For those who follow this blog regularly, first of all—THANKS! If you are new, Monday is the day that I blog on the craft side of things. I have worked as a freelance writer and editor for going on ten years and all the craft blogs are based off almost a decade of experience. Wednesdays’ blogs are tips and tools based off my best-selling book We Are Not Alone—The Writer’s Guide to Social Media. Social media is an amazing tool and it is a wonderful time to be a writer, but, I am going to point out the pink elephant in the room. We still have to write a darn good book. If we don’t write a darn good book, then no amount of promotion can help us. Sorry. That’s like putting lipstick on a pig. So we will talk about craft as well.
Today we are going to talk about setting and ways to use it to strengthen your writing and maybe even add in some dimension. Some of the information I will present to you today isn’t new, but, hey, all of us can use a refresher, right?
Setting is a magnificent tool when used properly.
Setting can help your characterization.
Setting can actually serve a dual role in that it can be not only the backdrop for your story, but it can also serve characterization through symbol. We editors love to say, “Show. Don’t tell.” Well, here is where setting can help you do just that.
Say you have a character, Mitzy, who is depressed. You could go on and on telling us she is blue and how she cannot believe her husband left her for the Avon lady, or you can show us through setting. Mitzy’s once beautiful garden is overgrown with weeds and piles of unopened mail are tossed carelessly on the floor. Her house smells of almost-empty tubs of chocolate ice cream left to sour. Piles of dirty clothes litter the rooms, and her cat is eating out of the bag of Meow Mix tipped on its side.
Now you have shown me that Mitzy is not herself. I know this because the garden was “once beautiful.” This cues me that something has changed. And you managed to tell me she was depressed without dragging me through narrative in Mitzy’s head.
She couldn’t believe Biff was gone. Grief surged over her like a surging tidal surge that surged.
Writing is therapeutic, not therapy. Some of that introspection is great, but after a while you will wear out your readers. Setting can help alleviate this problem and keep the momentum of your story moving forward. We will get that Mitzy is depressed by getting this glimpse of her house. You have shown that Mitzy is having a rough time instead of being lazy and telling us.
We judge people by their environment. Characters are no different. If you want to portray a cold, unfeeling schmuck, then when we go to his apartment it might be minimalist design. No color. No plants or signs of life. Someone who is scatter-brained? Their house is full of half-finished projects. An egomaniac? Walls of plaques and pictures of this character posing with important people. Trophies, awards, and heads of dead animals. You can show the reader a lot about your character just by showing us surroundings.
Trust me, if a character gets out of her car and two empty Diet Coke bottles fall out from under her feet into her yard that is littered with toys, we will have an impression.
Probably the single largest mistake I see in the work of new writers is that they spend far too much time in the sequel. What is the sequel? We’re going to talk about that next week, but here is a short answer. Plots can be broken into to main anatomical parts–scene and sequel. The scene is where the action occurs. A goal is declared and some disastrous setback occurs that leaves our protagonist worse off than when he began. Generally, right after this disaster there is what is called the sequel. The sequel is the emotional thread that ties all this action together. Yet, too often new writers will go on and on and on in a character’s head, exploring and probing deep emotions and nothing has yet happened. The sequel can only be an effect/direct result of a scene. Ah, but here comes the pickle. How can a writer give us a psychological picture of the character if he cannot employ the sequel?
An example? In Silence of the Lambs how are we introduced to Hannibal Lecter? There is of course the dialogue that tells Agent Starling that Dr. Lecter is different, but talk is cheap, right? Clarice goes down into the bowels of a psychiatric prison to the basement (um, symbol?). She walks past cell after cell of the baddest and the maddest. All of them are in brick cells with bars…until Clarice makes it to the end.
Hannibal’s cell is not like the others. He is behind Plexi-Glass with airholes. This glass cage evokes a primal fear. Hannibal affects us less like a prisoner and more like a venomous spider. Setting has shown us that Hannibal the Cannibal is a different breed of evil. This is far more powerful than the storyteller poring on and on and on about Hannibal’s “evil.”
Setting can set or amplify the mood.
Either you can use setting to mirror outwardly what is happening with a character, or you can use it as a stark contrast. For instance, I once edited a medieval fantasy. In the beginning the bad guys were burning villagers alive. Originally the writer used a rainy, dreary day, which was fine. Nothing wrong with that. I, however, suggested she push the envelope and go for something more unsettling. I recommended that she change the setting to sunny and perfect weather. In the heart of the village the ribbons and trappings of the spring festival blew in the gentle breeze, the same breeze that now carried the smell of her family’s burning flesh.
