Of the essentials of a story, characters, theme, style and setting, the latter is perhaps the most difficult for new or dilettante writers to manage. Take for example this first paragraph excerpt from the short story Family Gathering by Paul Beckman from Fictive Dream (a excellent site).
The laughers come first. They always arrive early and announce their early arrival to the hostess who isn’t ready yet for company. They think the hostess will laugh along with them but she won’t. She hasn’t finished cooking, dressing, or putting on makeup. She tells the laughers this and they respond with guffaws. Guffaws are infuriating to the hostess. Meanwhile the host has his first drink of many. The laughers are his wife’s family, not his, and drinking is how he tolerates them.
Though the prose is good, never once does one get a sense of place — one understands that ‘the laughers’ and ‘the hostess’ abide in a house, but we have no idea what the structure is like in anywise. We are not told whether the house is big, small, old new, black, white, brown or purple, classical, neoclassical, modern or experimental; nor do we know what rooms are where nor how they are laid out. All that we know is that some people arrived at a house. The rest of the text is similarly vague as pertains to spatiality. It should be noted that carto-spatial descriptions within a text are not intrinsically necessary; for example, in a poem, wherein the chief aim is to stir some specific passion or passions, one need not delve into particularities of geography; the same goes for something like a hallucinatory scene or dream sequence wherein reality is “off.” However, in a story, particularly in a longform story with a specific setting, it is absolutely pertinent to establish some kind of definitive geographic layout otherwise all movements will be rendered indecipherable.
Compare the previous paragraph to the flash composition The Crossing by Philip Scholz:
“Buenas tardes,” the guard said.
“Hello,” he replied, not ready to try his Spanish. Which greeting was the guard using?
“What is your business?” the guard asked.
“Vacation.” He had no intention to return.
“Your passport, please,” the guard said, holding out his hand.
He handed over the fake one, hoping his shaking hand wasn’t noticed. This was the test. He had to stay calm.
The guard reviewed the passport without a word. Finally, he flipped it closed.
“Welcome to Mexico.”
Exhaling, he took back the passport and kept driving, now a country away from the wife whose throat he’d slit.
Whilst this piece is far shorter, is establishes geography far more quickly and decisively and, most importantly, without going out of its way to do so, by which I mean, at no point in the text does the narrative flow stop for geographic descriptors, rather, they are woven into the narrative in such a way as to maintain it and drive it forward to its terminus. In the latter piece, the author accomplishes placeness through “passport” and “guard,” as well as “Welcome to Mexico” all without ever saying “airport” — which is a testament to the fact that the general cartospatial shape of things is all that is fundamentally needed (in conjunction with some slight induction and deduction from the reader) to establish the mappa mundi — the map of the world.
3 thoughts on “Forging The Mappa Mundi | Part 1”
Some excellent insights in both parts I and 2 of Forging The Mappa Mundi. Thank you, Laura Black.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Glad you found it useful. I was compelled to write it simply from seeing how most writing guides completely leave out building a sense of space in a given work.