How to write a successful novel—Choosing time and place

Ever started out with an idea of telling a story that spans several years, perhaps even decades? Or a story that is set all over the world? As brilliant as you think your idea is, books without time and/or place boundaries are problematic. They either confuse readers due to their many time and scenery jumps or bore readers with mundane travel experiences and day-to-day activities.

While there are exceptions to every rule, most successful novels operate in one place and have a tight time frame.

To the new writer this might appear as a creative restriction, yet that is not the case. Paradoxically, boundaries can help creativity flourish as they allow the writer to focus on one major concept instead of getting lost in time and space.

I will illustrate my point by first discussing time. Whether you’re writing a family drama or a novel concerning an immortal supernatural it might be tempting to have it play out over decades to show the full sphere of events. In theory this is a good idea. In reality however, allowing a story to play out over decades often leads to a lagging middle saturated with banal events and/or several confusing time jumps.

Thus, most successful novels span a few days to a few months. That doesn’t mean that they neglect prior events. Quite the contrary, the past often shapes the behavior and reactions of the characters and drives a significant chunk of the plot. Important bits of the past are incorporated through internal monologue, dialogue and vivid yet brief flashbacks.

For example in Downtown Ghosts series by Stacia Kane the main protagonist Chess is dealing with her addiction, navigating between two rival gangs and trying to have a functioning romantic relationship. Chess’s actions and reactions, thoughts and feelings are largely influenced by her brutal childhood, which she spent bouncing from one foster family to the next, who often treated her with cruelty. Instead of starting with Chess’s childhood or her training as a church witch, Stacia Kane begins book 1 ‘Unholy Ghosts’ with Chess’s drug dealer blackmailing her into doing a job for him. The job leads to Chess meeting Terrible, the first man she connects with emotionally and who makes her question her behavior in relationships and her drug use.

When we examine space it becomes clear that most novels take largely place in one location. Even in the classical fantasy tale the ‘hero’s quest’ is restricted. The protagonist progresses in a natural way through space, without jumping from one place to another.

The reason for having a ‘main base’ in your novel and not beginning each chapter in a new location is to avoid reader confusion and endless, boring travel passages. Scenes of travel are not necessarily bad, but they need to be infused with drama. Whether it’s time pressure, an escalating fight or two passengers wanting to kill one another.

You might think one location constricts your novel to an overall theme, but if you dig deeper, I’m sure you’ll find this is not the case. For example, a suburb is just as much the perfect setting for thrillers and mysteries as it is for romance and paranormal stories.

Changing the time of the day and/or the season can immediately transform your setting. For example, mountains on a warm spring day are an inviting and safe place, a perfect way to start a romance. But what if someone gets stuck on a mountain in the middle of a snowstorm with a stranger that might be a potential killer? Romance would shift to Suspense as is the case in ‘Chill Factor’ by Sandra Brown. The story largely takes place in a village at the base of a mountain and in a mountain cabin. Sandra Brown manages to convey in this scenery every emotion, including fear, hope, tension and love.

To summarize, I would encourage writers to view time and space boundaries as a positive constraint. They don’t hinder creativity. Instead they make your story stronger by forcing you as the writer to be more creative within the boundaries and dig deeper.

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