Setting–Adding Dimension to Your Fiction

Kristen Lamb, WANA, We Are Not Alone, social media writers

Image courtesy of Melinda VanLone WANA Commons

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.

Not only am I here to help you guys ROCK building an author platform, but I’m also here to train you to be stronger writers…and make you eat your veggies and sit up straight. You, in the back. Did you take your vitamins this morning? Posture! Did you floss? They don’t call me the WANA Mama for nothing, you know ;).

Many times I am asked to expound on the difference between showing and telling. Setting is a great tool to do exactly that.

Kristen Lamb, WANA, We Are Not Alone, WANA Commons

Debbie Johannson WANA Commons

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, Buffy, 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 Mary Kay lady, or you can show us through setting. Buffy’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 Buffy 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 Buffy’s head.

She couldn’t believe Biff was gone. Grief surged over her like a surging tidal surge that surged.

Kristen Lamb, Author Kristen Lamb, WANA, We Are Not Alone, WANA Commons

Laurie Sanders WANA Commons

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 Buffy is depressed by getting this glimpse of her house. You have shown that Buffy is having a rough time instead of being lazy and telling us.

Buffy needs to get a grip.

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? 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? How was setting used? How did it affect you? Share with us.

I love hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of August, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.

I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novelor your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

And also, winners have a limited time to claim the prize, because what’s happening is there are actually quite a few people who never claim the critique, so I never know if the spam folder ate it or to look for it and then people miss out. I will also give my corporate e-mail to insure we connect and I will only have a week to return the 20 page edit.

At the end of August I will pick a winner for the monthly prize. Good luck!

I also hope you pick up copies of my best-selling books We Are Not Alone–The Writer’s Guide to Social Media and Are You There, Blog? It’s Me, Writer And both are recommended by the hottest agents and biggest authors in the biz. My methods teach you how to make building your author platform FUN. Build a platform and still have time left to write great books.


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  1. Great article, sometimes it’s the subtle things that really set the mood. I think I’m definitely going to have to do some work on this.

  2. This is v apt for me right now. I am currently editing a ghost story I hope will be included in an anthology a couple of months time, and I had the mother of the children step in and out of their bedrooms, not describing the rooms or how the children are sleeping. It was commented about this, and I have just added more setting description for this. Thinking about this, I have just had another idea about setting and how to make the story more mysterious. This is a well-timed blog for me.

  3. Very good article. I don’t use a lot of setting. Or maybe I should say I sprinkle little bits into my writing. In my WIP 3 year old Joel has lost his mama. Katie made a quilt from her dresses for him. He’s having a very bad day and: After settling Annie in her crib Katie went to Joel’s room. Even though the day was too warm Joel was wrapped in the quilt she had made him. The muslin backing was facing away from his body.

  4. Love your analogy with the garlic mashed potatoes. When I write settings I always try to write it from my character’s pov. Since I tend to write solely in first person, it gets very obvious if I’m telling what the setting looks like. Very few people take time to stand and look around cataloging their surroundings. My rule for settings has always been; how does the character feel about where they are both in the larger story and their immediate setting? How someone feels about where they are can say a lot about who they are.

    And we all need reminders from time to time. Keeps us on our toes. ^_^

  5. Kristen, timing is everything, and your timing (for me) is perfect. As I begin my 3rd edit of a manuscript for a children’s science fiction story, your examples of showing (vs telling) will be forefront in my mind. Thanks again for coming up with “on the mark” blogs.

  6. My, oh, my, this is such a great post. I will definitely be posting a link on my blog this week. Thanks for this and especially for so many concrete examples.

  7. This is a great post for me! I especially liked the part about the surging “over her like a tidal sure that surged” I hate writiing like that, but find I do more of that than I want to do. This post has haelped me realize and remember that there are many ways to get emotion across. I can even do it through other characters and how they talk about my MC. Thanks for some more great principles, Kristen! 🙂

    1. Be careful about using sections for other characters to talk about an absent third party. That’s a no-no. Read this post: David Mamet’s Memo to the Writers of The Unit:


        I also like his advice of writing a silent movie as an exercise. I’m not sure I can do that, but I can see the benefits and how it would greatly improve my writing. This also reminds me of Magda Szabo’s THE DOOR because the book has very little dialogue, and it’s wonderfully written with tension bounding off the pages.

  8. While I agree with you on setting, there is more to it than that. When you pointed out the setting change from rain to the sunny day with the smell of death, it is also context. If it is always a rainy setting, then making it a sunny day gives it less power. It seems forced and out of place as well.

