Using Location in Your Writing
If you have ever read a book that spent three pages describing what a room looks like – or flipped back a page or two to figure out where the heck your character is standing at the beginning of this chapter – you know that location can be hard to get right. There are pitfalls that most writers fall into, such as having a character who was standing in the doorway suddenly looking out of a window with no indication to the reader that they moved. There are also authors who fall so in love with the “flowy description” that they’ve slowed down the pace the reader has grown used to – and brought the entire storyline to a halt, leaving the reader to wonder what this has to do with anything. So how do you know what to pen and what to nix? And how much time should you spend sketching up locations when you could be using that hour to tell the story?
Location Can Improve Your Imagination.
You can solve this problem by approaching your story like it’s a film set or a stage – and you’re in charge of making sure you locate the proper set, props, and public places to convey the storyline. This is where you get to wear two caps and turn on the full power of your imagination. First, you’re going to retain the imagination of a writer – or a location scout. Pick a scene from your book, close your eyes, and imagine that you are sitting somewhere in that place. What do you see? What details catch your notice? Set a timer for 10-15 minutes and write out as many details as you can think of about the place you are imagining. Try to make it as vivid as possible. If you see things that look somewhat like a cartoon, take a moment to imagine them as realistically as you would see them. Have fun with this. You’re building your imagination. Your ability to imagine will transform all areas of your life. Now. Read over what you wrote. Take 4 highlighters and color in sentences that use the different senses: Sight, smell, taste, touch, and sound. Which have you highlighted the least? Choose that one and write for another 10-15 minutes, focusing on the one or two senses that are your weakest.
Location Can Show Personality
Now that you have a vivid image of the place your character will be, it’s time to put on your director hat. If you had to create a set for a theater or film set, which objects would you choose as props that would evoke a sense of your character’s personality? If you’re working on a specific scene, consider your character’s current mood and whether or not that would affect the positions and placements of the objects. If he’s sick, they may be scattered. If he’s poor, they’ll be worn. If he’s resisting adult life, there may be some nostalgic toys on a shelf. Choose a few objects that will best convey what your character is feeling and thinking, then work those into your description for your scene. Remember that a character’s physical movements and interactions with the object can be a way of “Showing” and not “Telling” information that the reader should know. If you lost your ability to “narrate” the story – such as when it’s being told by an actor – how can you convey the inner thoughts and conflicts of the character by using external surroundings and objects?
Location Can Define Obstacles
Your character has a goal and your story tells how they are gaining or losing it. How is your location affecting that objective? There are hundreds of objects in every setting and six senses in which to explore them. So focus on the objects that most affect the character. Can the object they’re handling inflict physical pain? They’ll need to be careful. Can it invoke emotion? They’ll need to notice and feel it. Is the time of day affecting their interactions with their surroundings? A hot and muggy night will create different movement than a cold, crisp afternoon, especially if they are on a rescue mission, homeless, or waiting for a long-winded partner to leave the party and listening to the creatures in the yard. Are they encumbered by things they are carrying, separated by barriers from the person or place they need to reach or held back by conditions they are physically unable to transverse? Pay close attention. You don’t want a character to jump out of a second story window when the room is on the first floor in a separate chapter. Forget the color of the wallpaper unless it’s part of the personality of your setting and treats your description like the atmosphere actually has a personality that will play into the storyline.
Location Can Convey Personality.
Let’s think landscape first. The physical surroundings of your character will evoke different feelings within them. A childhood home with happy memories will draw their eye to places that correlate with their nostalgia: the treehouse they built with their dad splotched with patches of sun and shade, the smell of sun-baked grass and the cool earth where they camped on summer nights, the sound of the screen door slamming. The same house would evoke a very different mood if it was a setting for trauma: the boards on the treehouse are rotted with bent nails, the smell of alcohol that still permeates the house, the blare of the TV prevents anyone from hearing their knocks. Even places can be endowed with a personality. Woods can be a cool, calming retreat or a sinister, concealing accomplice. Rooms can be faded and tired, evoking the same feeling in a character or begging an ambitious character to spruce it up with life. Keep your eyes out for any opportunity to treat a location like a character and show its importance to the story and its changes by the end of the tale.
Location Can Tap Into the Writer’s Emotions
Location can give you as the writer the perfect opportunity to experience feelings of your character in the same vivid senses that you feel in your real life. To understand how this works, you’ll need to know a bit about the acting world.
In the acting world, actors will often “endow” a set with a real place from their lives. When you walk onto a set, it feels new to an actor and they may be restricted in natural movement by the placement of camera or audience. But the character they are playing has a history with the place and built-in emotions and reactions that arise from this prior relationship. An easy way to make your brain feel familiar with a new area is to imagine places that are familiar – places that tie into the emotion the actor is seeking to evoke in that scene. For instance, if an actor is portraying a daughter who is returning to the bedroom of her teen years where she fought constantly with a step-father, she may have a set with a bed, a dresser, and a writing desk. But what if the actress has a great relationship with her father and shared a room with two sisters? Should she imagine the bed on set is the bed from her childhood to give her mind a familiarity that it currently doesn’t feel? Well – no.
But is there another place in her real life where she feels what the character feels? This would be a place with an uneven power dynamic, where she is not free to leave, and where the stakes are high because she could lose something important? What about her bosses office or a hospital room where her mother passed away? Would those envoke the emotions? Yes.
Can she spend a bit of time imagining that the objects in that room correlate with the real-live rooms in her life? If she’s using the bosses office could she imagine for a moment that the bed is his desk? Will that create the emotion of fear and frustration? Yes.
She takes a few moments, walking around the room and imagining the objects from her real life onto objects on the set until they are infused with the same emotions her character is feeling. Then she lets the idea go. She’s back on set, but she’s connected emotionally with it, creating history and feelings that will swell up when she walks in as the character.
As a writer, you can take a page from their diary – er, script – and use this in your book. The easiest way is to use the places you are already familiar with to determine the layout of your fictional locations. This helps you keep your mental images consist when you refer to where the character should be traveling. If you use real places and real furniture, you can have an instant and realistic referral. Of course, you don’t have to. If you have a clearly defined location in your story, explore it mentally until it feels as real as your world and you will know your way around. But if you need an extra touch of emotion in a given scene, try imagining objects from your life where you had a similar goal and emotional experience as the character, even if you imagine those pieces only for a moment and let them fade away and be replaced by the image of the story’s setting. You can imagine it in detail and keep parts in your scene – or let the entire image go. After all, what you’re after is the emotion you’re seeking to create and then infuse into the room, not the image itself.
This technique may become a favorite tool, or you may hate it. Just remember that it is only a tool – if it doesn’t work for you, find another one. If it makes a difference, add it into your toolbox and pull it out whenever you need an extra boost of emotion and inspiration. Writing is a personal experience and every writer will find things that do and do not work for them.
Location is a tool and can be a fun one. Remember you don’t have to include every detail in your story. Focus on the ones that reflect the current emotion, tell something about the characters, and drive the story forward. This will help you set up your story so your reader can vividly imagine the setting while driving your plot once step deeper and another step forward to keep your story compelling and clear.