Show, Don’t Tell—Using Setting to Deepen Your Characters

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 wildebeest.

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 Johansson 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. 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.

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 Avon 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. It’s Kristen!

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?

Setting.

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!

ANNOUNCEMENTS:

Since it was such a HUGE success and attendees loved it, I am rerunning the Your First Five Pages class SATURDAY EDITION. Use the WANA15 code for 15% off. Yes, editors REALLY can tell everything they need to know about your book in five pages or less. Here’s a peek into what we see and how to fix it. Not only will this information repair your first pages, it can help you understand deeper flaws in the rest of your manuscript.

My new social media book, Rise of the Machines–Human Authors in a Digital World is NOW AVAILABLE. Only $6.99.

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  1. #1 by Michael Rochellem on August 22, 2013 - 11:47 am

    Your examples of showing and not telling are perfect. I majored in English with a focus on creative writing in college and your explanation was the simplest that I’ve ever read. It’s easy to say show don’t tell, but it’s more difficult to understand what exactly that means. As always, great job.

  2. #2 by Athena Brady on August 22, 2013 - 11:47 am

    A brilliant post Kristen, that explains in a way a newbie can grasp, the importance of setting. Films that come to mind are “One flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “The Shining” Stephen King is a master of this also and the director Steven Spillberg.

  3. #3 by journeyofjordannaeast on August 22, 2013 - 11:56 am

    I love this post! I mean, I love all your posts, but I seriously hate when I read paragraph after paragraph about what a character is feeling and nothing to prove that’s what they’re feeling. Especially when the book is written in the first person, then it seems to be twelve times worse. Thank you for this. If even one writer reads this and changes that aspect of their writing, then bravo!

  4. #4 by agzalens on August 22, 2013 - 12:13 pm

    I’m always looking for new ways to show instead of tell in my writing. Using setting is a helpful tip. I have enjoyed reading your blog, it is full of relevant advice. Thanks.

  5. #5 by Alison Doherty on August 22, 2013 - 12:19 pm

    So many times writing about setting is discouraged (because it often is telling not showing). Your likening of setting to garlic is brilliant!

  6. #6 by Erica on August 22, 2013 - 12:24 pm

    I’d never thought of setting the scene like this. You just blew some doors wide open. Thank you. :)

  7. #7 by T. Greenfield on August 22, 2013 - 12:38 pm

    It is a good thing she had sorted the laundry on the kitchen floor because when the dishwasher overflowed it acted as an oversized sponge, soaking up the gallons of water. The additional hurdles of two hungry boys, a barking dog and a computer with a case of the “blue screen of death” didn’t help her writing progress. What she thought would be a 50 yard dash of Motherhood had turned into a long distance nightmare. She remained hopeful that someday her book would come in but for now, all she could do was punctuate that thought with a huge question mark.

    • #8 by Author Kristen Lamb on August 22, 2013 - 1:17 pm

      Great imagery! And som much more interesting than telling me, “She was overwhelmed.” Show it!

      • #9 by T. Greenfield on August 22, 2013 - 1:22 pm

        Love your blog, loved your post today and for this busy writer Mom, just what I need and have time for! THANK YOU!!!!!

  8. #10 by Adolfo Garza Jr on August 22, 2013 - 12:46 pm

    Wow, great post. It’s so hard to understand show don’t tell at a gut level. There are many ways, I am learning, and this fantastic article shows how to use setting to do just that with very clear *and explained* examples. Thanks to Marylin Tucker for sharing this!

  9. #11 by Ann Brown on August 22, 2013 - 12:50 pm

    Thanks, Kristin. I also liked your 6 self-editing tips.

  10. #12 by Marilyn Hudson Tucker on August 22, 2013 - 12:56 pm

    This is the best explanation of show vs. tell I have ever read. I put your link on SARA and SAWG on FB.

  11. #13 by dinavidscuitee on August 22, 2013 - 1:17 pm

    Thank you so much! This is incredibly helpful.

