Learn How NOT to Waste Your Story Setting’s Full Potential

This week’s video talks about how Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island benefited from a full and imaginative use of its story setting—and how you can add the same value to your own book.

Video Transcript:

Story setting should never be a throwaway decision. Your setting is going to influence every page you write. Not only does your story setting influence the tone of your story and offer background symbolism, it also has the ability to completely transform both the premise and the potential of the story itself!

That said, even when you go to the totally justified effort of choosing a fabulous setting, it can still be incredibly easy to overlook the possibilities it offers.

Don’t let yourself fall into that trap.

Dennis Lehane’s psychological thriller Shutter Island is all about its title setting: a prison for the criminally insane on an island. It’s a creepily atmospheric setting that not only basically creates the premise, but also transforms the plot itself into something even sharper-edged than it might otherwise have been.

Shutter Island Leonardo DiCaprio Mark Ruffalo Martin Scorcese Ward C

Shutter Island (2010), Paramount Pictures.

It’s worth noting how every conceivable possibility of this setting is taken advantage of. Every nook and cranny is explored: from the various wards and levels of the asylum itself, to the cemetery, to the caves on the rocky shoreline, to the mysterious lighthouse. No possibility is left unturned—no aspect of the readers’ curiosity is left un-piqued.

Lighthouse Shutter Island Leonardo DiCaprio Mark Ruffalo Martin Scorcese

Shutter Island (2010), Paramount Pictures.

Consider your story setting and ask yourself the following questions.

1. Even if it’s not as atmospheric as Lehane’s, what aspects of it do you know readers will be interested in exploring?

2. Which aspects pose interesting or unique possibilities?

3. Have you taken advantage of all these prospects in your plot?

4. If not, can you spot ways in which you can improve your existing ideas by making better use of your story setting?

Give it a try!

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! What aspects of your work-in-progress’s story setting are sure to interest your readers? Tell me in the comments!


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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  1. I sometimes have difficulty exploring the setting. One reason is that I write from deep 3rd POV, and the character simply doesn’t dwell on the details of his familiar setting. Sometimes I can have him pause to admire a familiar locale. But it’s almost impossible, for example, to describe his office where he works every day. The only thing he will notice is what’s out of its normal place.
    How do we get around that?

    • How does your character feel in his office?
      Does he have personal belongings – pictures of loved ones, etc. – on his desk?
      Is everything meticulously in ist place or does he prefer creative chaos.

      My office desk, for example, is a mess. It is covered with paper, printouts, open magazines and, at the moment, an empty coffee mug with a reindeer. The mug’s colours already give in to a lot of cleaning and fade into oblivion.
      A thin dust layer covers my telephone. I have two cardboard boxes in a staple next to my computer screen to block the sunlight from the window.

      What does my office tell you about me?

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

        Good thoughts, J. A.! I would add that setting in a deep POV isn’t always about introducing *new* details that the character is just noticing. It’s also just about presenting the details the character is *observing*. Even if he’s not actively thinking about the familiar clock on his desk, he’s still looking at it, thus his brain is still processing it, thus it can still make total sense to mention its presence (along with a few well-placed descriptors) while in his POV.

      • J.A., you describe your office to me – but as a character in your own fiction, you would NOT describe it like that, because your character wouldn’t notice. IMHO. I never pause to notice MY messy desk – very similar to yours. From time to time I despair, but that would not be part of my novel because it wouldn’t move the story forward UNLESS, of course the messy desk becomes a necessary part of the story.
        My protagonist may be unique in the annals of English historical fiction, a cavalry officer in the German army. I write of his office in two different novels (it’s a series) – when he is a colonel, and when he is a general. He’s all business. The most I can describe is the amount of paper he has to clear off his desk.
        There are other places where I make the most of what I’ve got – when he walks along the halls of the headquarters building, the SS guards seem part of the architecture until they present arms with a crash as he passes – he muses that the rifles are loaded…
        an important atmospheric detail of Hitler’s Germany.
        Like D. Gaines, I always go back through the draft looking for ways to deepen my descriptions – but my opportunities seem limited.

