Setting–Adding Dimension to Your Fiction

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. This is why Mondays are dedicated to craft. I am here to train stronger writers. In the comments last Monday, one of our writer pals asked me to expound on the difference between showing and telling. Setting is a great tool to do exactly that.

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? 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!

And to prove it and show my love, for the month of September, 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 every week for a critique of your first five pages. At the end of September I will pick a winner for the grand prize. A free critique from me on the first 15 pages of your novel. Good luck!

Last Week’s Winner of 5 Page Critique

Alicia McKenna Johnson Please e-mail your 1250 word Word document to my assistant Gigi at gigi.salem.ea@gmail.com. She will make sure it doesn’t get eaten by the spam folder.

Note: GRAND PRIZE WILL BE PICKED THIS MONTH. I am keeping all the names for a final GRAND, GRAND PRIZE of 30 Pages (To be announced at the end of September) OR a blog diagnostic. I look at your blog and give feedback to improve it. For now, I will draw weekly for 5 page edit, monthly for 15 page edit.

In the meantime, if you want to learn more about how to spread word-of-mouth and build your platform, sign-ups are open for my Blogging To Build Your Author Brand on-line workshop. It’s two months long–one month of lessons and one month of launch and it is ONLY $40.

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 . Both books are ON SALE for $4.99!!!! And both are recommended by the hottest agents and biggest authors in th biz. My methods teach you how to make building your author platform FUN. Build a platform and still have time left over to write more great books! I am here to change your approach, not your personality.

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  1. #1 by amyshojai on September 19, 2011 - 10:11 am

    As I go through deep edits on the current thriller WIP I’ve found that the setting has been “hammered” a bit–I think so anyway. I mean, how many ways do you need to say “its cold” or whatever? And yes in this case the setting and weather greatly influence the plot and how the hero gets stuff done but I think it’s a fine line, too and less is more. Doncha think?

    FWIW, my story takes place in N Texas during a freak blizzard that interferes with all sorts of things, but the hero also lived in “blizzard country” and just moved there so has special skills that help. So I have to find a good balance I think.

  2. #2 by LM Milford on September 19, 2011 - 10:13 am

    Hi Kristen,
    Another great blog post! It’s so easy to drop into the habit of telling, not showing, because when someone really gets it right, you hardly notice they’ve done it. I always have to really consciously force myself to describe settings because, although I see them really clearly in my head, I get tied up in the dialogue and plot and forget to let the reader see what I can see. I suppose it comes from being an ex-journalist and just having to tell the story! I am learning though and getting better – I hope. Thanks for the help and advice as always!

  3. #3 by susielindau on September 19, 2011 - 10:16 am

    I am trying to maintain the blending as I am writing my book. You used great examples and have made a good point about the pink elephant. Luckily I knew about showing and telling before I started. I cut tons of sequel out of my book to try to keep it moving. I just hope I don’t give my reader whip lash!!
    My hope is that when I am finished I have something worth reading~

  4. #4 by Kimberly Mullican on September 19, 2011 - 10:23 am

    Fantastic post as usual – and I push your book. I’d love one day to open up my Twitter and not see “Hey – it’s me – buy my book – because it’s awesome.” I get so many DMs on the same topic. Thanks increasing my following, now buy my book.” And no one ever gives me a reason to.

    And for the record, lipstick on a pig is sexy😉

  5. #5 by Elizabeth Anne Mitchell on September 19, 2011 - 10:40 am

    Very helpful post, as always! I’m with Kimberly–I tell everyone about your book, because I’m so tired of the 20/day/author “I wrote this awesome book.” If they spent the time writing that they spend flogging . . .

    I fall into the deep introspective “therapy” monologues too often, so I need to get the machete and cut through the kudzu. Maybe I can stop myself before it riots next time!🙂

  6. #6 by Jessica Aspen on September 19, 2011 - 10:41 am

    Good refresher on setting, showing/not telling. Have to say it surprised me when I opened up the blog and saw Anthony Hopkins face. Sent chills down my spine and I have only seen Silence of the Lambs the one time. That is an extremely effective movie on many counts.

  7. #7 by Laura Landon on September 19, 2011 - 10:44 am

    Great blog, Kristen! “Showing” has always been the key to being a great writer and having an even greater story! Thanks for the refresher blog. I appreciate it!

  8. #8 by Kathy Bennett on September 19, 2011 - 10:53 am

    I find your posts so helpful. I know I could/should do more with setting. I’m currently in revisions now, and will look for opportunities to do so.

    Thanks!

  9. #9 by the writ and the wrote on September 19, 2011 - 11:01 am

    Excellent post. I just bought “Are You There, Blog?” and am looking forward to reading it.

