People often begin stories in conversation by referring to person, time, and place. We study story beginnings in three societies and find place reference is recurrently used to (i) set the stage, foreshadowing the type of story and the kind of response due, and to (ii) make the story cohere, anchoring elements of the developing story. Recipients orient to these interactional affordances of place reference by responding in ways that attend to the relevance of place for the story and by requesting clarification when references are incongruent or noticeably absent. The findings are based on 108 story beginnings in three unrelated languages: Cha'palaa, a Barbacoan language of Ecuador; Northern Italian, a Romance language of Italy; and Siwu, a Kwa language of Ghana. The commonalities suggest we have identified generic affordances of place reference, and that storytelling in conversation offers a robust sequential environment for systematic comparative research.