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Saturday, January 15

Get Out of the Kitchen: Using Setting to Help Build Your World

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

We’ve all heard it. Beware the dreaded kitchen table conversation scene. Do your best to avoid characters who sit around a table talking, usually rehashing plot or figuring out the next step of the plot. But what do we do with them once we chase them out of the kitchen?

These scenes are great opportunities for a little setting or world building.

One of the problems with setting is that it can get in the way of the story. It can be challenging to slip in all those details in the middle of whatever action is going on. But when you have a conversation that needs to take place and a boring locale for it, try picking one of those setting aspects you want to show off and move the conversation there. Not sure where to go? Ask yourself…

Is there a location that will enhance the theme of that conversation?

Look for thematic elements that can add layers to your conversation. For example, if your characters are worried about how they’re going to pay the rent and how their latest get-rich scheme failed, letting them discuss this as they’re walking through a poor neighborhood gives you opportunities to show the poverty-stricken world and reinforce what they have to lose if they can’t come up with the money.

Can the location illustrate one of the character’s states of mind?

If they’re happy, a park or beach might help reflect that. Or you could even use something traditionally dark and gloomy to contrast against their happiness. (and vice versa) Someone who is scared might see dangers all around them, and give you an opportunity to show the lurking troubles inherent in your world. You can also use that setting to reinforce the emotion you want the reader to feel.

Can the location foreshadow anything?

Seemingly meaningless details can be slipped in and planted in the reader’s mind. They’re just background noise now, but that seed will grow and when you reveal the big secret later, they’ll realize they should have known all along and it’ll feel more natural. The reader might be focused on the conversation, but the things the characters are passing or interacting with might carry a lot more hints to what’s really going on. (This is a personal favorite of mine)

Is there a location that can make your protagonist uncomfortable? 

One of the troubles with kitchen table conversations is that they might be important information, but they seldom have the tension needed to carry the scene. But the setting can provide that tension and make things more difficult. What is the worst place for these characters to have this conversation?

Combing setting and kitchen table conversations can give you a much more interesting scene and an easier way to handle two often troublesome elements. You might even discover new ways to deepen your conflicts or cause friction between the characters having that conversation. Because where we are, definitely influences how we feel–and what we say.

Do you have any "kitchen" conversations? Where could you move them to?

Looking for tips on planning, writing, or revising your novel? Check out one of my books on writing:  Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in my bestselling Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).

A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in her Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).  
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Originally posted during the Blue Fire blog tour at Chandra Writes


  1. Thank you for this post. It's perfect. I love the idea of sliding in hints on the world through background setting. :)

  2. This post is wonderful! I never realized that kitchen table conversations were that bad. I have one in a chapter I revised a while back and I've never been happy with it. Now I know how to fix it:) Thank you!

  3. Fabulous post. I did a few scenes in various places that reflect the city my book is set in and it turned out to be really helpful for foreshadowing like you mentioned. I also was looking for unusual places to have conversations (along with inspiration) and ended up looking at a lot of pictures. That was helpful for one scene as well. But yeah, it's hard to get all of those details in. Love this post!

  4. Great post! I'll definitely work in these methods when when I come across a 'kitchen table' scene. Thanks! =)

  5. This is very interesting and thought-provoking. Of course my mind immediately jumped to: wait--remember the great kitchen table conversations in A Wrinkle in Time? But they actually worked because of contrast in emotion, I think, like you mentioned.
    Thanks for the food for thought!

  6. Chicory: I've found backgrounding those details works so much better that just dumping it out there. And it really helps get you more in the POV's head.

    Melissa: Kitchen table conversations aren't bad on their own, but they're a *very* common trouble spot. You get characters talking in a "blank room" and nothing is actually going on. Often, it's the planning for what's going to happen. Sometimes they work and you can use them to great effect, but whenever you have folks sitting around talking with nothing else going on, there's a good chance you have a stalled scene.

    Angie: I like the pictures idea!

    Amanda: Most welcome :)

    Faith: As I mentioned to Melissa (above), not all kitchen table scenes are bad. They're like adverbs -- something that is often used poorly. It's the mundane aspect of the setting vs the dialog that usually kills them. Make them more than just a place for a conversation to be held, and you can write a great scene there.

  7. Arg! I have a kitchen-info-dump scene. I will be studying this post before re-writing. Thanks.

  8. I've been to your blog a few times, but haven't posted yet. While I don't have any kitchen scenes, I do appreciate your advice about setting a better scene. Thank you for always being willing to share what you have learned.


  9. Cat: Hope it helps!

    Shannon: Most welcome :)