This is the third blog post in my series about writing – last month we looked at character and the month before just general advice on approaching the task of writing. We’ve been making starting blocks here and while I am eager to get into the deeper aspects of creating fiction such as dialogue, pacing and editing, there is another broader aspect which often gets overlooked or – in a lot of cases – not given due respect, and that is place.
Have you ever read a novel where every single room or space the narrator or character enters is described completely and immediately in a massive info-dump? Not interesting. Not truthful.
After tribe – which we touched on last month – the most important thing to a character is place. It’s also another discipline that crosses over into acting. Actors slave over place. The reason for this is place influences everything about the character. The late acting teacher, Stella Adler, used to make a huge point of place, and this was further emphasized in the example set by the also late Uta Hagen:
Picture a woman on her way home. What’s she wearing? What does this tell you about where she’s coming home from? The place she’s been has influenced how she’s dressed. Let’s say it was work. Where was work? A child care centre? What tells us it was a child care centre? Is there finger paint under her fingernails? Or was it a hospital? Has she been lifting sick people from wheelchair to bed and back again all day? How does that show in her person? Crossed arms? Hunched back?
Now we’ll go one further – it’s snowing.
Now she’s walking differently. Head tucked in low, collar up. Remember the famous photograph of James Dean at Times Square? You can’t see the rain, so how do you know it’s raining? James Dean is hunched, hands in pockets, slight smile at being caught in this situation. When it snows, we walk faster. We wear gloves. We shove our hands in our pockets. It’s cold as well, so most of her face might be obscured by the hat, the collar or the scarf.
It’s snowing and it’s dark.
You’re building a picture now. Answer yourself – what is she doing while she’s hurrying home in the snow? The fact that it’s dark adds more elements – her eyes are wider. What kind of neighbourhood is this? She’s looking around. Maybe her keys are clenched in her fist as a type of weapon.
She gets to the door.
How long has she lived here? Can she find the key right away or does it take a few goes?
Door opens – she’s inside. How does she close the door? Turn and slam it shut? Flick it behind her with the strength of one wrist? What does that tell us about the neighbourhood? Does she lock it and deadbolt it right away?
Okay, now she’s in. This is where it gets complicated and you, as the person creating this world, have to make a lot of informed choices.
Does she slump her shoulders and hurry to take her coat and hat off because it’s a lot warmer in than out? Does she leave it all on because she has to stoke the fire or turn the steam on first? Is there someone there for her to greet? Did they warm the place up? Is there someone there she wants to avoid? Are there kids?
There are flow-on effects to every scenario.
She’s alone – sigh, grunt, smile contently as she goes to stoke the fire or turn the steam on? Or is there only a pot belied stove to warm her up? If she escaped a financially comfortable but abusive marriage and now lives alone, then that won’t bother her much. If her husband up and left and took everything, that will bother her a lot. If it happened last month it will be painful. If it happened ten years ago, why is she still alone? Does she hate this place or love it? Is it a sanctuary or does it remind her of something she had but lost or missed but gained? All of this has an immediate effect on her body. We don’t notice it in life, but when we walk through a door or pick up a phone, our whole countenance changes. Our faces, our voices, our centre of gravity – all shift. This also depends on where we’ve been.
Let’s make a choice – she’s been working at a hospital, she’s a doctor, the place is warm, there’s a husband and kids.
How does she transform from work to home? Is she a happy mother? Is she smiling excitedly as she pushes the door open because there are two little darlings who are going to come running toward her as soon as she’s in, or are there two ungrateful teenagers upstairs playing videogames who won’t notice her until dinner time? She’s been telling people they have cancer, they’re dying, or that their relative is going to die. Maybe she treated a child today… she might want to grab her own kids up in her arms and hold them forever because she told a mother just like her that her baby didn’t make it today.