    You should always take things as a whole, and make sure your setting isn’t a crutch either.

    The key is balance.

    Good article, I am sure this will get people’s ideas flowing.

  9. Tana French is a whiz when it comes to settings. I’ve read two of her books, and in both the main setting was almost a character and had a profound affect on the characters. Even the titles of those two books, INTO THE WOODS and FAITHFUL PLACE had the names of the settings in them.

  10. Absolutely! Less is more…particularly in the case of the garlic mashed potatoes. Love that analogy! I love using the Emotion Thesaurus online (see the blog, The Bookshelf Muse). Not only does it give good examples of using emotion and setting, but also tells on the bottom some of the over-used tropes. I love people who help me avoid the mistakes of others. Thank you, thank you!!

    • shawn on August 17, 2012 at 8:33 am
    • Reply

    Mmmmm garlic mashed potatoesa…nomnomnomnom!

  11. I am sitting in a Starbucks in Maine with my laptop and a printed manuscript. The initial writing is done and it’s pretty good. I ‘m polishing – showing rather than saying, catching things that sit oddly… The talk about ‘setting’ is very timely. There are four ‘settings’ in my story and they arise from the plot, but there is a sort of symbolism or ‘function’ there that I’ve wanted to highlight or intensify. This article is very much on point and a good nudge in the ribs to focus me. Thank you!

    (And since I am working on a blog post regarding finishing and polishing, I’ll certainly link to this article and credential you…)

    • Paige on August 17, 2012 at 9:06 am
    • Reply

    It helps so much to read more on “show don’t tell.” Thanks.

  12. This is such a good blog post I have saved the email notification in my flagged emails so that I can keep referring back to it. Thanks for your time.

  13. I’m adding garlic to my potatoes now.

    Funny, I thought there was a lot more garlic in there while I was making dat first batch of potatoes.

    The Hannibal Lechter example is really a great example. Thanks WANA momma.

  14. I belong to Critique Circle, and what I see left out of more story posts than anything else is setting. You have explained the need for it more succinctly than I ever could.

  15. “Writing is therapeutic, not therapy. ” Soooo true! Some beginning writers have a hard time getting the difference. Great post, Kristen!

    1. For me, that was the key sentence in this excellent post on setting. Once again, brava, Kristen!

  16. I would make a pitch for trusting your inner processes to set the tone you want without strain. That works for me, anyway. I distrust writing that strains to make connections between all elements on the page. Sometimes a desk is just that, and when you bump into it on your way to the kitchen, there are no deeper levels, necessarily. Just ouch and that’s it.

    We are wired to make the deeper connections, by nature and by the nurture of the books we have read, the TV we watch, the music and radio we listen to. Perhaps, in reviewing a scene, a writer might carefully add some symbolism. A light touch would be best.

    Tnx for a fine and stimulating post.

    • evanatiello on August 17, 2012 at 11:31 am
    • Reply

    great post! thanks for all the real examples to your points. I too like using settings which provide “stark contrasts” to what is happening to the character. For instance, Stepford Wives is set in an idyllic Connecticut neighborhood, but what’s going on is quite dark. I love misrepresentation!

  17. thought provoking, thanks

  18. When I think of setting, I think of Barbara Kingslover’s “The Poisonwood Bible.” The setting was almost another character. Not only did the characters live on the setting, but the action did too. It was more than characters walking through the African Congo, or crossing a river. The setting was the vehicle that moved character development and plot along. Now if only I could pull that off…time to go practice!

  19. When I first started writing my memoir, I had a friend/editor read it. She told me that I was “telling” rather than “showing” my story. And it moved way too fast. She taught me how to break it down, expound in areas, cut other spots, and what the meaning of “showing” was. Now that I know, I find myself critiquing other memoirs and books that I read (in all aspects). My story of a broken marriage, a deep friendship, and a love affair can’t be written without “showing.” It doesn’t work. It loses its impact and the reader misses the crucial moments. Excellent information on setting that I’m definitely going to employ in my novel.

    • Laura C. on August 17, 2012 at 11:52 am
    • Reply

    What a great post and so timely for my re-writes! Thanks for the fabulous lesson.

    I remember actually reading one of James Mitchner’s massive tomes called “Centennial”. This one kind of broke the rules in that it chose one setting – a small spot in what became Colorado and followed it throughout time from the dinosaur era to the 1970’s. The setting was literally the main character and characters ebbed and flowed as the place stayed put. I am still struck by that clever crafting – it’s a trick most people should not try at home!