        • “you would NOT describe it like that, because your character wouldn’t notice.”

          I guess sometimes a trick is allowed if it permits the reader to get an insight or an information. I think that a first person perspective would be much more limited than 3rd person POV. In 3rd person POV I guess that the narrator can tell the reader what a character observes even though the character by herself does not attribute it a special meaning.

          Like “His office was as impeccable as always, The rulers and pens were carefully aligned, the heaps of paper carefully ordered like white blocks. No edge of paper dared to stick out. Order prevailed.”

          I am exagerating a bit. Of course, it is your character, your story and your work. Just my two cents.

          • Love it. You suggested…
            The rulers and pens were carefully aligned, the heaps of paper carefully ordered like white blocks….
            The way I described it…
            “While he’d been gone, his desk had been covered with new stacks of files…” (or words to that effect)
            And that’s as far as I could get.
            He carried his pen in his breast pocket, but I didn’t bother to say so.
            Oh yes. He had an in-, out-, and pending basket. No ashtray: he didn’t smoke…
            I’m probably carrying this comment to excess. LOVE talking about this stuff.

        • Greg Smith says

          Lyn, hmm, a character can notice the mess and be deeply bothered by it… frustrated because every intention to do something about it comes up short, stymied by indecision or by far greater concerns, making it easy to put it off until ‘tomorrow’.

          • Well Greg, the character isn’t bothered by it, because that’s how busy he always is. So he just sits down and gets to work. As a military quartermaster he must move and supply armies – and he doesn’t waste time pondering it.
            But you see, that’s the limitation of the deep POV. We have to honour the character first.
            I haven’t had any bad reviews.
            I just wish I was better at this ‘setting’ part of writing, and resolve to work at it.

          • Greg Smith says

            Lyn, yes agreed, you have to honor the character… but the character is affected by his environment… and can’t some external force naturally dictate a change bringing the surroundings to the foreground? Hitler’s increasing erratic nature/decision making; allied bombing campaigns cutting off supply routes can make him more determined to continue to extend the same control in the field as in the office. Or, on the other hand, see his surroundings as illusory, having a close colleague come up on the wrong side of Hitler’s favor/removed from power. An orderly office is only as stable as the ground it’s built on.

            As you said, unless the despair/challenge can move the story forward, it shouldn’t be in there… but aren’t there plenty of natural causes (in war and the life affected by it) that can bring his office to his attention?

  2. Thank you for the story setting information. I have created drafts of the chapters I have written now I’m going back in to them to expand thus add more detail for the reader.

    With this information explaining what the reader wants to know some of the things I thought were trivial are will help give my story more depth and help me fillout mt chapters

    Thank you K. You have been an onspiratiio that has encouraged me ro keep on puttin mt story on paper.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Setting can be easy to overlook in the first draft. I’m always having to go back and flesh things out as I discover what’s important and what’s not.

  3. I’ve always been particularly sensitive to setting. I’ve been a classic fantasy writers for a lot of years. Now I write dieselpunk in a historical setting… you see there is no escaping 😉

    Most of my current story is set in a speakeasy, and I poured a lot of effort in reserching speakeasy life and setting. I think it peyed off. If you read my first drft of the trilogy (and I sure hope nobody ever will) you would see that the place was just on the background and characters only did a couple of things repeatedly. I remember I was very worried I didn’t know what to have my characters do while in there.

    But reaserching gave me a lot, and what made the difference was details.
    I drew maps for every imporant place in the novels, three maps for the speakeasy alone. I reserched rhythms of work. I broke down the shifts in the club, as well as the delivery time for anything: liquor and food, sure, but also glasess, ice, coasters, coal. This gave my characters a lot of very different things to do, thing that most of the time help bringing the era to life.
    I reaserched how music (and so the jazz back) would work in the club. Discovering the jazzmen would probably not being union men created the premise for the entire second half of the third novel. Reserching how the furnace worked, led to the pyrotechnic conslusion of the second novel.

