Friday, November 25, 2011

Please welcome guest Lena Nelson Dooley

Settings – Beyond Talking Heads, Bare Stage

By Lena Nelson Dooley
I host a critique group in my home and have for over 20 years. You’d be surprised to see how many people bring a very good story, filled with emotion and conflict, but completely bare of setting. That’s what I call “talking heads, bare stage.”

What is setting? It’s the description of the place surrounding characters. Many elements make up setting.

Time is part of the setting. In a contemporary novel, the time is present day, and in a historical novel, it denotes the time period. In the book, it could be winter, summer, autumn, or spring, or the book could span all the seasons. Each of these elements adds to the fabric of the story.

Place should be revealed early in each scene. Does the scene take place indoors or out? If inside, what kind of building, with what kind of furnishings? If outside, is it rural or urban? There are a lot of varying settings that paint your book.

Another important element is the weather. And weather can add to the tone of the book. We all know that stormy weather increases the darkness of a brooding mystery or gothic novel. Sunshine can add to the feeling of well-being.

Some authors use the setting almost as another character in the book. One that comes to mind immediately is my friend Colleen Coble. Study her work to see how she uses these elements.

Why do we need setting? It anchors the reader in a time and place. It enhances the story whether a dark mystery, a tender love story, a family tragedy, or a myriad of other scenarios.

How should you use setting? When I first started writing, I dumped large sections of description of setting into one place. Tracie Peterson, my editor at the time, told me that she didn’t want a laundry list description of the setting. Her words really revealed to me what I was doing. Thank you, Tracie.

Don’t overload the reader with unnecessary information. It’s best to include setting in snippets woven throughout the story. And reveal the snippets from the viewpoint of the POV character. How that person responds to the particular part of the setting will add to the overall feel of the story.

Setting should always be tied to the POV character’s perceptions. And that character will be affected by what is going on emotionally in his or her life. Depicting these emotions in a graphic way draws the readers deeper into the story and keeps them turning pages.

Another place to include elements of setting is in conversation beats. I hardly ever use a conversation tag (he said, she said). Instead I utilize the beats to describe setting and other characters in the scene as well as depict the emotions of the Point of View character. 

If you’re an author, you should read multi-published authors and see how they include setting in their books. I will add this caveat. Many authors who write suspense don’t use as much setting, because it can slow down the pace of certain scenes – those edge-of-your-seat scenes. But they use setting snippets in other places.

©2011, Lena Nelson Dooley

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Walt Mussell said...

I never would have connected a suspense story with a lack of setting (or setting in snippets), but it does make sense.

Cathy Shouse said...

This topic is great timing for me. Seeing the setting through the character's eyes is tricky for me. Could you provide an example?

It's hard for to do this naturally, I think.


Cathy underscore shouse at yahoo dot com

Janet Kerr said...

Oh, setting! Lena,

This is such an important topic. Thanks so much for the straightforward information! I going to print this one.

Oh, and please enter me in the draw

Virginia said...

Suspense... And some YA now seems to lack setting in the action scenes. The James Patterson books in the Ya series Maxium ride seem to follow that.

I struggle with setting because personally I notice details everywhere I go. But the readers don't want to see the room in tiny details when two people are having an argument. :D Obviously.

Cathy, I was reading Small Town Hearts (again!) the other day and I noticed how Ruthy's heroine described the store in terms of customers and tasks, and the hero described the store in terms of goodies and, of course, the heroine. I noticed the setting meant very different things to both of them. Which makes sense that the heroine wouldn't be eyeing all the treats because she works there... but everybody else would. :D She'd be more likely to notice what needs to be done for the day.

Anonymous said...

Interesting post Lena, I dont think the story would be very good without it. thanks for sharing your insight.
Your book Maggie's Journey looks like a good read, would love to be in the drawing for possible win.
Paula O(

Sandra Leesmith said...

Morning Lena, Its great to hear from you and have you visiting in Seekerville. Welcome and thank you.

I love settings. They are always a big part of my writing. James Mitchner is one of my favorite authors and he definitely includes setting as a main character.

Virginia, great example from Ruthy's book.

