Place & Plot
The renowned creative writing professor John Gardner used to say that the most important quality in literature is characters we love as we do real people. Ultimately, Gardner said, plot exists only to give the characters a means of finding and revealing themselves, and setting only to give them a place to stand. Although I agree with him about the importance of characters, I think of setting as far more than a staging area. The best writers plot their characters’ lives around a strong sense of place.
Much more than a mere description of setting, a sense of place is a crossroads where voice, character, plot, and all the other details of storytelling meet. As Katherine Paterson has said in Gates of Excellence, “The characters will not determine the setting, but the setting to a great extent will determine both what they will be like and how they will act.”
“Where’s Papa going with that ax?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.
“Out to the hoghouse,” replied Mrs. Arable. “Some pigs were born last night.”
From the beginning we know without being told—we’re in the place—that Charlotte’s Web is about a curious little girl who lives on a farm, and the story will have something to do with an ax and a pig, most likely during a pre-tech decade gone by, when gender roles and small family farms were conventional. The narrative voice suggests the very rhythm of life in that place. Like the farm, E.B. White’s style is natural, straightforward yet easygoing, and economical. Nothing goes to waste.
That’s why I say a sense of place goes beyond a location and into the realm of characterization through plot. The habits of characters, their language, their beliefs and behaviors of all sorts reveal who they are and from whence they came. Geographical and socio-cultural boundaries dictate, to some extent, what story people may do or sometimes even what they must do.
Charlotte’s Web couldn’t happen in New York City, nor even on a giant corporate farm. But at the Arables’ on the morning that Papa heads out to the barn with that ax, it’s inevitable.
Similarly, my book The Hole in the Wall couldn’t have taken place anywhere except across the road from the mysterious strip mine that shapes the lives of everyone in town and drives the entire plot for Sebby Daniels and his family. I named my fictional town Kokadjo after a tiny place near where I grew up in Maine and used details of my cultural background to develop characters who seemed as vivid to me as real people. All of the plotting and subplotting threads of the book connect in a strong sense of place.
You’ve probably heard the expression “All roads lead to the same place.” People who say that usually mean we all share the same world or will wind up in the same heaven, but to me the saying is good advice for the writer to bear in mind about story elements.
Then again…did you ever hear the joke about the tourists who got lost on a back road in Maine? They stopped at the country store for directions and were told, “First you go…no, that road is parallel…Try going…no, that road is a dead end. If you go up to the old farm on the…no, that road turns around the wrong way. Sorry folks, you can’t get there from here.”
If you want to get there from here in writing fiction, all of your story elements—including the setting—have to merge directly into the main plot so your reader won’t wind up feeling off track like a tourist in Maine.
Exercising in Place
- One y’all or ayuh is worth a thousand words of description. Write a story in a colloquial voice you know well, such as a local dialect.
- Write a first draft in the form of a play, using only dialogue and stage directions. Then rewrite as narrative.
- Imagine yourself in a special place where you lost hours as a child. Create a character who could only exist in that setting.
- Research an event in history that captures your imagination. Write a scene about that event in which you never say exactly where and when that action took place, but the reader can infer it.
- Analyze the sense of place in your favorite classic or award-winning novel. Mimic the author’s approach in a setting of your own.
This class is based on my Once Upon a Time column “More Than a Place to Stand” (Summer 2000), which itself was based on a paper called “Writing Lessons on the Road to Treegap and Other Places” delivered at a conference of the Children’s Literature Association (June 1994).
©Lisa Rowe Fraustino 1994, 2000, 2010
You may make one copy of this page for personal use. Please contact me for permission to repost, reprint, or reproduce.