Sometimes it is this odd juxtaposition in setting that can evoke tremendous emotion. This is especially useful in horror. Dead bodies are upsetting. Dead bodies on a children’s playground are an entirely new level of disturbing.
Setting is a matter of style and preference. Different writers use setting in different ways and a lot of it goes to your own unique voice. Some writers use a lot of description, which is good in that there are readers who like a lot of description. But there are readers who want you to get to the point, and that’s why they generally like to read works by writers who also like to get to the point. Everyone wins.
Whether you use a lot or a little setting will ultimately be up to you. I would recommend some pointers.
Can your setting symbolize something deeper?
I challenge you to challenge yourself. Don’t just pick stormy weather because it is the first image that pops in your mind. Can you employ setting to add greater dimension to your work? Using setting merely to forecast the weather is lazy writing. Try harder.
In Shutter Island, Dennis Lehane’s story is set on an island at a prison for the criminally insane. What the reader finds out is the prison is far more than the literal setting; it is a representation for a state of mind. The protagonist, U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels is imprisoned by his own guilt and need for justice. Like the island, he too is cut off from the outside world emotionally and psychologically. Now an island is more than an island, a prison is more than a prison, bars are more than bars, cliffs are more than cliffs, storms are more than storms, etc. Shutter Island is an amazing book to read, but I recommend studying the movie for use of setting as symbol.
So dig deeper. Can you get more out of your setting than just a backdrop?
Blend setting into your story.
When I teach, I liken setting to garlic in garlic mashed potatoes. Blend. Garlic is awesome and enhances many dishes, but few people want a whole mouthful of it. Make sure you are keeping momentum in your story. Yes, we generally like to be grounded in where we are and the weather and the time of year, but not at the expense of why we picked up your book in the first place…someone has a problem that needs solving. Unless you are writing a non-fiction travel book, we didn’t buy your book for lovely description of the Rocky Mountains. We bought it to discover if Ella May will ever make it to California to meet her new husband before winter comes and traps her wagon train in a frozen world of death.
Keep perspective and blend. Keep conflict and character center stage and the backdrop in its place…behind the characters. Can you break this rule? Sure all rules can be broken. But we must understand the rules before we can break them. Breaking rules in ignorance is just, well, ignorant.
In the end, setting will be a huge reflection of your style and voice, but I hope this blog has given some insight that might make you see more to your use of setting and help you grow to be a stronger writer. What are some books or movies that really took setting to the next level? Share with us.
I want to hear your comments, and to prove it…
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This blog came at a perfect time for me. I am working on incorporating setting to deepen POV. I am printing this and saving it.
Setting is a character in the story. While Mount Everest was not the antagonist in Krakeur’s book Into Thin Air, it was what the story revolved around. (I submit the climbers were their own antagonists– who climbs a mountain where 1 out of 6 are going to die?). Jane Smiley won the National Book Award for Thousand Acres. Which is King Lear on an Iowa farm. The same story in a different setting is a different story.
I agree. Setting can be the proxy of the antagonist. Yes, the climbers were their “own worst enemy” but humans generally don’t lock on so great to transcendentalism…they need physical representations. I haven’t read the book, but if it was anything like “The Perfect Storm” then the mountain likely represented some aspect of their character/psyche that would play a crucial role in the overall story problem. Just guessing 😀
I’ve been struggling with setting as part of deep POV, and you did a nice job of explaining with examples. Thanks!
Thanks for a great and helpful blog as always. Your description of showing not telling with setting was explained perfectly. When I first write I sometimes tend to give to much info and on my re-edits I usually catch those bits and delete or re-write with this in mind.
That makes a lot of sense. thanks again Kristen for your excellent blog! 🙂 Cat
Thanks for the tip. I guess that means that if someone is religious, and he or she is Catholic, there would be statues of Virgin Mary or some other saints around someone’s house. If I apply this in real life, I will know what the person is like just by looking at his or her houses (and base my characters off on them). If I ever visit my friends’ houses, I’ll take note on the surroundings, too (just the living room unless we’re having sleepovers).
