/07/16/arts/writers-writingeasy-adverbs-exclamation-points-especiallyhooptedoodle.html
Welty, Eudora, ‘Place in Fiction’ in ‘The Eye of the Story’ (Vintage, 1990). Winton, Tim, ‘Breath’ (Hamish Hamilton, 2008)
About Cate Kennedy
Cate Kennedy is the author of three poetry collections, a novel, a memoir and two collections of short stories. She is the recipient of several awards for her work including the Queensland Literary Prize for her collection ‘Like a House on Fire’, the NSW Premier’s People’s Choice Award for her novel ‘The World Beneath’ and the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for her most recent poetry collection, ‘The Taste of River Water’.