Any story needs a sense of place. This is what keeps a narrative from happening inside of a void. A sense of place is different from setting. Setting is merely a point on the globe. A backdrop. A sense of place has sights, sounds, smell, dirt that feels a certain way when crumbled in your hand, a specific color to the sunset.
Creating a sense of place is different in all three forms of writing that I do. In film, you’re leaving hints. In a script, you can’t overdo it on the description…a screenplay needs to be spare and have enough room for the director and producers to fill in the details for how they want this film to feel and look. You need to just hint at the sense of place. And you need to do it in one and two word bursts throughout the script. It’s hard to do. I’ve been working with a patient director who has helped me hack away everything extraneous from the screenplay. But through our conversations, I can tell that he is seeing much more than what I’ve put on the page…he’s filling out the vision for the film. That’s his job, not entirely mine, and as a screenwriter I need to remember that fact.
In fiction, the task of creating a sense of place falls entirely to the writer. There won’t be a production designer, a sound designer and a director of photography to help you color in the details. You need to taste the air that your characters breathe. You need to know the names of the flowers and hear the calls of the local birds. You need to know what it smells like after it rains or understand the way a dust storm leaves a dry rattle in the back of your throat (even if you fabricate these details via imagination). The way I try to create a sense of place in prose is through details. Sometimes I’m lucky enough to know the setting well enough and the details are conveniently on hand. I always order a field guide to the local flora and fauna for every place that I write about in ficiton. I’ll read the geological history. You need to know how the crust of the Earth was formed beneath the place that carries your story. All of this is challenging for opposite reasons from screenwriting. In both mediums, it’s difficult.
Now that I’m working on comics, I’m finding a new way to create a sense of place. While fiction is created by an individual and film by a team collaboration, comics seem to be a partnership. And the artist creates the tone and emotion from the sense of place that happens in a story, but it has to also resonate with the narrative. And it keys on the panel descriptions you give to the artist…these are words that will never be read by the audience…they will be interpreted by the artist and presented via his visual style. It’s tricky, and I’m not exactly sure how the process works yet, though I’m pleased with the results we have so far.
A sense of place is a foundation for any narrative. I don’t know how other writers develop their skills for creating a place for a story. For me, I think I cultivate this sensitivity through spending as much time in the natural world as I can. Like Thoreau, you’d do well to sit on an old stump in the woods for four hours and feel how the forest changes around you. Unfortunately, I haven’t been doing this nearly as much as I should lately. Life has a tendency to get in the way. But the sun is finally out in Oregon, and I know I’ll soon be packing a tarp into the woods to spend a night or two curled up next to a rotting log or on the edge of an alpine lake.