Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for March 5th, 2013

Starbucks and the narrative third place

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Nina Dobrev and Ian Somerhalder in The Vampire Diaries

Some of you are probably reading this post at Starbucks. Maybe you didn’t really need a coffee, but wanted to relax and catch up on your email in a pleasant, convenient environment where you could rent a comfortable chair for the price of a beverage. What you wanted, in short, was a third place—a location that wasn’t your home or office, but where you could unwind for half an hour among a few other regulars. In The Great Good Place, Ray Oldenburg describes the third place as a free or inexpensive location, ideally serving food and drink, where people can meet, have conversations, or sit quietly on their own. Starbucks is well aware of the power of the third place—founder Howard Schultz mentions it repeatedly in his book—and has taken pains to turn itself into a destination where people like to spend time even if they don’t particularly need to be caffeinated. Coffeehouses, as it happens, have often played such a role: the insurance company Lloyd’s of London began as a coffeehouse where sailors, ship owners, and merchants could talk shop. And third places are an essential part of building communities and social relationships.

That’s true of fiction, too. Recently, my wife and I have been watching a lot of The Vampire Diaries, and we’re endlessly amused by the fact that all the main characters spend most of their free time at the Mystic Grill. (At least when they aren’t attending yet another picnic, clam bake, or sock hop at the mayor’s mansion.) At times, the fact that everyone in Mystic Falls seems to end up at the Grill, regardless of age, social status, or supernatural orientation, verges on the surreal—among other things, it seems to be an obligatory stop for any visiting vampire or werewolf passing through town. Yet nearly every television show has its own equivalent of the Grill, a local hangout where the characters can interact and run into one another outside their homes and workplaces. Friends had Central Perk; Beverly Hills 90210 had The Peach Pit; Seinfeld had its famous diner; and Cheers had, well, Cheers. From a budgetary perspective, it makes sense: a single standing set can serve as a backdrop for scenes that don’t require any particular location, and a restaurant or bar offers plenty of convenient business for the actors and director.

The Seinfeld diner

But it also serves a more subtle narrative purpose. The screenwriter Terry Rossio says somewhere on his excellent Wordplay blog—I can’t find the specific post—that it can be a good idea for a movie’s characters to return periodically to the same familiar spot, a narrative home base that grounds the story and allows it to develop a sense of place, rather than jumping from one new location to another. From a storytelling perspective, this saves a lot of time: instead of having to introduce a setting the viewer hasn’t seen before, you can sit the characters at their usual table and get down to the business at hand. Done properly, a third place becomes invisible. This is why it works best when the story focuses on the same handful of characters, who might naturally have a favorite place to meet, rather than the Vampire Diaries approach, in which so many different characters drift through the Grill at one point or another that it seems like the only restaurant in town. And at its best, the third place becomes a place we’d like to visit, perhaps out of the hope that we’ll see our favorite characters seated in the corner.

And at its heart, the usefulness of the third place expresses a crucial point about fiction. It’s important to vary the story’s setting, and a series of chapters set in the same office or police station are bound to start feeling a little repetitive. But if the scenes we stage there have interest and truth, the magic of the location starts to build: each scene in Hannibal Lecter’s cell, or at the lunch counter in Chungking Express, trembles with the resonance of the scenes we’ve seen there before, and this only happens if the location recurs. A third place in fiction, like a coffeehouse in real life, gains meaning from the interactions that unfold there, and a place described in just a few lines can start to seem more real than the houses in which we’ve lived. (The great example here is 221B Baker Street, which doesn’t quite qualify as a third place, but which has prompted fans to build detailed reconstructions based on a handful of tantalizing paragraphs.) So if you’re writing a story and there isn’t a third place for the characters to interact and dream, you might want to think about adding one. After all, there’s a reason that Starbucks is everywhere.

Written by nevalalee

March 5, 2013 at 9:50 am

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

March 5, 2013 at 7:30 am

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