  10. #10 by Florence Fois on September 19, 2011 - 11:03 am

    Great post, Kristen. I am a lover of setting and prose and have had to learn to make them work with the scene and further the story, not give the reader an unwanted trip down the primrose path. This is a keeper for sure🙂

  11. #11 by Anne R. Allen on September 19, 2011 - 11:22 am

    Great post as usual. Your ears should have been burning this weekend. At the Central Coast Writers Conference, both Agent Laurie McLean and I taught classes related to social media. We both started out by telling everybody to buy your books and follow this blog. Laurie and I agree this is THE place for writers to learn the stuff they MUST know to sell books these days. Thanks for everything you’re teaching us. I hope we bring you a spike in sales this week.

    • #12 by Author Kristen Lamb on September 19, 2011 - 11:25 am

      You two ladies are just amazing and awesome and I wish I could clone you😀. Thanks so much for your support and you guys really help keep me motivated, especially on the rough days.

  12. #13 by Stephanie Scott on September 19, 2011 - 11:25 am

    One of my favorite aspects of books is when setting is blended well. Thank you for a great write-up and reminder on how to use setting to make our stories great – beyond weather!

  13. #14 by Sonia G Medeiros on September 19, 2011 - 11:29 am

    Fantastic post, as usual. Great examples too. I love the way you make things plain that can be so difficult to get a handle on. I always have these “of course!” moments when reading your posts.😀

    • #15 by Jess Witkins on September 19, 2011 - 4:26 pm

      Dito!

  14. #16 by Gene Lempp on September 19, 2011 - 11:35 am

    A great setting book is Description & Setting by Roz Rozelle for anyone looking for a resource on this subject. Excellent post and examples Kristen!

  15. #17 by Catherine Johnson on September 19, 2011 - 1:07 pm

    Another one is Scene and Structure by Jack Bickham. I should probably leave it open on my desk🙂 This is an area I am trying to improve upon. I love your examples linking with setting Kristen, thanks!

  16. #18 by Kate Larkindale on September 19, 2011 - 1:47 pm

    I find setting is so important. Just a few carefully selected details can tell you show much about a character and their circumstances. And it’s so important to remember to use all the senses when describing setting. Smell can be so evocative, and people tend to forget about that one.

  17. #19 by lynnkelleyauthor on September 19, 2011 - 2:25 pm

    I can always use refreshers, but you also touched on some new things in this post, and the examples are excellent. I’m forwarding this post to my writer friends. Thanks!

  18. #20 by Jessica O'Neal on September 19, 2011 - 2:51 pm

    Thank you for this blog! I was getting so tired of seeing the words “show don’t tell” without any explanations on what this looks like. Granted, there is a common sense idea inherent in the literal meaning of the words, but I’ve also seen examples of “telling” that surprised me and offered no alternative way to “show”. Anyway, thank you. You are always a true helper to the writer.

    I know I read in one of your blogs or books the title of a book on craft that you said was the best tool you found, but I can’t remember the name of the book or where I read it. Do you know what I’m talking about?

  19. #21 by Sonia G Medeiros on September 19, 2011 - 4:22 pm

    Kristen, I just finished Save the Cat. I’d love to see how you translate Blake Snyder’s screenwriting advice into novel-writing advice. Say that’s on the agenda for a future series. Pretty please.😀

  20. #22 by Jess Witkins on September 19, 2011 - 4:31 pm

    Love the example from Silence of the Lambs. Great illustration piece. You’ve really got me thinking how setting gets involved with the story when it’s part of the character’s worth, so to speak. I’m thinking of The Thorn Birds, the Cleary family is nothing without Drogheda. Or even in Sarah, Plain and Tall, she can’t really understand Jacob until she “writes her name in the land.” I’d never given setting that much thought or appreciation before. Thanks for showing me what I’m missing by overlooking it.

  21. #23 by Terra Harmony on September 19, 2011 - 4:33 pm

    Thanks for such a detailed blog post! I tweeted the link. I don’t know how you find time; takes me forever to come up with a one paragraph blog post – and I call myself a writer! Anyway, I advertised your blog and book; check it out at: http://www.twainwannabe.blogspot.com.

  22. #24 by Jillian Dodd - Glitter, Bliss and Perfect Chaos on September 19, 2011 - 4:55 pm

    Your blogs are always very helpful and make me think about what I’m writing and how to make it better!

  23. #25 by Shannon Lell on September 19, 2011 - 8:40 pm

    Thanks for the helpful blog posts. This was a great one!

  24. #26 by Renée A. Schuls-Jacobson on September 19, 2011 - 9:06 pm

    “Don’t just pick stormy weather because it is the first image that pops in your mind.”

    I think your Monday posts are going to be required reading for my Comp. 101ers. They are going to get this one this tonight. All that telling that is killing me. The reality is that it is so much easier seeing “telling words” in someone else’s writing than catching it one’s own. When it comes to my own work, I need a really good editor to tell me I’m missing out on an opportunity to show something: someone with a great eye.

    Do you think it’s worth hiring an editor as a final step before querying literary agents old-school or making the move to e-publish?

    • #27 by Author Kristen Lamb on September 19, 2011 - 9:16 pm

      I think if you are in a good critique group you won’t need the editor.

