Every narrative brings into existence a world. In some cases, it brings more than one world into existence; in those cases, part of the challenge and thrill of following that narrative lies in finding out (or trying to work out) how those worlds relate to one another.

A narrative necessarily brings a world into existence because the events it narrates invariably take place in space as well as time. This space is never neutral or empty of meaning either, for the simple reason that a considerable degree of our knowledge about ourselves and the world, and the vast majority of our human experiences, are mediated by our composition as physical bodies that move through three-dimensional space. This is the basis, in short, of all our interactions with other people, other minds, and the rest of the universe. Some scientists have therefore argued that it is from our status as physical bodies moving through space that we derive some of our most fundamental concepts for understanding the world and making value judgements about some of the people and events that occur within it – such as up/down, near/far, inside and outside. We sometimes speak, for example, of people who are ‘above’ or ‘below’ us, ‘close to’ or ‘distant from’ us, ‘native’ or ‘foreign,’ ‘insiders’ or ‘outcasts,’ and so on. In other words, we humans do not only acquire many of our concepts and experiences from our physical environment, we also project many of our own concepts and experiences back upon that physical environment and upon everybody and everything else that lives within it. This is why (to extend a well-known saying) no single person – let alone two or more people – can ever look upon, swim in or represent in art the same river twice.

All this – and more – relates to the representation of space in narrative. Traditionally, this element of narrative has been referred to as its ‘setting.’ We prefer to use the label ‘storyworld’ instead, for a number of reasons. First of all, ‘setting’ can imply something merely ‘static,’ a relatively immobile and unimportant ‘backdrop’ against which the real action takes place. This is definitely not the way you should treat the representation of space in narrative. Rather, a narrative’s physical environment is often in motion (especially when, as indicated above, it reflects the mind-set of the character or characters who look upon and interact with it); it also often has agency, which is to say it often contributes in significant ways to the events that unfold in the course of the narrative.

At the very least, the representation of space in a narrative will always act as a kind of index to the events, characters and outlooks that populate that narrative. It can tell us, for instance, something about the narrative’s (actual or putative) genre: if the action takes place on a spaceship, for instance, we are likely to assume we have been transported to the world of science fiction. The same is true of isolated castles licked by lightening in Transylvanian landscapes, ships buffeted and battered on storm-tossed seas, the open spaces of the wild west, and the domestic living rooms of suburban interiors (amongst others), since these suggest the Gothic, adventure stories, Westerns and soap operas respectively.

Particular locations tend to be associated with particular characters, activities, social hierarchies and mindsets as well. As such, they have the capacity to provide an often subtle commentary on each of those other narrative elements – and one that may on occasion provide an alternative point of view on those elements than the one promoted by the narrator or any of the other focalizers. In short, the physical environment can add an extra set of voices to the telling of the story. They should therefore be listened to as closely as any other.

For a set of practical exercises designed to help you establish the contribution the narrative’s representation of space might be making to the narrative you are studying, click here.

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