Today in the Dojo: How do you establish a story’s time and place?
Among the many pitfalls just waiting to impale the unwary writer is time and place. You’d think it would be so easy, right? How hard could it be to let people know the when and where of things? That’s nothing compared to the complexities of character, theme, plot, rising action, hooks, style…. Setting time and place is a walk in the woods after that!
That high-pitched shriek followed by the meaty thunk is yet another writer falling into the pit. A walk in the woods, indeed.
Not only is it harder to clue the reader in subtly to time and place than one might believe, it’s one of those chores that seem unimportant. As long as I let them know by, oh, say, page Three, we should be okay, right? you say to yourself, and Yourself agrees: Of course! Joe won’t be thinking about it being 1994 and living in Nowhere, Arizona when he’s in the house fighting with his wife. Of course it’s okay to only show that after he’s stormed out of the house.
Of course not. And I’ll show you why.
Where and When the Hell are We? A Cautionary Tale:
George Owen strode down the middle of the dusty street, six shooters riding uncomfortably on his hips and the sun sharp in his eyes. He scrubbed his sweaty hands on his woolen trousers. “Butch” Monroe, twenty paces down the street, looked cruel and mean in silhouette. They should have waited for high noon: bad enough that Butch was faster, but now the sun added to the other gunfighter’s advantage.George swallowed hard, realizing that he was badly outmatched. And those spectators lining the boardwalk between the saloon and the dry goods store seemed eager to see one of them die…
Now, you’ve already formed a judgment about the time and place of the story. Old West, right? All the clues are there: woolen trousers, dusty street, six shooters, a gunfight, the saloon and dry goods store… That’s what your reader is going to think. That’s what you would have thought if you didn’t know I was about to pull a fast one on you. You would have been thinking, “Oh, no, another crappy Western…”
So what’s going to happen in the reader’s mind when they get past the gun battle, George hits the ground dramatically and then he and Butch both jump up to take their bows? Sure, we’ve revealed the time and place only about four or five paragraphs in – but by then it’s too late. The reader has already formed a judgment. They’re going to be jarred. They’re going to say, “Hey – I was expecting a crappy Western – what’s this story about two guys working for a Wild West Theme Park?”
It’s going to be even worse in the editor’s office, because if you’ve submitted this story to a publication that’s asked for stories set in modern times dealing with contemporary issues, you’re sunk. They’re not going to read past the first three paragraphs before stuffing your story into the return envelope and going on to the next.
“But you said to start in media res!” the writer wails. “This is in the middle of things! It’s right in the middle of the pivotal gunfight that George was scripted to win but Butch just had to go and win to prove how cool he is and and and… And there’s no room to say it’s a theme park! George isn’t thinking about that, he’s thinking that Butch is going to kick his ass again! He’s in character as one of the show people!” Or any number of other arguments as to why you can’t possibly mention the time and place just yet, ending with the very lame, “Well, look at the way he’s thinking! He’s obviously modern!”
Yeah. None of those arguments are working. And if the writer tells me with a smirk that they intended to pull a fast one on the reader, I shall give them a right sharp clout about the earhole. Don’t pull cheap tricks. If you’re planning a deception, it had better be for a far better reason than playing the clever bugger. And if the trick isn’t absolutely critical to the story, don’t pull it at all.
No, you can clue the reader in without destroying your magnum opus or being blatantly obvious about it. You don’t have to dump a clumsy reference to Billy Bob’s Wild West Theme Town into the first paragraph. You can tell the reader where and when they are by employing a whole range of tricks, which I shall now reveal.
The Subtle Art of Revealing Time and Place
So you want to set time and place right away, but don’t know how? I’ll tell you a secret: it’s easy.
No, really. It is. It’s just that we’re usually so close to the story, so committed to the way things are, that we don’t see it. There’s all kinds of opportunity already written into your beginning if you just know where to look.
The first secret is this: your reader does not need to know the story’s time and place so precisely that they can pinpoint it on a map and timeline. They just need a good, general idea to start with.