Yes, exactly. There are details that show without explication. Want to show a seriously religious person? The Bible is on the table and the cover is cracked and discolored from use (body oil). In the bookshelves thee are multiple versions–King James, Amplified, NIV, The Student Bible. An overly vain person? Twenty different skin cleansers, creams and masks. High-dollar cosmetics, gels, hormone creams, etc. Make sense? Think like a detective 😀
I think Frances Hodgson Burnett did a great job of using setting in both A Little Princess and The Secret Garden (two of my favorites as a child). She made the rooftops of London and the English moors come alive and interact with the characters.
Great blog. One of my favorite uses of setting is Terminator 2: Judgement Day. In the opening credits, we see a beautiful playground. Kids are playing and in slow-motion we see a girl on a swing and BOOM! Nuke! The next thing we see is the charred remains of the playground, small skeletons and T-800s are marching across. When I was little that disturbed me so much. That was a perfect use of setting to evoke emotion.
Great article. Thanks! I struggle with showing vs. telling, particularly in the first draft. Usually, I’ll leave a note to go back and revise. But I haven’t used scene as much as I should in the way you describe.
Question: Would the POV character necessarily notice her surroundings in detail? For example, if she were used to the pizza boxes piled on the coffee table, would she give them a second thought? Would it be better to show her lack of housekeeping skills through the eyes of another POV character?
Why can’t you? I make a New Year’s Resolution every year to be more organized and guess who is the first to grip when I open a drawer and can’t find anything. Most cluttered people feel some degree of guilt. And you don’t even have to tie emotion to it. Consider this:
Janie heard the phone ring, but the sound was muffled. She searched the room trying to get a bead on where the ringing was coming from. She rummaged through the piles of laundry she’d vowed to wash this week, then tossed every cushion off the couch. She found a petrified Hot Tamale and a half a Hot Pocket–ew–but no phone. Voice mail would pick up any second and she just knew it was that manager calling her about the job opening at Container Store. Janie craned to listen as she swiped through the stacks of bills she’d piled on her coffee table last week when she was feeling motivated. No phone!
We the reader have a very distinct picture of Janie, and it ain’t Martha Stewart. But setting is blended in to the forward action so it doesn’t come off as contrived. Yeah, no characters describing their home like a real estate ad, LOL.
Does that help? And yes, it can be through another POV character, but it doesn’t have to be.
Pat Conroy’s book ‘Prince of Tides’ starts off, “My wound is geography…” To me, the way his childhood story is wrapped around the marshland and ocean, and the way he remembers the smells and sounds, as he tells the story is the trait of a master craftman. He had me there with him, smelling the saltwater, and feeling the mud between my toes, as I watch his family’s drama unfold. I love when an author is so good that I’m completely lost’in’ the book, and don’t want it to end!
Thanks, Glenda. I will have to read that. Like many, I saw the movie. My job requires A LOT of reading so I generally only read what other writers specifically recommend. Thank you! 😀
I’m currently working on something and as someone who could be considered a ‘new writer’ your blog offered some very useful pointers. I’m going to ‘cut and paste’ a couple of excerpt which hopefully, takes heed of the pointers you’ve given and sets the scene, adding dimension… here they are:
‘..Through the haze of smoke and the wall of people, I could see the green khaki of the military troops entering the area. Tanks were rumbling through our little urban streets, causing what at the time seemed like seismic tremors. Chieftain tanks, incongruous among the rows of little terraced houses. The army soldiers had released tear gas among the crowds of protesters, it seeped through the acrid smoke, stinging the eyes, burning, burning deep. Young lads, with thin grey faces, began throwing stones at the tanks. Hurling swear words at the soldiers, “Fuck off back to England, ye protestant heathen bastards! “ Then chants of “Tiocfaidh ar la” (which sounded like, Chucky ar law…) and means ‘Our day will come’.
Tiocfaidh ar la”, Tiocfaidh ar la” Tiocfaidh ar la”
There was an air of anticipation that something big was about to happen. I held on tight to my brother’s hand, as the tears streamed from my stinging eyes. Then we heard the sound of gunshots ring out. Everyone in Northern Ireland, from the youngest to the oldest, knows what that sound is. My brother pulled me down to the ground and we huddled close together not daring to look up, as chaos surrounded us. With each passing second, I was feeling more and more frightened. I knew instinctively that we were not in a good place. I didn’t feel safe.