Tina Radcliffe said...

Lena! Welcome to Seekerville. What an excellent post. Poor setting so often ignored. Thank you.

Rose said...

Hi Lena,

Great post! Setting is a very important element in a story that is often ignored while writer's create their characters, however the setting can really effect the character!

I love your book cover.

RRossZediker at yahoo dot com

Cindy W. said...

Good morning Lena & Seekerville!

First off Lena, I'd like to say I love the cover of Maggie's Journey! As for your post...awesome! I have read everything Colleen Coble has written beginning at the Rock Harbor series (unfortunately I haven't found any of her earlier work). I love her work and I believe part of the reason is the way she works settings into her stories. It's magical. She takes you there.

I also appreciate what you said about hardly ever using coversation tags of "He said, She said". For me, I skip over those words. It the author has set up the scene and the reader has gotten into the head of the characters they know who is talking.

This post is definitely a keeper.

I would love to be entered to win a copy of Lena's book. It's been on my wish list for some time now!

Smiles & Blessings,
Cindy W.


MaryC said...

Good morning, Lena.
Thanks for sharing your wisdom about setting today.

Setting is so important because like most other things in writing - when it's done well, it adds tremendously to a story and when it's done poorly, it's an obvious distraction.

Virginia, I loved your example of Ruthy's candy store. Perfect way to show how setting is seen through a character's eyes and POV.

Hope everyone had a lovely Thanksgiving.

Lena Nelson Dooley said...

Wow! Ya'all are up early today. Walt, Cathy, Janet, Virginia, Paula, Sandra, Tina, Rose, Cindy thanks for stopping by.

Cathy, if you want to see how this is done, there are book previews of my last two books on my web site: - Click on the Book Preview at the top. Chapter 1 of Love Finds You in Golden, New Mexico and the Prologue of Maggie's Journey. You can check out how I did this.

jewels67 said...

I would love to read this!! It sounds sooo good!! have a blessed week

Julie Lessman said...


Setting is one of those things that makes or breaks a scene for me. Sometimes a scene can be written really well, but the author doesn't give me a firm feel of where we are, doesn't trigger my imagination to take over at the onset of the scene, and that bothers me. When I'm finished with a story, I want to "feel" like I've been somewhere, someplace I could never go in real life, and a well established setting will do that.

The author who immediately comes to mind for me is Laura Frantz, who beautifully paints a setting so real and alive, it almost becomes another character in the book, richly drawn, powerfully emotive.

I like Tracie's (and your) advice to layer the snippets in rather than a dump at the beginning like I tend to do, so I'm going to try that. :)


B. J. Robinson said...

I love setting like a character or closely tied to the main character's POV and though my novel Last Resort is romantic suspense, I still included setting that was tied to my main character's POV :) Interesting blog on setting. Blessings, BJ Robinson

Connie Queen said...

I'm one of those that enjoys seeing the hero angry and miserable on a sunny day and the herione cheerful singing on a rainy day. Ooo, and so many things can happen in a thunderstorm.

Who remembers the scene in The Notebook in the pouring rain? Thunderstorms in The Man From Snowy River and then in Tombstone when Sam Elliot gets shot?

I'm writing for NaNo this month and haven't even picked which season the story is set in. I was hoping a season would emerge, but if not, I'll have to pick one and layer it in my revisions. West Texas is the place, so it's not likely a blizzard is in the making.

essay said...

Very interesting post! I like it.

Lorna Faith said...

Thanks for the helpful advice Lena...and great timing for me as well:)
...oh please enter me for Maggie's Journey...would love it:)

lornafaith at gmail dot com

Jan Drexler said...

Thanks for the great post, Lena!

Setting is so important to a story when I'm reading, but I had never though of what Virginia pointed out - that how the setting is described can add layers to the character through whom we're seeing the setting. I'll have to look for that as I work through the revisions...

Great food for thought!

Kirsten Arnold said...

Excellent post, Lena. I just had to weave a bit more setting into a couple scenes recently. It made all the difference in the "feeling" of the scenes.


Annie Rains said...

