Where are you? The importance of setting in first person POV stories
Don’t let your readers get lost!
A couple of weeks ago I mentioned that many writers sort of assume that the reader knows who is telling the story, especially if it’s telling a true story. If you haven’t read that post, you might want to read it first.
As I said then, assuming your readers know who’s telling the story is fine if your only readers are your friends and family. However, if you have readers who aren’t on a first-name basis with you, you have to work a little harder. As in, give them a few clues as to who you are.
And where you are.
In other words, you need to identify the story’s setting.
I’d say most (not all) writers get that you need to give the reader some idea where the story is set. Especially if you’re writing fantasy or historical stories, where setting can be as important as a main character. Or if you’re using a setting that interests you or isn’t your normal location.
But when the story is about a normal day in your life, or a regular character who lives in your town or city, it might not even occur to you that the reader may not have a clue what the place looks like, feels like, smells like, sounds like, tastes like…
Sure, you can say Toronto, or Tokyo, or Paris and the reader will have an idea where you are. Head knowledge. But anyone who lives in a city can tell you there’s a whole spectrum of different settings in any city, each with its own unique character.
And you could make it “small town anywhere,” if you like, but even small towns have dozens of possibilities for settings. And depending on the latitude and longitude, the topography, climate, people, and culture will be quite different from other small towns.
Now, I’m not advocating that you insert a paragraph saying, “I lived in a little white bungalow on Third Street, next door to the school, in the town of Upper Creek, just eight miles from Copper Creek, in the state of Tennessee. It was October, and it was almost cold enough that you might consider putting a comforter at the foot of the bed at night just in case. The smell in the air was of rotting leaves…” and so forth.
I just want a few subtle clues, woven into the plot.
e.g. “I turned the corner and walked along Main Street, passing the general store with its broken sign that read “General St”, skirting what was left of the broken sidewalk bordering the only garage in town, my eyes fixed on the lawyer’s office next door. My heart wanted to run in the opposite direction, but my mind forced my legs to keep moving down the dusty street even though what I had to say would rip our small town apart.”
What should you do?
Read your own work as if you were a person from a country in Europe who has never been to North America. Or vice versa.
Reread the openings of stories or books you like and see what clues they give you. You might even go to the library and pick up a bunch of books and just read the opening pages to study what they do and how it works for you.