  12. #14 by Dennis Langley on August 22, 2013 - 1:28 pm

    Solving the puzzle as to when and how much setting to include is part of the fun of writing for me. Adding bits and pieces throughout the text keep the story moving and the reader’s mind engage. The interview with Anthony Hopkins where he discussed how Hannibal would greet Clarice was fascinating. He had to argue with the director to win his point. Thankfully, he won. That scene is one of the most tension-filled scenes in movies.

  13. #15 by cynthiagrstacey on August 22, 2013 - 1:51 pm

    Reblogged this on Cynthia Stacey and commented:
    Great post by Kristen Lamb, author of RIse of the Machines – Human Authors in a Digital World

  14. #16 by cynthiagrstacey on August 22, 2013 - 1:53 pm

    Awesome post Kristen. I always fall into this trap and you help it make sense!

  15. #17 by Sandra Wagner-Wright on August 22, 2013 - 2:02 pm

    Mahalo, Kristen, for answering my question so thoroughly.

  16. #18 by Carolyn on August 22, 2013 - 2:11 pm

    Brilliant! I can’t begin to count the number of times I have heard “show, don’t tell” and for a long time I wondered how to do that. In time, I learned, but I didn’t have your wonderful wisdom to show me the way.
    I’m going to spread the word about your blog, starting with this post.
    Thank you for sharing your awesomeness. (Yes, it is a word. I’ve just decided)

  17. #19 by Stacey Aaronson on August 22, 2013 - 2:43 pm

    Wow! What a brilliant post on showing vs. telling. You really nailed it, Kristen—this imagery and guidance is exactly what novelists need, and I applaud you for delivering it so beautifully and with such impact. As a professional book doctor—editor, book designer, handholder, and self-publishing facilitator—I love having great resources for my author clients, and you are certainly going to be one of them from here on out! :-)

  18. #22 by Heather on August 22, 2013 - 3:06 pm

    Kathy Reich does the disturbed setting really well. Like beautiful hot sweaty jungles and mass burials, or frozen churches with buried nuns. And I’m thankful for this post right now.

  19. #23 by littlehousebytheferry on August 22, 2013 - 3:23 pm

    Kristen, thank you for two timely reminders — first, a great refresher in showing instead of telling, and second, that all this platform-building blogging is useless unless I also actually finish my book. :-)

  20. #24 by Shea Ford on August 22, 2013 - 3:23 pm

    My setting is a character itself, since it’s the country of Ireland. But I am trying to utilize the weather in as many non-cliche ways as I can. :D

  21. #25 by Alen B Curtiss on August 22, 2013 - 3:37 pm

    Reblogged this on Alen B Curtiss and commented:
    More good advice…

  22. #26 by cydmadsen on August 22, 2013 - 7:39 pm

    Reblogged this on Cyd Madsen and commented:
    Elements of screenwriting for the prose writer, or how the screenwriter can develop those carefully crafted, economical scene descriptions if adapting their script to a novel.

  23. #27 by donnajeanmcdunn on August 22, 2013 - 7:40 pm

    Loved this Kristen. It gave me a few ideas on how to use setting to show someones mood. Thank you!

  24. #28 by hannahri williamson on August 22, 2013 - 8:06 pm

    ive not been on Word press for long so I have been exploring as it where but i’ve genuinely spent the past hour on your blog Kristen!! its so helpful!

    I am an animation and comic book design student at DJCAD in dundee and ive been struggling with the writing aspect of it and your blogs given me so many tips to avoid and tricks to try… thank you so much!

  25. #30 by krpooler on August 22, 2013 - 8:19 pm

    Excellent lessons here, Kristen. The blended garlic mashed potatoes said it all. The garlic by itself would be too much. It’s all in the blending of ingredients that you create a delicious product. Wonderful! Thank you. I’ll be sharing this all over.