Thank you so much for your post. Writing setting is my weakness; I need all the help I can get. I love how you suggested to use setting in conversational beats. I'm going to try that.


Susan Anne Mason said...

Good morning everyone! Hope you all had a wonderful Thanksgiving!

Lena, thank you for this great advice. This is so spot on for me right now. I'm busy whizzing away through NaNo (I should hit the 60,000 words mark today or tomorrow!) and I KNOW I have to go back and incorporate the setting in a much better way. That and the character's emotions.

I agree that setting is so important. I have to draw myself little diagrams of the rooms I'm using so I can picture the characters in there.

Love to be in the draw!

sbmason at sympatico dot ca

Lena Nelson Dooley said...

I only go away from the computer for a few minutes, and so many more people have joined us. Mary, Jewels67, Julie, BJ, Connie, Essay, Lorna, Jan, Kristen, Annie, Susan so glad to have you join in.

If you read my examples on my Book Preview tab on my website, you can see how the POV character's feelings and emotions in relation to the setting can reveal all kinds of things about that person.

Mary Connealy said...

Setting was something that didn't come naturally to me. I always liked dialogue.
Two talking heads sassing each other. And I like action thought it's a lot of work.

But I'd finish a scene and realize I never described anything about where they were. On a wooded mountaintop? In the kitchen, the barn, the yard?
Setting because a huge issue in my latest series, where the setting was one of the main characters, in some ways the villain, in others the hero (almost).

And of course my characters clothing isn't wildly important. The women are in gingham dresses, the men in chaps and Stetsons.

But the very simplicity of that should make it easy to draw those quick descriptive lines.

And it's through setting that you often bring in the senses. The scent of the pine trees, the wind blowing, the branches clicking as they sway in the wind. So skipping setting skips so many chances to pull your reader deeply into the story.

Mary Connealy said...

What you said about suspense can apply to action scenes in any book. When you're in the middle of action you can barely stop a second to describe anything. Or if you do, what you describe needs to be collapsing on you, burning or whizzing past your head.

Linnette R Mullin said...

Hi, Lena! I'd love to be entered into your drawing!

I love your post. Very insightful. And thank you even more for adding this: I will add this caveat. Many authors who write suspense don’t use as much setting, because it can slow down the pace of certain scenes – those edge-of-your-seat scenes. But they use setting snippets in other places.

My romance is suspenseful, so I needed this comment for balance. :D

Linnette R Mullin said...

OH. Am I supposed to leave my e-mail for the drawing?
lr dot mullin at live dot com.

Anonymous said...

Hi Lena,
Glad to be away from the kitchen today and back to learning more about the writing craft. Your comments are well taken and thanks for directing us to your site to read examples. That was very helpful.


Melanie Dickerson said...

Hi, Lena! Great article! This is actually one of the things that I have to really think about when I'm editing, because when I write the first draft I'm usually so caught up in the story that I don't put in a lot of setting. I tend to add those details later. And I'm not a fan of long paragraphs of description. I tend to skim those when I'm reading, so I like to drop in a hint of scenery here and there.

Anyway, it's good to see you here in Seekerville, Lena! Congrats on your new book!

Pam Hillman said...

Lena, I bought a handful of books a the ACFW Conference bookstore and Maggie's Journey was one of them!

The cover was just awesome, and when I read the Prologue, I knew I had to have it! Thank you for giving us another wonderful book.

Prologue, opening sentence...

Florence Caine huddled near the campfire outside their wagon, one of over thirty that were circled for the night. Winter rode the winds that had been blasting them for the last few days. Their destination couldn't come soon enough to suit her.

First paragraph, and I'm THERE!

Thanks Lena!

Pam Hillman said...

Cathy, I think an EXTREME example is needed to explain how seeing setting through the character's eyes is important.

Here you go. You might want to grab a scented hankie or some febreeze first though!

Dairy farmer Josh's pov:

Josh slapped the milkers on the last four Holsteins, then grabbed the water hose. The rythmic swoosh, swoosh, swoosh of the milkers and the crooning voice of Johnny Cash filled the barn.