  20. I love your teaching style. The examples make it much easier to understand. Though I tend to write mostly memoir, your advice, suggestions and examples have no genre boundaries. Thanks for sharing your insights. I’ll put them to good use. 😀

  21. Hallelujah. I thought there was something wrong with me since I dislike lots of setting (don’t waste my time on that empty field full of flowers; I only care about the people). Yet, it’s a concern since the editor interested in my novel is big on setting. Hopefully he and I can reach a happy medium–which is where most readers are comfortable anyway.

    • Laurie L Young on August 17, 2012 at 2:13 pm
    • Reply

    What a thorough and enlightening dissection of setting. This is so helpful. I am running to my WIP right now to review it from this perspective. Thank you!

  22. Great post! I am re-looking at setting as I go through my edits. Odd juxtaposition…hmmm yes! Thank you. Very helpful post.

  23. Thank you Kristen! As always you are not only informative, but entertaining. When I grow up I want to be just like you, lol.

  24. Setting is what really helps me to lose myself in a book, which keeps me sane. The Book Theif had great use of setting to give a perspective of the Holocaust that is oftennot considered. Great post.

  25. I love it how you made the old adage “Show, don’t tell” concrete with examples. I suck at setting in the first draft so it’s one of the many touches I’m adding while revising.

    • Robert O'Daniel on August 17, 2012 at 4:21 pm
    • Reply

    My antagonist, handcuffed to a hotel bed, struggled with his restraints. His mother’s doctor held him captive as she grappled with her own desires. Did she want to interrogate the restrained man, punish him, or seek revenge for his mother? All the options would deliver justice—and leave her sexually gratified.

    As you can see, my writing floundered as I attempted to show this scene. I was telling it. I took a break, checked my Email, and found a new post, Kristen Lamb’s Blog, Setting –Adding Dimension To Your Fiction. Your style, writing, and teaching clearly illustrated where I was going wrong. I knew how to paint my scene but my mind wanted to tell the story. Your blog got me back into the setting. Thank you.

    • ABE on August 17, 2012 at 4:53 pm
    • Reply

    I have fun with setting in an additional dimension: setting and character interact differently when the character chooses the setting (a prime example is the character’s home and living spaces) than when the character is forced into a setting or ends up there via story choices.

    Setting has the same job to do as all the other elements of the story. It doesn’t get to just show the reader where the character IS, it has to advance the plot and show WHO the character is and express some of the theme and give you the (subtle, I hope) views of the author.

    If it doesn’t do two or three things at least, it is being overpaid (in space in the story). A good setting description may need a tweak to add another element, but it is definitely worth the time it takes the writer to dig and polish.

  26. Thank you for your post. It is true that the setting can show a lot about the characters. Hoping your day is blessed.

    • jodenton445 on August 17, 2012 at 8:13 pm
    • Reply

    Great post! Your examples are so clear and easy to follow. I’m struggling with the show, not tell issue and find this post very helpful. Thanks.

    • Jenny Lee on August 17, 2012 at 9:50 pm
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    I love the setting examples, especially the idea of having juxtapostion in the setting–could be a very powerful, yet subtle tool.

    • Jim Blanchard on August 17, 2012 at 9:57 pm
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    Splendid guidance, Kristen. I’m excited to put this advice to good use in my WIP. Thanks.

  27. This is probably the best explanation of the difference between showing and telling I’ve ever had the pleasure to read. Thank you so much for this article, Kristen.

  28. I’m gobsmacked. I’m also running to see what is in my main character’s pack. There must be something useful in there for setting. Maybe his tent is crumpled, or not. Thanks for the tip!

  29. Once again you have given us a great tool for our craft. My toolbox is coming together. Thank you for caring and sharing your expertise.

  30. Thanks!

    • TraceyLynnTobin on August 18, 2012 at 6:32 am
    • Reply

    Have I mentioned that I love the way you write, even when all you’re doing is explaining “the rules”? I’m just saying…wow, I love your sentence structure and the way every second sentence has some witty remark or point in it. 🙂

    That said, I thank you very much for the information and suggestions! I myself struggle with telling-instead-of-showing rather often because my instinct is to describe rather than to help the reader imagine. I’m working on it, though, I promise! 🙂

  31. Yes . . . !

  32. When you talked about using setting to contrast the emotion, I immediately thought of 9/11. In my part of the USA that day, it was an absolutely gorgeous day – sunny, brilliant blue sky, perfect temperature. One of the things I remember so vividly from that day is the stark contrast between the beauty of the day and the horror of the events unfolding. I kept thinking that such evil should not be able to occur on such a day–and yet it was.