  26. #31 by Debbie Johansson on August 22, 2013 - 9:25 pm

    Hi Kristen. I really liked your examples. Too much descriptions tend to lose me, but at the same time I do admire those writers who can pull off flowery prose. I prefer to keep with the action and therefore my descriptions of setting can be a bit vague, so this is a good way to go about it. Thanks for sharing. Also many thanks for sharing my photo! :)

  27. #32 by Norelle Hartwig on August 22, 2013 - 10:05 pm

    Brilliant yet again Kristen

  28. #33 by Gry Ranfelt on August 23, 2013 - 2:28 am

    I’m printing this out and saving it in a folder :D

  29. #34 by tellmeastory2day on August 23, 2013 - 4:14 am

    As a Librarian and Museum professional, I love the title of this blog. It’s important to show, assist with interpretation and the general enjoyment of exhibitions and collections rather than tell. Everyone appreciates these things differently depending on their experience, hence, show don’t tell. Thanks

  30. #35 by Jeannine Johnson Maia on August 23, 2013 - 5:22 am

    Kristen, I’m finding that I’m sharing more and more of your blogs with our SCBWI Belgium group. This one with its examples was exceptionally clear. Am thinking I just might print it and tape it to my office wall. And thanks for supplying such a regular dose of humor — I always look forward to your posts.

  31. #36 by Elke Feuer on August 23, 2013 - 9:00 am

    Your example, Shutter Island was terrific and one of my favorites. I didn’t read the book, but loved the movie! I loved all the twists and turns and the even the different settings, in my mind, was an exploration of his journey to the truth and the torment within himself.

    Love what you said about the setting symbolizing something deeper! That would work great with my current wip. It’s set on the island I live which is an interesting challenge because I’m trying to see it with fresh eyes (how someone who’d never been there would see it) along with describing it from the characters POV who live there and might not observe things the same as someone who’d never been there before.

    I’ve been playing tourist and having a great time at it. Thanks for the great tips!

  32. #37 by Sophie Kersey on August 23, 2013 - 9:27 am

    Thank you Kristen, this is just exactly what I am looking for in a blog. I am a busy editor and writer trying to break through to publication, writing in the evenings and weekends, and sharing any great tips I receive on my writer’s blog. I don’t have the time or the money for writing courses at the moment, but am hungry to learn. Your tips are pure gold.

  33. #38 by David Erickson on August 23, 2013 - 10:57 am

    Excellent points to keep in mind as I edit. Thanks.

  34. #39 by Anne Stuessy on August 23, 2013 - 11:06 am

    Yet another great post — thanks, Kristen! One author who can really make settings come alive is Alice Hoffman.

  35. #40 by Katie Cross on August 23, 2013 - 2:43 pm

    Great summary as always, thanks Kristen! I loved the garlic and mashed potatoes analogy. I can think of a lot of things that I could apply that too.

  36. #41 by jennifer Windram on August 23, 2013 - 3:59 pm

    As I revise my work I feel like setting is one of the things I have neglected. Your use of Silence of the Lambs as an example was perfect in showing how setting can do more than just tell the reader what the surroundings look like. I will keep this in mind as I continue. Thanks!

  37. #42 by Sara B. Gauldin on August 23, 2013 - 7:43 pm

    Thank you for the clarification. I hear the phrase “show don’t tell” often. Of course, there are many elements to showing a situation. I will have to consider my setting more carefully!

  38. #43 by D. M. Seyfer on August 23, 2013 - 8:37 pm

    Reblogged this on A Writer Writes.

  39. #44 by caricearmstrong on August 24, 2013 - 12:26 am

    Much needed help. Thank you so much for great advice.

  40. #45 by shad0wrav3n2014 on August 24, 2013 - 6:11 pm

    Thanx mum! That was some truly helpful advice, i will use it to further my talent and be sure to share it with others in the trade.

  41. #46 by ki pha on August 24, 2013 - 6:33 pm

    Reblogged this on doingsomereading and commented:
    For writer’s knowledge

  42. #47 by carolcork on August 25, 2013 - 11:31 am

    I’m a reader but this post was totally fascinating!

    • #48 by Author Kristen Lamb on August 26, 2013 - 7:40 am

      Thank you Carol, and we LOVE readers. Thanks for taking the time to comment. You are very appreciated.

  43. #49 by DJ on August 26, 2013 - 7:03 am

    he sat, bleary-eyed, at the keyboard–

  44. #50 by Lauren Craig on August 28, 2013 - 8:42 pm

    Reblogged this on Blog of a College Writer and commented:
    Finally, someone to show how to master “Show, Don’t Tell.”

