The Place of Places in Stories

Places in stories can advance plot and show something about a character. Food and eating can (see Delectable Dishes) do the same.  In Hello, Greg invites Elise to his house presumably to see him in his “true element.”   When she asks why his house, he replies:    “Why not?  Don’t we all create our surroundings to suit who we are? 

the hillElise, though initially hesitant, eventually agrees and Greg drives her to a rich neighborhood where many houses are “Mediterranean-style mansion wannabes of stucco and red tile roofs.”  But she gets her first pleasant surprise:

The house was different from those around it, its size modest, in comparison, its lines uncomplicated.  She stuck her head out the car window and looked closer.  Not stucco, but wood panels and something grey and smooth.  Metal, she guessed.

“I hope you don’t mind that I’m taking you into the house through the garage.  We’ll have to go through the kitchen,” he said, as they got out of the car.

“Like at my parents’ house.”

But the inside was not like her parents’ house, the hub of which was a large sunny country kitchen in yellow, with green, red, and blue accents, and which spilled into a sitting area, dominated by a much-used butcher block that also served as a breakfast table.  Her parents’ house was all about nurturing and casual comfort.

kitchenIn Greg’s house, the spare exterior lines continued inside.  Its kitchen—small, compared to her mother’s—was equipped with sleek stainless steel appliances and glass cabinets with steel framing.  As they passed through the kitchen, Elise rubbed the surface of a countertop with her fingers.

“This is concrete.”

“Yes, and so is the floor except it’s been stained black.”

“Really?  Looked like slate to me.”  Her gaze swept across the kitchen.  “Glass, steel, and concrete.  Hard and solid.”

The kitchen opened into one enormous room divided into two areas by a wide space between them.  A long heavy wooden dining table for twelve defined one area, supported by a mix of wooden dining chairs and a massive wooden cupboard that stood against a wall.  All had the patina of at least a century of use.

Elise walked to the opposite side of the room and sat on a long light taupe-colored boxy sofa.  She had expected it to be firm because its curves were limited to a gentle hump but its extra thick seat and back cushions softly cradled her body.  She would be comfortable sleeping on it.

She leaned back, crossed her legs, and scanned the room from where she sat.  Several ample armchairs faced the sofa and they all surrounded one low massive coffee-colored coffee table.  The beige-toned seating appeared to float a little above the dark floor.  Except for two wall-size abstract paintings, walls were bare.

Everything seemed, to Elise, fashionable but understated; tasteful and clean.  A little too clean.

Greg sat on a chair across from her.

“Where’s the main entry to your house?”

“On the other side of that wall just behind you.”

She turned her head to look.  The inside wall behind the sofa was made of large, smooth white panels that stopped a couple of feet below the high ceiling.

“Slick.  Very modern,” she said, but frowning, she thought: this had to be merely the façade.

Elise is right, of course, that the living area is Greg’s “public face” and this is evident when  he takes her up to his study:

He led her up a wide staircase, through a hallway and into a study that seemed to her had more room than the apartment she shared with her friend, Leah.  Classical music greeted them as Greg opened the door.  Elise recognized it as the slow movement from a Brahms piano sonata which she had heard her mother play many times.  She wondered whether he turned the music on by remote or it was on all the time.

The study had book cases—more stainless steel and wood—along two parallel walls, a big desk and office chair in front of another, and a well-worn cozy sofa and a coffee table in the middle.  Surfaces in the room were cluttered with books, folders, magazines, and folded newspapers.  At one corner, a guitar leaned on the wall, next to its case.  Elise knew, without asking, that this was where Greg spent most of his time.

Settings or places in stories situate plot lines and make then believable or, in the case of fantasy fiction, plausible. But they can do more than that. They can help define a character, for one. In Hello, a scene about a place also helps move the story forward. The guitar and classical music clue Elise in on a side of Greg she had not expected and which, in fact, make her like him more. 


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3 Responses

    • evy journey

      Thank you. I’m touched and awed by your interest. In fiction-writing, I’m often struck by how details—even little ones—can help characterization and plot. Sometimes, it’s what readers remember about a character. The devil certainly is in the details.

  1. rich

    Yes. The things in our life ground us, anchor us, and yet drag us down while also allowing more freedom to express our selves. Thus in your novel the dialectic of materiality and interiority.

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