    Not to mention atmosphere. Knowing how the tables are set (there are candles on all tables, for example), how the lights system works, how the counter is organised and what the bartenders do behind it, all helped me push the feeling for the era on the fore and also gave me the possibility to create atmosphere when I needed it. It also helped me use more senses in description than just sight.

    I think, whatever setting you use, the better you know it (an dby this I mean, the more details you know about it) the more it will enrich your story 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I think fantasy and historical are two genres that can’t help but inculcate a special appreciation for setting. Their very foundation is within the places and times their stories are told.

  4. Suzan Robertson says

    Setting atmosphere, landscape, and symbolic “props” are very important to me in a novel.

    I like Alan Furst’s novels for good examples of atmospheric settings (pre-WWII Europe.) James Lee Burke is a master at that as well.

    The TV series Poldark and the TV series Hell on Wheels are good examples of atmosphere and setting. Battlestar Galactica is another brilliantly atmospheric show.

    I dislike reading novels that pay no attention to setting, as it’s like reading a bunch of talking heads in a blank room not grounded anywhere.

    In my current novel series (espionage/romance,) the setting is in an ethnic neighborhood where the heroine grew up, amidst not-so-happy circumstances. There’s one important scene in a cemetery that’s adjacent to the neighborhood. There’s a huge snowstorm, which complicates things and symbolizes a few things, too. The climax of the novel is set in an abandoned church and centers around finding clues in a cross and a bible, thought it’s not a religious novel. The antagonist has decided to atone for his “sins” in a very strange manner.

    The setting is the neighborhood that I actually grew up in, so it’s easy for me to picture all these things and make it a character in this story.

    The second book in this series is set in Prague, and the storyline definitely parallels the contrast between the historical aspects of the city, and its modern inhabitants.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I’ve heard about nothing but Poldark this week. I think I’m going to have to check it out! :p

  5. Setting is always important, but it’s especially important when framing your scenes. We should always want our readers to get a sense of the setting at the surface level, for sure, but I often find that thinking a little deeper about a setting can do wonders for your work–whether it’s literary fiction or genre, it doesn’t matter.

    I like to dig in to the sensory details. I use these to “frame the shot,” but then I always try to attach these to an emotion. Any emotion. If I am going for an evocative scene and I am spending all of this time describing a setting, I want the reader to associate it with an emotion. It can be an emotion the character feels, or it can be an emotion the reader infers from the scene. The actions a character takes–or doesn’t take–within a certain setting can communicate quite a lot, and the reader will pick up on that either consciously or subconsciously.

    Take, for instance, a football field. The character is angry because the other players are making fun of him. The sun is hot over head and the flies are buzzing and the grass is burned.

    Take that same character and put him in the middle ages. Put him on a frozen river. He’s still angry. But it’s dark and there’s snow all around and the only sound he can hear is the wind howling in the distance. But his cheeks are still hot and he is still angry.

    These settings allow for the reader to infer a couple different emotions. Where the first is violence and anger, the latter is still anger, but now it is framed with bitterness. Cold-hearted.

    This is a fun exercise–try it out!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Totally agree. This is why it so often rains during the Third Plot Point. :p Even as overdone as that is, it’s still effective!

  6. Wonderful advice–and very useful for me. Taking full advantage of the setting is one of the harder parts of writing for me, especially when writing fantasy. Having these few, practical questions to ask myself is going to be super helpful.

  7. Excellent post. I’m a visual artist by trade so setting is important when I read and write. What you say about the characters reaction to their environment makes great sense. It’s not just a description of the smells and sounds of places or what they see or don’t see.

    Often when I’m sitting at a cafe I try to count the sounds I hear. It’s amazing how many levels of sounds there are and the fequency they occur. I also note the different smells.

    Thank you for the link to the SWA website. I often look at their Turkey City Lexicon.

