Setting—Why a Picture is Worth a Thousand Words

Hmmmm. Must be Walmart.

Hmmmm. Must be Walmart.

Today we are going to talk about setting and ways to use it to strengthen your writing and maybe even add in some dimension. Setting is more than a weather report. It can be a magnificent tool to deepen characters.

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.” Okey dokey, here’s where setting can help you do just that.

THAT'S a desk with a story. "The menthol brings out the blueberry notes in the Yoplait…"

THAT’S a desk with a story. “The menthol brings out the blueberry notes in the Yoplait…”

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 Scentsy 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 us that Buffy is not herself. We know this because the garden was “once beautiful.” This cues me (the reader) 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.

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 five 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.

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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 Mood

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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.

Think about how you felt watching the scene in Terminator 2 where the nuke goes off and obliterates a playground.

This tactic is especially useful in horror. Dead bodies are upsetting. Dead bodies at a church picnic 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?

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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.

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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. Two fantastic resources to help you with setting are The Urban Setting Thesaurus and The Rural Setting Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. Do yourself a favor and just buy both of those today.

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?

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  1. Love this. Setting is the thing I flesh out when I revise.

  2. Some good advice there, Kirsten, but surely the most convincing settings are real ones, aren’t they?

    I write stories set in the real world, so it’s easy for me to choose a setting for a scene, usually from somewhere I’ve been, then visit it using Google Streetview or similar, to check my own memory (if somewhere’s close enough, I’ll visit).

    Using street view, sightlines can be checked (e.g. for characters observing others), car chase routes can be viewed from the drivers’ points of view, (and in fact planned by following the satellite image maps… I’ve just written a chase, culminating in a messy scene, that anyone from the location will believe… because the setting is real.)

    I recently wrote a scene set in Mostar (in Bosnia-Herzegovina). I’d visited there many years ago, so I knew what the place felt like, but when my character paused on the Stari Most to look out over the Neretva, I could say what caught his eye as he mused. I could give the name of the bank he went to. I could describe his walk along the Kujundžiluk, and the stalls he stopped at while checking his disguise was OK… in short, I gave the setting an identity.

    Now these particular places are famous, and tourists will know them anyway, but my character in this instance was deliberately using these crowded places to lose himself … and using a bank branch that would be too busy to look closely at his ID.

    Usually, it’s better to choose lesser known real places to avoid the ‘Brannigan’ problem (where John Wayne passed every tourist landmark in London while following the bad guy… despite his journey not needing to go near any of them). It’s not difficult to provide convincing settings if you use real places, or real rooms, street corners etc. But I’m amazed at how many times I’ve read scenes that couldn’t possibly work, purely because the author didn’t do their research on the setting.

  3. I suck at this. I am one of those readers who likes only enough description to orient me, so I tend to write the same way. And I’ll scan your paragraphs of description to get to the action.
    BUT it only takes a few well-placed words or sentences to add this dimension you’re selling here to a story. Gah! Another thing to look for while editing.

  4. These are some awesome advices! Really insightful, examples of different movies are cherry on a top of a delicious cake! Thank you so much!! 🙂

  5. I have been trying to mimic authors who have good setting, and it has not been easy. I takes me a whole lot longer to include setting and detail than to come up with action and plot.
    I hadn’t thought about juxtapositions -I have to try it.
    I like the garlic analogy. My mash potatoes lack a lot of seasoning.
    Thanks you for the helpful and entertaining post!

    • angelaackerman1 on June 17, 2016 at 12:24 pm
    • Reply

    I love this post. You have hit the nail on the head, that Setting is so much more than just a place where stuff happens. We can do so, so, SO much through setting, and it brings out these deeper levels of our story and our characters that we couldn’t achieve otherwise. Thanks for the shout out too. the best thing for me with getting these books out at long last is i know people will now thing twice, three times and even maybe four or more about their setting choices, and all the ways they can be utilized to tell a more compelling story. And when writers go deeper, readers everywhere win! 🙂

  6. One of the greatest complements I ever got was when someone (several someones, for that matter) told me that my novels seemed to take them back in time.

  7. So true! Terrific advice. Perfect analogy that setting is like garlic in garlic mashed potatoes (oh, I want some right now). Plus the pictures are priceless. (“The menthol brings out the blueberry notes in the yoplait…”) But you made me hungry so gotta go and start boiling the potatoes and order a copy of “The Life-changing Magic of Tidying Up” and send to Buffy.

