or, we don’t allow talking heads here.

In honor of Halloween, we’re going to talk about a subject today that groans and shivers. Setting. A talking head is just a term for dialog-heavy writing where the reader has no sense of where the characters are, what they look like, and what they’re doing. Unless the head is sitting on a table or discovered in the trunk of a car.

Immediately, you begin to imagine all sorts of scenarios, with guillotines or zombies or serial killers. As writers, we need to harness our readers’ imaginations to the words we put on the page. And that is the reason setting can be such a powerful tool.

Take the sentence, “Apparently, you haven’t been here before.”

Now add: Water seeped down the walls and flowed in the concrete ditches beneath the slippery metal walkway. Eve clung to the thin railing, her only protection from the rotten cabbage smell rising up to drag her into the dizzying rush of the storm drains. Above her, Paris in the rain was familiar, loved, captive. Down here she was lost, with only a guide she didn’t trust taking her to a rendezvous with the resistance, or the Gestapo.

Her guide twisted his head around, his eyes glinting demonically in the erratic light of the lantern. “Apparently, you haven’t been here before.”

Or: The throbbing in her head lessened enough that Eve was aware of the shackles around her wrists and ankles. A strip of light shone through a crack above her head, glaring with intensity on dust mites and the skull of the skeleton chained to the wall opposite her. She jerked when her eyes focused enough to make out what it was. Immediately she shut her eyes against the pain.

Then a voice, rusty from disuse, said, “Apparently, you haven’t been here before.”

Or: The house was frightening enough in daylight. By night, with only a sliver of a moon and no nearby street lights, it was eerie. Every small animal scurrying through the weeds, every board creaking under her feet on the porch, every scream of the night birds, proclaimed this was a bad idea. A stiff October breeze nearly blew her off the porch, making her feet tremble as they inched toward the door.

As she raised her hand to knock, the door swung open. The man standing there was young, handsome, and stripped to the waist. Eve stared at the well-muscled chest, unable to form a coherent thought, much less speak.

He gave a deep chuckle and said, “Apparently, you haven’t been here before.”

Same sentence, different settings. While dialog is important, and probably the easiest thing to write on a first draft, setting is what makes our stories vibrant. We all have our favorite settings to place our stories in. The trick is to make that setting come as alive on the page as it is in our head.

What’s your favorite setting? And do you start planning a story around where you will set it, or do you have the story first and then find a good setting in which to anchor it?

22 responses to “Settings”

  1. Gwyn says:

    Great post, Kate. I don’t plan anything in my stories. I write them as they happen, but since I tend to immerse myself in them, seeing, smelling, hearing, etc. what the character does, the setting is often integral. Anyone who says, “Prithee, my lady” had best be a historical character, a SCA member, or a Ren Faire denizen. I will say, when writing Sci-Fi, often the setting evolves to meet the needs of the character or story. Of course, once the rules are in place, they must stay in place, so that’s its own can of worms.


  2. Hi Kate, loved the post, you helped me realize how very important settings are. And your different examples were awesome!

    It’s probably an area I need to spend more time on in my own writing. Because you’re absolutely right…dialogue is the easy part, but it’s the added details that brings out the magic in a book. I guess that’s why I love stories with lush settings. Thanks for this!


  3. Rita Henuber says:

    I’m really glad you brought this up. I’m not sure I define settings the way others do. For me setting is another character. All the settings provide story conflict. The story is the setting or is the setting the story? I get so confused. For me Olivia’ helicopter is a character working with her to take down the bad guys. Another heroine, Gemma , isn’t only fighting the bad guys she’s fighting the jungle. The jungle doesn’t speak but reaches out and touches in many other ways. Another heroine thinks she is only seeking one corrupt man and discovers she’s battling a vast underbelly of corruption. For me that underbelly is a monster. A character unto it’s self. I think of the movie Castaway. For me the island and Wilson were characters. And hey there wasn’t much dialogue there. Am I crazy?


    • Kate Parker says:

      No, Rita, you’re not crazy. Your stories wouldn’t be what they are without your fabulous settings. They enrich your plots and take me, at least, to places I’ve never seen in real life.


  4. Elisa Beatty says:

    Ooh! I love all three examples, Kate!! I wanted to hear more! (And, for some reason, I really wanted one set at the San Francisco Pride Parade.)