The second secret is that, like so much else in writing, you can start small and build. Time and place is often revealed as a totality of the evidence. Just like in that sample: you didn’t need anyone to say that “It was a sunny May 14th, 1872 in Dodge City, Kansas when George stepped out into the dusty street” to get a feel that this was a frontier city in the late 1800s (erroneous as that was). You made that judgment from far more subtle cues.
So what are those clues? Here’s a handy list:
References to Time Period
…and so much more!
The trick is to choose details that are specific to an era that readers will likely recognize. Let’s turn to Joe and his arguing wife for a moment. Do you have his wife throwing the phone at him? Great! Is it corded? Cordless? Cell phone? He’s stepped in front of his new TV to save it – is it a flat screen? Or one of those huge contraptions in a cabinet that were current back in the sixties and seventies? He snatches up his hat on the way out – well, this is Arizona, it’s either going to be a baseball cap or a cowboy hat, isn’t it? Not likely to be a fedora in Nowhere, AZ. What were they shouting – “Cool it, man!” is a different era from “Calm down already!” And so forth…
You’ll put in a bit of a description of the living room, which will be simple and country, not a palatial mansion – not in Nowhere, AZ. When Joe storms outside, he’ll see desert. He’ll see at most a sad huddle of houses in the middle of nowhere. He’ll get in his truck – and rather than saying it’s a Ford, you can tell us it’s an F150. Every little bit helps, as long as it’s not too intrusive. If you don’t want to talk about make and model, that’s fine – but you can mention whether it’s an 8-track, a cassette, CD or iPod he plays on the stereo. Comes to that, which band is it? Beatles could be from any era now, but if he throws in Coldplay, you’ve just dated the story. And you better not have them on an 8-track….
See how easy that is? By the time you get him down to the diner bitching to his buddies about being stuck in literally Nowhere with a harpy, the reader will already know that we’re in the American Southwest, and roughly what time it is.
Now that you’ve got the hang of it, we can return to George and Butch.
Gunfight at Billy Bob’s – The Reprise
George Owen strode down the middle of the dusty street, replica six shooters riding uncomfortably on his hips and the sun sharp in his eyes. He scrubbed his sweaty hands on his costume’s woolen trousers. “Butch” Monroe, twenty paces down the street, looked cruel and mean in silhouette. They should have scheduled this skit for high noon: bad enough that Butch was faster, but now the sun added to the other gunfighter’s advantage.George swallowed hard, realizing that he was badly outmatched. And those tourists lining the boardwalk between the saloon and the dry goods store seemed eager to see one of them die…
There’s enough in there now to clue the reader in: the guns are replicas. George is wearing a costume, and this is a skit. There are tourists watching. It’s enough to be going on with. Your reader will now be expecting a story set in modern times with actors instead of gunslingers. This is all to the good, and it really didn’t take much effort. From here, we can build on the rivalry of these two actors, continuing to set time and place with more details. If it’s the present, you could throw in a cell phone ringing and even mention the ringtone. There’s a wealth of possibility already there.
Time and Place as a Part of Other Jobs
It’s best not to think of setting time and place as a separate job. It’s part of the whole shebang. While you’re setting time and place, you can use those details to do other work for you:
…And So Much More!
Time and place defines who we are, the limitations and opportunities, what they mean for the characters, what can happen and how events will unfold. Bertha wearing hoop skirts and cooking over a cast iron stove is not only from a different era than Kylie wearing jeans and popping a Hot Pocket into the microwave. She’s also got a whole different set of social expectations, ideas, outlooks, specific problems, duties and abilities. She’s going to give the story a different feel. She’s going to drive the plot in ways Kylie couldn’t, and the things that happen to her will not be the same at all, even if on the surface they seem so. Her whole world is different. So will be Tatiana making borscht, or Spotted Dove roasting buffalo meat, or…
You get the picture.
Now go put your story’s time and place to work for you.