  33. Amazing as always.

  34. Awesome article. Just what I needed right now. Like everything, it’s about balance – too much setting and your readers will get bored, too little setting and readers are likely to throw the book across the room in confused frustration (something I tend to neglect too often). Setting description for no reason is just a bad book (I’m looking at you, Tolkien).

    Probably my favorite setting is in Holes (I’m illiterate, so I only watched the movie). Unending, scorching heat, along with the desert, reflects on the dry pointlessness of digging holes. And then when it finally rains – well, it means something. The change in weather matters.

  35. This is helpful. I write short stories and articles like this help me make them stronger. They stay in the back of my mind while I’m writing. I’m glad you wrote about setting because it’s something I have been leaving out – just so I don’t become THAT writer who goes on and on about it. But I do need it. And now I have a better idea of how to add it – like garlic.

    Much appreciated!

  36. Great article. Thanks. I think few writers use setting as well as James Lee Burke. How could you write about Louisiana without considering setting–and the weather? It permeates everything and while reading one of his stories you can almost feel your clothes clinging to your skin. Elmore Leonard famously says that you should never start a chapter with the weather yet JLB seems to start every chapter with the weather. Read the opening page of BLACK CHERRY BLUES. Amazing. Again, JLB breaks Elmore’s rule because the environment in Dave Robicheaux’s world is essentially another character. And it definitely symbolizes things that squirm beneath the surface.

    • andie on August 19, 2012 at 8:26 pm
    • Reply

    Hi, do you have an email contact? I’d love to ask some questions about writing ,,maybe blogging…stuff like that. Thanks. 🙂

  37. Kristen-
    It’s always amazing when I get a double whammy on a piece of writing advice. Last week in my writing workshop class, we had to write a short story that had setting as a character. It’s neither as difficult as you think it will be, nor as easy as it sounds. You’ve given great, usable examples in this post.

    Another winner!

    And I just finished “Are you there blog? It’s me, Writer” this afternoon. I’m still dragging my feet about FB and Twitter, but I’m working on implementing all the changes to my blog. Thanks for sharing your faux pas and acquired wisdom with all of us.

    • Debbie Johansson on August 20, 2012 at 1:00 am
    • Reply

    Firstly, thanks for using one of my photos, Kristen! 😀

    As I write mysteries and gothic fiction, setting is a very important part of my writing. One of the books/movies on setting that really stands out for me is Picnic at Hanging Rock. I remember seeing the movie when I was about seven (yes I know I’m showing my age), but it had quite a profound affect on me that’s lasted to this day. The setting being a volcanic rock formation in the middle of the Australian bush on a hot summer’s day. Not exactly your traditional setting for an eerie story!

    Thanks for this post Kristen, you’ve given me plenty to think about.

  38. Great post Kristen- I love yr writing tips & strangely this posmore than others really make me want to buy your book ‘We Are Not Alone’
    I think I feel so overloaded by how to manage social media info sometimes, it was refreshing to have an excellent post on writing.
    Setting is obviously incredibly important but def. an area that novice writers can over egg. Annie Proulx’s work is a fantastic example of setting being omnipresent but both symbolic and appropriate. I’m thinking in particularly of The Shipping News & Broke Back Mountain( which Btw is only a 29 page novella!). I’m a strong believer in learning from the best.
    Keep the info & inspiration coming.

  39. Bookmarking this for when I start editing. Thanks.
    Also, I feel for Buffy’s kitty. Poor little thing. 🙁

    • Brianna Soloski on August 23, 2012 at 1:10 pm
    • Reply

    Excellent post, Kristen. I’m working on a murder mystery set in the 1940s right now and I need to amp up the setting for sure. I’m not very far in so I have some room to grow my setting, but it definitely needs to be amped up in what I’ve already written.

    • douglasfalco on August 26, 2012 at 1:37 pm
    • Reply

    You make good point, I think my biggest issue is that I am not like anyone else. When you see a person is certain settings, I do not think their surrounding matchs who they are. Just because the office is cold dark and colorless does not tell me who the guy behind the desk is. I understand other seem to get a feeling for who he maybe and that is where I need to get stronger at.

  40. Thank you SO MUCH. You are infinitely helpful and wise. I really needed this, my fiction has been lacking lately.. trying to write more though.

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