    I think I have a tendency to skimp a bit on setting. I always try to remind myself to go for more “panoramic shots” rather than “close-ups”….when I find I’m making too many references to the movements of my character’s mouths, eyebrows, and chins, I try to back up and think about how they could interact with their surroundings, or how something in the surroundings could move or make a noise or otherwise interfere with the conversation.

    Thanks for the reminder!


    • Kate Parker says:

      Elisa, I like your challenge, but I’ve only been to SF once, so you get to give us the example at the gay pride parade. I’m sure if we tried, we could come up with a hundred settings for that sentence, illustrating the very real need for settings in our stories. Something I’m still learning.


  5. Vivi Andrews says:

    Love those examples to bring the point home, Kate. I’m lazy with setting, usually not giving it a lot of attention. I know it’s just semantics, but I’ve found it helps me to think of it as “atmosphere” rather than setting. Maybe it’s my theater background – the set is the backdrop, atmosphere is lighting and sound and fog machines.


    • Kate Parker says:

      Vivi, your background in theatre gives you a hand up when it comes to vivid settings with evocative detail in your stories. Thanks for reminding us how important setting is to the theatre.


  6. Kate, love those examples! It’s awesome how you can convey such different feelings and meanings when you really play up the setting like that.

    I admit, setting is probably my least favorite thing ever when I write. Maybe that’s why I find myself setting my books in exotic locations (Cambodia, Philippines, etc.)…a way of trying to get my brain interested in caring a fig about setting. 😉

    Great post!


    • Kate Parker says:

      Cynthia, I don’t touch setting until my second or third draft, unless I see a comic bit I can use as counterpoint to the dialog. Setting is difficult. Too much and you bore yourself and everyone else. Not enough and your characters are talking heads. Setting requires a balancing act which you manage so beautifully.


  7. Hope Ramsay says:

    Hi Kate,

    Great blog topic, wonderful post.

    I think setting is important in all novels, but in a series of books, setting may be the most important thing. The big fans of JK Rowling’s books loved the characters and the story, but most of all they loved the setting that the author created.

    And that setting wasn’t just the clothes people wore, or the places they hung out, or how a scene smelled or looked. The setting in the Harry Potter books went extremely deep, into the very rules of decorum and magic (or physics) that applied to that world.

    People may have wanted to know what happened to Harry in each of the books, but they also wanted to revisit that world over and over again. Hell, they even made a theme park of that world.

    In a series, setting may be the most important thing.


  8. Tamara Hogan says:

    As a paranormal/urban fantasy writer, when I think of setting, I first think of world-building, but thoughts of POV elbow their way in there pretty darn fast. I write in deep third person POV, so what a character notices ABOUT the setting while we’re in their POV helps me convey important information about that character.

    Take, for example, shoes. Your average dude would notice your heroine is wearing sexy black high heels, and might appreciate what they do for the woman’s posture. Project Runway’s Tim Gunn? He would recognize the shoes as being last season’s Louboutins. 😉


  9. Elizabeth Langston says:

    I have historical settings in my book–so they are part of the plot. The stories couldn’t have happened in exactly the same way at any other time or in any other place. Like Rita mentioned, it’s so intrinsic to the story, it’s a character.


    • Kate Parker says:

      The way historical characters relate to their world is so different than how we look at the world now. Too much heat or too much rain spelled starvation in the US and western Europe not so long ago. The speed that news traveled, how far people traveled from their homes, all of that has changed. Their world is another character in a historical. You and Rita are absolutely correct in my book.


  10. Liz Talley says:

    Hmm…I haven’t thought about that chicken/egg scenario, and I’m not sure that it doesn’t change for me scene to scene. Sometimes I might think I need the heroine to admit her weakness to the hero and then might wonder where the best place for that to happen would be. As in, what setting might up the stakes for this admission?

    Other times I might have my characters sitting in church because that’s where the Christmas play is set, and then need something to happen to advance the plot.

    So I guess I decide on a scene by scene basis.


  11. Addison Fox says:


    What a fun post!! (And that body-less head does double duty so close to Halloween!)

    And you are so spot on – setting is such an important piece of the writer’s toolkit.



  12. Laurie Kellogg says:

    Sorry, I’m late to the party, but I couldn’t get onto the Ruby site yesterday. I can’t say it’s my favorite setting, but the kitchen is the one I use most often because I write Home & Family contemporary romances.


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