      • #28 by Renee Schuls-Jacobson on September 22, 2011 - 8:05 pm

        I think you are right.🙂 I just wanted to “hear” you write it. Watching what is going on with Terrell Mims in his group makes me think the right group could really provide outstanding feedback.

  25. #29 by Kimberly Mullican on September 19, 2011 - 9:35 pm

    Eh, I have no WIP to get your crit on, but I pimped you out anyway since Klout says I’m influential in lambs😉

    It’s a pleasure to spread your good word. I look forward to a day when my twitter isn’t full of, “Hey, buy my book!”

  26. #30 by alicamckennajohnson on September 19, 2011 - 9:40 pm

    One of my critique partners always reminds us the setting should be a character too.

  27. #31 by ED Martin on September 19, 2011 - 10:33 pm

    Great tips. I think the section on blending is the best part – a reminder that less is more. I tend to keep description to a bare minimum when I write, so when I do throw in a detail – a homemade afghan on a bachelor’s bed, ceramic tile floor in the foyer of a house – it amplifies the meaning. When I read I tend to flat-out skip over chunks of description, so I try to be conscientious of my readers in my own works.

  28. #32 by Marion Spicher on September 19, 2011 - 11:07 pm

    Excellent, concise, an excellent reminder of prior craft teaching on the subject. Your skill in reaching and pulling the reader’s brain cogs in the direction they need to go is amazing. Your points are tied to examples that make them stick.

  29. #33 by Marji Laine on September 20, 2011 - 12:21 am

    Thanks so much for sharing. I know the concepts, but when I see more examples it just further cements them in!

  30. #34 by carol on September 20, 2011 - 5:08 am

    How many times as a new writer I heard, show don’t tell…and find that very specific detail. If only I’d found a post like this back then. SHOWING the Examples instead of telling me to show makes all the difference🙂

  31. #35 by Mehmet Arat (@mehmetarat2000) on September 20, 2011 - 6:02 am

    We were writing on a two dimensional paper before we met the keyboard.
    Now we see the words on a two dimensional screen.
    Words describe seen and unseen telling a story of our choice.
    I think setting is much more important in the fast flowing and changing world of today.
    It is more difficult than ever to impress someone who has met Hannibal in Silence of the Lambs with words only.
    Thank you for sharing.

  32. #36 by Suzanne Lucero (@S_Lucero) on September 20, 2011 - 7:16 am

    I love visuals but I tend to “tell” the visuals. You know, stuff like “She fell on the ground sobbing while the rain fell around her, splashing little particles of mud on her formerly pristine cloak.” I mean, that’s OK, but I think it could be better.

    A visually stunning set of movies was The Lord of the Rings trilogy. I’d love to be able to write as well as Peter Jackson and his team showed the beauty and terror of Middle Earth. I read the production books and it all boiled down to details: the intricate carving on the hilts of the swords, the architecture of the buildings of the different inhabitants, the clothing and set designs…everything that would make you feel you are there, with no false notes to jar you out of your suspension of disbelief. I could go on, but you get the point. Now, how does one get that sort of beauty and detail in a novel without ramming the “telling” down someone’s throat?

  33. #37 by Tamara LeBlanc on September 20, 2011 - 8:04 am

    I found this post to be incredibly beneficial. Loved how you broke down Hannibal’s cell and how the plexi-glass cage adds to his fright factor!
    Also, I had heard of sequel before, but you explained it much better.
    Thanks for your wisdom!!
    Have a great day,
    Tamara

  34. #38 by katewoodauthor on September 20, 2011 - 9:05 am

    Thank you so much for this, Kristen. As always you’re able to put things in perspective. I will be thinking about really fleshing out my settings as I’m editing today. Fantastic post!

  35. #39 by Lesann on September 20, 2011 - 11:28 am

    I like setting and atmosphere so much, I sometimes sacrifice story. It’s the same reason I love period films – the details in all that historical setting just thrill me. Yep, nerd much?

  36. #40 by JM Randolph on September 20, 2011 - 2:40 pm

    I love it when you make me think (and write)! Would it be bad form if I’m writing on my WIP during back-to-school night tonight?

  37. #41 by nightsmusic on September 20, 2011 - 6:41 pm

    I’m so bad at adding enough setting to balance things. I think it’s because I’m not one for a lot of setting. I read a story once where the ballroom where some major action was to take place took three pages to get through. Every tiny thing was described in unbelievable detail. It might have taken more, my eyes glazed over and I had to stop reading the story. I never finished it.

    I don’t want to be that writer, but I don’t want to be the one that never uses any setting either. It’s hard to find the right mix, but I’m learning.

    Slowly.

  38. #42 by Trish Loye Elliott on September 30, 2011 - 8:00 am

    Great post as always, Kristen. I’m a ‘lean’ writer on my first drafts and I’m always having to go back and ground the reader and describe my setting. This is excellent advice on blending information into setting. Thanks!

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