Any event happens sometime and somewhere.
We have discussed time a great deal in this blog. Of course, the spatial dimension may be just as relevant.
The Story World
We may distinguish between the overall story world location and specific locations. By story world we refer to the overall setting and logical framework of the story. This is always unique to the story, although that becomes most obvious in stories set either in a fantasy world (like The Lord Of The Rings) or in stories that have a setting tightly bound to a geographical feature, such as Heart of Darkness, Apocalypse Now, or Deliverance. In each of these latter examples, a river – and the journey up or down it – provides the story world. Yet story world is more than just physical location. It describes an entire environment, including the ethical dimensions. Consider Wall Street or The Big Short, stories that describe a “world” where making money comes first.
The setting is usually established in the first part of the story, and the rest of the story should be true to what has been set up at the beginning.
Within the entirety of the “world” come the specific locations in which each scene is set, which is all the places where the characters do something – that is perform actions that become part of the narrative. Often enough the choice of location ensues logically from the action of the story. Yet more often than not, an author makes a choice where to set which plot event. The choice may be motivated by the symbolic nature of specific locations.
In some genres audiences expect or even demand verisimilitude or realism. For thriller audiences, for example, it can often add to the enjoyment when they know that a certain setting (a bar, a square) is really there. That specific details are described as one would find them in the real world lends the fictional story world authenticity. This effect holds true even for historical fiction.
When it comes to choosing locations, authors of novels probably enjoy the most freedom. Elmore Leonard, for instance, creates great effects of dramatic irony by letting the reader keep track of the geographical movement of his characters – the audience might know that one character is bound to meet another if both of them are heading to the same place, even if the characters don’t realise the likelihood.
In film and TV screenplays, the norm is to begin each scene description with three items of information: interior or exterior, time of day, specific location. This has organizational benefits for various members of the film crew: interior might mean studio, whereas exterior might imply location shooting; time of day conveys information about lighting conditions; the amount of specific locations in which a film is set determines how many sets or locations will be needed, and is therefore directly related to production costs.
In radio plays, particular sound effects might denote particular locations. And in theatre, location is relevant too. In this ancient story medium, it is possible to create locations by minimal means, with just some basic props. Theoretically film could do this too (consider Dogville), but on the whole, the language of film has settled on more realistic conventions.
The Story Arena
There is another important aspect to the spatial dimension of a story. Many Agatha Christie stories exemplify the concept of the story arena, sometimes also referred to as the crucible. When the main characters are bound to remain within certain confines in order to carry out their conflict to the bitter end, that is the arena in which the story is set. In Agatha Christie’s crime stories, all the suspects are stuck in a house or on a train – and they can’t just leave.
Horror stories can use the same device to good effect. The effectiveness of Alien or The Thing is to a large extent achieved by placing the cast of characters in a closed environment from which there is no escape.
The important thing to remember is that the conflict between the characters effectively binds them together and holds them within the arena. Furthermore, the arena does not necessarily have to be a physical location. A marriage or some other form of dependency (family, or simply working in an office) provides the same dramaturgical effect.
Now read how Virtual Reality adds a new dimension to the spatial aspect of stories.