  8. Greg Smith, we used up all our replies, so I start again here. I really enjoy our exchanges. The ‘office’ thing was an example of the spareness of my descriptions. All of the items you noted in your latest comment have been thoroughly dealt with in the WWII novel (The English General), not through description but by showing.
    I show a lot more than I describe. Showing takes more words and more thought, but I believe it draws the reader along better than endless detailed descriptions. By the same token, it was my decision not to spend words on describing an office. Just a spare room with spare furniture that the protagonist would not pause to consider. I think we have to choose our places to describe.
    The corollary is that I ought to try to enrich my descriptions, but not at the expense of the natural rhythm and flow of the story.

    • Greg Smith says

      Lyn, yes, I’ve enjoyed the exchange as well, and thank you for patiently clarifying!

      I read your Bio earlier and a little while later wondered if setting can be something other than the physical brick and mortar surroundings, the creepy Island for the criminally insane, sort of thing. Can it also be a military’s structure, like that which came to your attention after your lightbulb moment. Could it also be explored as thoroughly as “the island” to the same effect? Or is that something else entirely?

      I really agree with your last paragraph, like your previous… to honor the character, maintaining the natural rhythm/flow is important. I’ve been brought out of stories because both have been broken.

      • Greg, give me your website URL (if you have one). I’d like to look you up.

        • Greg Smith says

          Lyn, hope I didn’t say anything amiss!

          No website, but twitter? https://twitter.com/resilient_1 A super-brief bio, along with questions, comments and, unfortunately, the all too frequent failed attempt at humor.

          Should get a website up. It’s a strange balance, wanting to keep some sense of privacy, but if too much and people begin to think you’re a troll. (Although, photographically speaking, not that far off the mark… except for the hair.)

  9. Why must I get so nervous when I post online…

    Anyway, as somebody who writes science fiction, loves worldbuilding, and is currently editing a story set in the year 2106, I certainly know how important setting can be. In my current story, a lot of the major details of the setting and the social and political state of the world in 2106 have a huge impact on the characters and the story. And yet I still found myself overlooking the implications of small details of the settings, and how they might affect the story, both in ways that they can be helpful, or unintentionally create plot holes or ruin the mood.

    I’ll keep your checklist in mind.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Welcome! And, yes, no matter how detail-oriented we try to be, there are always details that escape us. That’s why it’s so lovely we don’t have to get everything right in the first draft!

  10. Love the setting in this movie!

  11. Greg Smith says

    Ms. Weiland,

    I wanted to get your opinion on a question that came up earlier, can setting be something less tangible than brick & mortar? An organization’s structure/departments, for instance. Or is that something else?

    Instead of the various locations/settings on Shutter Island (say, the organization’s setting itself is sterile almost unchanging between floors) can it’s corporate structure “environment”: finance, management, R&D, billing etc. take the place of? Or, does the setting remain distinct, physical; the corn husk and the departments the tamale? The corn husk, while nondescript, still imparting form, flavor to…

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Good question. Setting is, ultimately, a very physical thing. It’s the character’s surroundings–whether that’s a building or the expanse of space (as in, say, Gravity). However, it definitely is also a mental space as well. The best settings are wherein the twain meet: a definitive physical setting that also has a more metaphysical meaning and feel for the characters–and the readers.

  12. someone once told me, that the story’s setting can cover all roles except for the protagonist’s.


  1. […] Don’t let yourself fall into that trap. Dennis Lehane’s psychological thriller Shutter Island is all about its title setting: a prison for the criminally insane on an island. It’s a creepily atmospheric setting that not only basically creates the premise, but also transforms the plot itself into something even sharper-edged than it might otherwise have been. It’s worth noting how every conceivable possibility of this setting is taken advantage of. Every nook and cranny is explored: from the various wards and levels of the asylum itself, to the …read more […]

  2. […] Moar Katie: How not to waste your story setting’s full potential. […]

  3. […] Learn How NOT to Waste Your Story Setting’s Full Potential by KM Weiland […]

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