  8. Your blog is really a gold mine! I finally (think I) Got this “show” not “tell” thing down, by changing much of what I told to conversation. But my problem has become of course, setting. You are very right about using a setting to show a characters mood or emotional state. I will have to work that into the novel better. Right now I have parts where there is a setting, and it’s important to talk about it, because the characters spend a great deal of time there or notice things, but on the other hand, I have to be careful I don’t slow the story down or make it drag. Thanks for demonstrating how to do this in a better way. I want to take your character and plotting course, I will sign up early next week 🙂 Thanks again for the timely information.

  9. Thanks Kristen for the great tips in this post.
    I always worry that I’m either not giving enough of the setting to properly place the characters or I’m over doing it and ramming it down the reader’s throat. I often feel the same about description of characters. I’m keen to apply your tips to my current medieval fantasy edit.

  10. Reblogged this on Mandibelle16 and commented:
    Found this article extremely helpful. Using “show” not “tell” with setting. Puts things in perspective for me.

  11. This is actually something I skimped on in my attempt to show not tell. A beta reader helped set me straight.

  12. Thank you for reminding me how an unexpected setting can charge a story and make an explosive impact on the reader.

  13. finally, I begin to understand the idea of “sequel”…thanks!

  14. Reblogged this on dave94015 and commented:
    Does the writing concept “scene & sequel” have you mystified? Check out this post!

  15. great tips thank you so much. Also as an example in the series “the office” to show how boring the work day could be, one of the employees saw on the desk of another employee a scoreboard that had about 3 years worth of scores for a game he played each time there was nothing to do! it was very effective.

    • angelanoelauthor on June 18, 2016 at 7:48 am
    • Reply

    So much goodness here! I love the garlic analogy. One big problem I had on my first, second (ok, maybe even third) drafts of my MS was failing to trust myself and, more importantly, the reader. I over-detailed setting, talking AT the reader, rather than inviting a conversation between the reader’s experiences and my story. As a new novelist, I inserted my deep background details on running a small business, for example, (How boring! beta readers told me they skipped over these chunks) because I was nervous about my own street cred. I feared readers wouldn’t buy it. Luckily, kind readers showed me the error of my ways. 172,000 words- a brick of heavy details- became 86,000. Your insights here are awesome and I look forward to more!

  16. Reblogged this on Don Massenzio's Blog.

    • peggylampman on June 19, 2016 at 6:50 am
    • Reply

    Reading your blog is a terrific warm-up to getting back into book-writing mode. This was a particularly interesting piece–thank you! Great comments.

  17. Love this! Setting definitely plays an essential role in the “staging” of a character within a scene. Juxtaposition can be challenging, but is always a lot of fun to play around with.

  18. Brilliant article. In my upcoming adult medieval fantasy, I have a funeral for a beloved character who sacrifices herself for others. Instead of rain, I made it a sunny day. Birds chirping. The protagonist, who deep-down blamed herself for the woman’s sacrifice, suffered in a long, black dress. She hated being there. She imagined everyone looking at her with an accusing glare and her best friend didn’t want to stand with her. All this came to a boiling point when she runs off into the forest, tears the dress off her body, and has a total meltdown where (she thinks) no one has seen her. Powerful stuff.

    I risked the reader thinking, “Well, she’s being a bitch! The woman dies and all she can think of is how her ankles hurt and how hot she is in the dress!” –when her true torment comes out, the effect is that much more riveting.

  19. Wonderful article. The setting in The Light Between Oceans comes to mind as meeting the criteria you explain here. The isolation of the childless couple at an Australian lighthouse is the perfect place for the characters, conflict, plot, even theme.

  20. I love this blog so much. It explains exactly what I need to learn to be a better writer without being full of itself. I appreciate your help, Kristen!

  21. The “disturbing juxtaposition” thing is EXACTLY what I’m trying to do but couldn’t quite pin down. Your description encapsulates it perfectly enough for me to get a better grip on it. Thanks!

  22. Reblogged this on Writer's Treasure Chest and commented:
    Kristen Lamb talks about ‘setting’ and does it in such a unique and educational way. I love to read her blog posts that are a real support for me and I hope for other new authors as well.

  23. Reblogged this on Jacky Dahlhaus – Writer and commented:
    This is an excellent article I found on Twitter. Good tips for showing, not telling…

  24. Reblogged this on verysherryterry.

  1. […] state of mind or mood. Or setting showing certain character attributes. The article is called: Setting – Why A Picture is Worth A Thousand Words. I recommend the article and following Kristen Lamb’s blog. She also holds online courses […]

  2. […] « Setting—Why a Picture is Worth a Thousand Words […]

  3. […] element of setting occupied several bloggers this week. Kristen Lamb lays out how to use setting with purpose and how setting and symbolism form the perfect combination. Becca Puglisi also discusses setting […]

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