He hosed down the left side of the barn, the swish of the water keeping time with the song on the radio. He glanced at his watch. Great, he'd make it to the house in time for a shower before sitting down to his mother's Thanksgiving dinner.

His thoughts wandered as the water mixed with the muck, pushing it in to the 4" drain. At least his sister was home from college and she'd grabbed her boots to help him finish early. His stomach rumbled. He could taste his mom's turkey and dressing even now.

The door opened. He turned to grin at his sister and instead came face to face with her college roommate. Her eyes grew wide, and her perfectly made up face turned a pasty shade of green.

Okay, should I share city girl Catherine's pov as she opened the door to the barn?

Hmmm, probably not...

Suffice it to say that Josh doesn't pay much attention to his chore since he's done it all his life, but each scent and sound hits Catherine in waves, and we'll just end with this...

Catherine's stomach rumbled. Oh, dear Lord in heaven, how would she ever be able to sit down to Mrs. Cavendish's Thanksgiving dinner?

Just the thought of turkey and dressing made her want to hurl!

Cara Lynn James said...

Great information, Lena! I love to read good settings because it draws me into the story. I also enjoy writing settings, especially ones I really like.

Gwendolyn Gage said...

This is an important subject, Lena! I always seem to struggle with setting. While I'm concentrating on what the characters are doing and feeling, I often leave out the scenery, background and weather.

Pat Jeanne Davis said...

Thank you, Lena, for guidance on how to put readers in a scene through describing setting in snippets from POV character's eyes as they engage with it. I love writing setting, but need to watch out that I don't sound like a travel writer. Thank you for examples.

Jamie Adams said...

Add me to the 'love the cover of your book' club. I appreciate your words of wisdom as I'm editing my wip. Now to go take a closer look at the setting :)

MaryC said...

LOL Pam, great description! The part about swishing the hose in rhythm to Johnny Cash was a great visual.

Good thing Thanksgiving dinner was yesterday or I'd be with Catherine. Loved the conflicting responses to the thought of dinner.

Myra Johnson said...

Lena, how nice to have you in Seekerville today! Excellent advice about setting!

As a reader, I like to have some clues early in a scene about where the characters are and what's happening around them.

As a writer, I try to focus on particular setting details that would have the most impact on the characters in that scene--and, as you said, always from the POV character's perspective.

Joy said...

I can definitely see how a setting can be so important to a story. I will definitely save this info! Love your books as well Lena Nelson Dooley!

Ausjenny said...

Nice post and good info I do like learning about the craft of writing.

Dont enter me I read this book and really loved it.

Lena Nelson Dooley said...

I had to be away from the computer for a while today. Glad you continued the conversation. Mary, Linnette, Lyndee, Melanie, Pam, Cara, Pat, Mary, Myra, Joy, Ausjenny, I'm glad y'all joined us. You can get away with adding description snippets of something the POV character might not notice otherwise in the situation if you can elicit an emotion--either positive or negative to it. This takes you deeper into the character development.

I agree that if I don't get something to ground me in the setting--time, place, weather, etc.--early on the first page, it takes me out of the story, and we don't want to do that.

Faye said...

Great tips on how to enrich a scene with the setting! Thanks :)

Carrie Fancett Pagels said...

Thanks so much for this wise post, Lena. This is something I have to fight a lot because I get so caught up in the dialogue between my characters. My freelance editor helped me to get a better feel about anchoring the scene without loading it down in details. cfpagels (at) aol (dot) com

Lena Nelson Dooley said...

Faye and Carrie, glad you joined us.

Edwina said...

Excellent post! I tend to give away too much info about the setting rather than sharing it in small snippets through the POV character. This post was very helpful!!

Lena Nelson Dooley said...

Thanks for stopping by, Edwina.

Soccerkidsmom said...

Thanks for the interesting information. I write reviews for books and it's important for me to also make sure I choose words carefully so as to not give away the story but to make the review cause the reader to want to pick up the book and spend their time and money reading it. Please enter me. Sherri
sherri5 (at) pa (dot) net

Glenda Parker Fiction Writer said...

Thank you for an excellent post. I had never really thought of the setting that way. I so appreciate all the wisdom that you shared with us.

Glenda Parker