Liminal Settings: Betwixt and Between



What do the following settings have in common?

  1. a cemetery
  2. a back alleyway
  3. a bus

If you had said all three are liminal settings you would be right.

But what is a liminal setting? The original term came from the latin word “limina” meaning “threshold. Think of borders with spaces on both sides. A hallway ambiguously defines one room from another. Spaces that are betwixt and between. The graveyard in the photo is a place that borders life and death. Crossroads.

A bus features transitional qualities. In fact, any vehicle that moves from one point to another is a setting that is undefined and can heighten the tension in a scene. Have you ever notice how many scenes in a movie or a book feature an argument in a car. The edge of a forest, a cliff, or a cave are natural liminal settings. All these thresholds  act as a writing tool that accomplish the same thing. They prompt an instinctive and edgy human reaction.

In children’s literature the use of liminal space can be found in many well-known books. Let’s examine one of my favourite books to see how the author used liminal setting to heighten tension

In Kate DiCamillo’s The Magician’s Elephant, the first scene takes place in a market setting. “…[I]n the midst of the entirely unremarkable and absolutely ordinary stalls of fishmongers and cloth merchants and bakers and silver-smiths, there had appeared, without warning or fanfare, the red tent of a fortuneteller.”

A liminal space is defined as a place or time in which the rules of behavior must be altered to maintain safety. This market scene may be ordinary, but the author adds a long list of people and their stalls, creating a setting filled with strangers. For most children a market place is an unfamiliar setting. The rules change here. Don’t run around the stalls. Don’t touch or eat the fruit. Fish Mongers and silver-smiths are strangers most children don’t usually encounter.

In addition, a red fortune teller’s tent adds another distinct element of liminality. A fortune teller, is a marginal character. Part of the past. Part of the future. Someone on the outside of the community. But for the purposes of this week’s blogs, we will not discuss liminal characters. Instead we will focus on the fortune teller’s tent. It is a place of in-between. Not really a house. Not a permanent dwelling. The reader’s instincts stir and what they feel is discomfort.

In contrast, let’s imagine this same scene in a big city mall, in a food court, in a middle grade cafeteria.  Yes, a writer can produce highly tense scenes without the use of liminal setting, but when they do it’s an extra bonus. Below are a list of novels in which you can observe how writer’s use liminal setting effectively.

Dreams – between sleep and being awake – The Nest (Neil Gaiman)


Vehicles – transitional spaces – Walk Two Moons (Sharon Creech)

Closets, Tunnels – enclosed spaces – Coraline (Neil Gaiman)

Beaches, Cliffs – natural threshold spaces – The Scorpio Races (Maggie Stiefvater)

Cemeterybetween birth and death – The Graveyard Book (Neil Gaiman)


Do you have a work-in-progress? Look at the settings. Could you change one setting and replace it with a liminal space? Try it and come back and share how the scene changes.

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