Talking with writers last week, I pointed out that readers (and ultimately the audience) are always on the lookout for details that answer the question, “Where is this going?”
Often, they literally want to know, “Where is the character headed?”
So any time you refer to a new place — be it “the supermarket,” “school,” or “Boston” — you create a natural expectation that we will visit that place at some point in the story.
Often you mean to set it up: it’s The Emerald City. It’s Wally World. It’s the place where the resolution will happen.
But it’s altogether possible to set up places that you have no intention of visiting. Your hero might say something about how he hears good things about Marfa, Texas. It’s not part of his journey, and not part of this story. He’s just saying it because he’s the kind of character who would say something about Marfa.
But once you’ve put it on the page, it’s out there as a goal. You’ve accidentally punched a location into Chekhov’s GPS.
I often see this when characters talk vividly about something in their past. The more details you give about a place, the more important we think it is. That raises our expectation higher and higher that we’ll see it in the story.
A final thing to keep in mind about places: the audience often use them as structural signposts. “Well, he’s trying to get to Boston, and he finally did, so the story must be just about over.” That can often help you — we’ve reached the rendez-vous spot — but it can be trouble if you’re hitting that spot an hour into a two-hour story.
Similarly, the audience keeps track of the order of locations. If a character says, “We’ll get pizza at Romo’s and then go to grandma’s house,” we expect to see Romo’s pizza place, or at least some evidence that pizza happened. In a cut, it’s often easy to lose the pizza scene. But if you do, try to get rid of any mention of the pizza so there’s no dangling expectation for a location we’ll never visit.