  45. #51 by Laura Kreitzer on September 3, 2013 - 2:17 pm

    An excellent post! You’ve given me much to think about while plotting my next book. I even bookmarked your page. Thank you. :)

  46. #52 by Raani York on September 17, 2013 - 5:26 pm

    Thank you very much for sharing your tips and your experience! It’s greatly appreciated!

  47. #53 by Brendan from Now Novel on February 3, 2014 - 9:45 am

    Great overview (and especially interesting looking at it from the setting perspective). I think it can be a rather divisive subject (as evidenced by the comments on this post:

    http://www.nownovel.com/blog/show-dont-tell/

  48. #54 by schillingklaus on April 30, 2014 - 10:12 am

    No, “show, don’t tell” is not an acceptable option for me, and I will break this rule all the time, regardless of any critique. I consider it as a rule invented and spread by materialistic writers in order to please the ignoble mass of readers, as opposed to the supreme elite.

    I hate reading mimetic stories, and so I only write diegetic stories–plain and simple! No one will ever be able to change my taste.

    • #55 by Author Kristen Lamb on April 30, 2014 - 10:27 am

      Well, that is your choice. Then commercial fiction is not your audience. Plain and simple.

  49. #56 by schillingklaus on May 27, 2014 - 3:49 am

    I use telling over showing, deliberately and religiously; because that rule has been made by realist authors, and I am not a realism, whence the rule can’t apply for me.

    • #57 by Author Kristen Lamb on May 27, 2014 - 9:00 am

      I am curious. You claim you want to write for intellectuals and yet they aren’t smart enough to figure something out on their own? You feel the need to tell them, “John was a jerk” instead of, “John sat behind an oversized and overpriced mahogany desk he’d had deliberately raised two inches above the ground. Anyone in the opposite chairs couldn’t help but be forced to look up on him, as if he were some pagan god dangling their fates in his hand.” Seems to me. “telling” is rather pedantic. I don’t need baby food. I don’t need an author holding my brain because I might be too “dumb” to get it. I like innuendo and the challenge of filling in subtext (which is the point of “show don’t tell”). Sometimes what is unsaid is more profound than what is.

      But that’s just me.

  50. #58 by schillingklaus on May 27, 2014 - 12:10 pm

    Yes, I would write expressis verba that Tom is a jerk, in order to avoid ambiguities. In this example, the desk may be understood as an altar dedicated to emotional healing, which is the esoteric property of mahogany. And a pagan priest is not automatically a jerk.

    • #59 by Author Kristen Lamb on May 27, 2014 - 12:55 pm

      Whatever. I prefer not to be fed baby food. I like using my brain. And maybe I want to think. Maybe I want to explore the depths and instead of being TOLD someone is a jerk, I want to dig deeper and think that, “the desk may be understood as an altar dedicated to emotional healing, which is the esoteric property of mahogany. And a pagan priest is not automatically a jerk.” Maybe that puts my university educated brain to work.

      Write what you want. There is an audience for everything. Aquila non capit muscas.

  51. #60 by bublick123 on May 27, 2014 - 12:13 pm

    Maybe there is room for both approaches, especiallly as favoured styles of writing vary considerably over time. Telling a story rather than showing a story can have it’s limitations, but if it is backed up by good writring, albiet in that style, it can still work well. Conversely showing a story also has its place within the writing world. It certainly can excite the readers mind as she or he unravels the subtext of the story, but what of the story which is so complex that the author almost needs to provide explanatory notes so the reader knows what us meant to be going on?

    I’m between two stools on this one, although I confess I lean more towards story telling, but then thats what us writers are called aren’t we, i.e storytellers? Shoud we now be called storyshowers, and should children now ask their parents to show them, rather than tell them, a bedtime story?

    A very good post though, and one which I will return to as I carry on writing, so please excuse me playing the devils advocate on this topic, it’s just that I can see both points of view

    • #61 by Author Kristen Lamb on May 27, 2014 - 12:57 pm

      There has to be a balance of showing and telling. If we “showed” everything our book would be 10,000 pages long. Some things need to be told. Others? If we show, we leave the reader a place to infuse their imagination and fill in the blanks. We can harness subtext.

      • #62 by bublick123 on May 27, 2014 - 1:36 pm

        very true, thank you for your quick reply

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