The date was January 30th, the year was 1972. That day became historically known as ‘ Bloody Sunday.’
‘…Trees that had withstood the test of time and seen over a century of seasons pass by. Towering high, surpassing even the rooftops of the Victorian houses whose streets they lined. I loved to see the leaves change colour with the passing of the seasons… the crisp green, turning into Autumn golds, as the trees shed them, carpeting the road sides in thick piles of foliage. I loved to walk through the fallen leaves, using my legs to collect a pile as high as I was tall. My feet dragging, ploughing them as I walked.I loved the crisp, crunchy feel underfoot, of these autumnal offerings. I was a sophisticated lady, smoking a cigarette. Holding my index finger, second finger and thumb together in a mock exaggeration. With an air of pretension, my mouth pursed, breath visible against the cold air and the plummeting wintry temperatures. The seasons definitely seemed more defined when I was a child. But that was before the days of global warming of course….’
Is this along the right lines? Thanks again for all your fantastic blogs and reinvigorating my passion for writing! Kind Regards, Cat X
Yes. The one thing I might recommend is more juxtaposition in the first scene between the marks of the riot and what was the “normal world.” You have terraced houses, but what else? Can the tanks roll over a garden fence or a park bench. One symbolizes a normal piece and the other is rolling over it, blowing it up, etc. A football crushed by a tank. See what I mean? This will affect the reader on a visceral level. But yes, from what I can tell this looks excellent.
Lol, ah… I see.(I think?) Yes, I think these tanks could roll over just about anything. However, if they were ‘on a mission’ and getting from ‘ A to B’, for example, but the fact that they had to pass through little urban terraced streets to get to their intended destination, how would you use dimension without getting too caught up in inconsequential detail? Would it be useful to say something along the lines of: ‘Chieftain tanks, incongruous among the rows of little terraced houses. The crowds, scattering in all directions; people running in blind panic, lest they get caught in the path of these monstrous vehicles.They were so huge, that they filled almost entirely, the width of the street. Six inches either way, would have brought bricks and mortar tumbling down…’ Would that be better?
Trust me, if a character gets out of her car and two empty Diet Coke bottles fall out from under her feet into her yard that is littered with toys, we will have an impression.
Seriously, Kristen, that’s just creepy. Stop freaking stalking me! I did recycle those cans, by the way.
Thanks for the informative blog. Your details and examples so clearly “showed” the values of setting.
I learn through examples, especially since I am a kinesthetic learner. I am really happy they helped, :D.
Kristen – very helpful post. I do enjoy (trying) to incorporate setting to show the tone or mood in my writing. 🙂 I think the movie/book THE LOVELY BONES does a great job doing this.
For instance, the killer in the book/movie lives alone in a big house, with a perfectly manicured lawn, in a neighborhood where lot’s of children live and play. His home is neat and tidy, not a speck of dust or dirt anywhere, not a thing out of place. He’s organized and anal, and you can tell this by his home and his yard and by the doll houses he builds.
Often, he goes down to his damp, dingy, cellar and sits on a kitchen chair for hours and hours, just sitting and staring, the only sound a ticking clock. Tick toc, tic toc…
The dark, damp basement shows the killer’s state of mind. The ticking clock is like his thoughts churning as he plots his next murder. This and the fact that a somewhat strange, compulsive bachelor living in a neighborhood filled with children tells the reader that something is just not right (although a neat and clean bachelor living in a “family” neighborhood doesn’t necessarily qualify a man as a serial killer, however, it does this man).
Just wanted to say I’m a new follower to your blog and I’ve throughly enjoyed my visits. Thank you for sharing your expertise with us!
Thanks, Carol. And thanks for taking the time to offer such awesome thoughful comments. 😀
Peter Watts’s Blindsight. It takes place on a sophisticated spacecraft that is (obviously) a major part of the setting. It is also the characters’ lifeline, and in a lot of ways a character itself. Not only is the ‘intelligence’ of the machine employed in this way (and I should say, in a way that was refreshing to me after miles of Star Trek-esque soothing female voices talking to the captain), but so too is the space-the areas inside of the ship that the characters are moving around in. Beyond the ship is an extremely effective, extremely menacing void of space and space phenomena. The isolation and danger, on this backdrop, is stunning and extraordinarily visceral.
Great post, Kristen. Setting is my favorite way to coax the reader into the plot.