If home sucks but work was exciting, how does that show itself? Is this woman openly contemptful of home or does she hide it and maybe smile too much? Is there a moment between closing the door and hanging up her outside garments where she needs to take a breath before it all hits her? Or does she transition smoothly, straight out of one role, into the other? Does she leave her gloves on to greet the children or does she want to feel their hair with her bare hands because she missed them all day? Is it a quick scramble to get the gloves and coat off because the kids besiege her? Or can she take her time? Can she slump? Is the antechamber or vestibule the one place between work and family where she can take a second to relax? How does she do it? Lean against the wall? Dust the snow off her coat (inside)?
Don’t forget the little details along the way – does she hang up the coat or throw it over a sofa? Hang up the gloves on hooks? What does that say about her? What sort of person hangs up their door key? All choices – all part of character and place. Is there a place to hang things or does she just have to carry them over her arm to the nearest table or couch? How far away is that? How does she compensate, if it’s far to walk and the kids will get her before she reaches it? Does she have a stand or something nearer to dispense of the extras quickly?
This is just two banal actions – walking home and stepping through the door – and yet how many opportunities to introduce place and character have we come across? Place is everything.
There are places loud people have to be quiet, where angry people go to relax, where tough people feel intimidated and where chaste people feel sexual. Nobody has nowhere they can let their guard down.
Remember George Orwell’s 1984? That place in the woods where Winston goes to hide from all the surveillance… He found that place. When he’s there, it’s a different world for him and his body changes in a way it doesn’t anywhere else. Desperation creates necessity – if home is unbearable, people find a place. Some children hide in their closet. Places change us.
Marlon Brando used to say everyone is an actor. Everyone gets up and starts preparing a character – you go through a ritual to prepare for going out, for going to work or for having in-laws over. That’s getting into character. The only difference is an actor is aware of the process they are undergoing.
A writer has to be as well.
And behind all this preparation is place. It’s not the boss that we prepare for when we’re going to a job interview, it’s the place the interview is being conducted in. An office? A workshop? The break room of a production line factory? Maybe you’d wear a three-piece suit if you were meeting with an investment banker, but would you still if they wanted to meet in the park to feed the ducks while you talk? You’d be uncomfortable. Or, maybe not – that’s a choice too, but place plays its part. We can visualise these things and prepare for them. It gives us confidence and gives us the right character to hold ourselves well during the interview.
Places have smells, they have rules, they have atmospheres and other occupants that have a nigh unseen but fundamental impact on character.
Let’s say the woman is living alone because her husband left her. Is there a lamp that he gave her as a gift? Is there a table they had sex on? What anchors hold these memories and how drawn to them is she? Did she throw everything he touched out and now has nothing? Or is she replacing things slowly? Or quickly? Places are filled with objects and these objects – especially in the home – have memories and meanings attached to them that we revisit when we interact with them.
By answering these questions, you give yourself (and the reader) an indication of how long it’s been and how determined or hurt or angry or heartbroken she is without ever once having to tell us about it.
We are told constantly when we’re learning to write – “show don’t tell.” But what does that mean? It means to invest in place. You’ve invested in character, you’ve built this person and lived their life. Now give them a stage. And like Elia Kazan said, a character moves through the scenery, not in front of it. By navigating place with your character you are automatically showing us rather than telling us a huge amount of information about them.
Go back and answer every question I asked about the woman quickly and without thinking about it. By the end, you know her because of how she interacts with her place and you know her place because of how it influences her. All without ever “telling” a thing.
And this is only real-world! When it comes to fantasy, place plays an even more pivotal role. Remember when Luke Skywalker first looked at the Millennium Falcon in Star Wars? “What a piece of junk.” A spaceship! Here we are seeing something unheard of to us and this kid is calling it junk. That tells us so much already – this is not the future, this is an old, lived-in world that is futuristic. Nobody is in awe and wonder like Star Trek, where the future is still new to the humans.
The place you set your scene in is a character in itself and it tells us a huge amount without announcing itself, so to speak. It’s a tool to create a world and welcome your readers in.