The writer sat in the eerie darkness. Looming shadows, cast by a single desk lamp and the cold glow of the laptop, surrounded her, mocking her struggles with finding a way in to her next piece. The stale stench of her long-finished microwave ready-meal hung in the air and the only sound was the tap-tapping of her fingers on the keyboard… that and the disparaging ticking of the clock on the wall, reminding her that it was late and she still had so much to do…
Story setting can go a long way towards establishing the atmosphere of a narrative and giving it a sense of tangible reality for the reader, yet they are features that are often under-emphasised when it comes to teaching story writing.
Here are some tips for helping your pupils create the perfect environment in which their character and plot can flourish.
Include scene description in your plan
As with all good writing, an engaging story starts with a good plan. As well as outlining the characters, overall plot, important events and so on, it is essential that this contains detailed information about the setting or settings (because there are usually more than one).
Encourage your pupils to form a clear picture in their heads of these locations and note down every specific detail with key words and rich descriptions. Try getting them to close their eyes and sit in silence while they create vivid pictures with their minds that they can then convert into words.
What’s more, urge them to focus on the little things as well as the big backdrops; after all, details often make a memorable difference.
To help them make sure that they cover all the important aspects of their setting, use our ‘Getting a Setting’ resource – part of our Effective Writing collection.
Making sense of it all
One of the first things to encourage your pupils to do is to engage all their senses when writing the setting. The temptation is often just to describe what can be seen, yet sounds and smells can often connect more powerfully with people than what merely meets their eyes.
Even the sense of touch, like the chilling caress of a sudden breeze, can add to the atmosphere.
Setting descriptions – show not tell
There are few hard-and-fast rules governing how to write a setting description but “show not tell” has to be one of them.
Although this is more straightforward when describing characters and actions, it can be applied to settings in the way that the protagonists interact with their surroundings. Even so, this does not totally negate the need for precise and evocative vocabulary.
Descriptive words – quality over quantity
Much though we like to encourage pupils to use their very best words, it is possible to have too much of a good thing.
Forgive the sacrilege but, if we are honest, even some highly respected authors and well-loved novels can occasionally make you want to scream, “Get on with it!” as you plough bravely on through line after line of detailed description.
Encourage your pupils to focus on the things that really contribute to the establishment of a convincing setting and actually matter to the progress of the plot.
Being able to share good setting description examples is always invaluable in these situations. Of course, you could spend hours scanning through a stack of novels to find the perfect extract.
Alternatively, why not save yourself the bother by using our KS2 challenge mat for story settings? As well as providing model texts for pupils to study and discuss, it includes inspiring images to stimulate their own creativity.
Different fiction genres place different demands on the writer when it comes to setting the scene. Take historical novels for example. Part of the joy of these stories is that they can also function as a sort of informal history lesson, providing a fascinating insight into how people used to live.
That is why it is so important to help your pupils make the settings as realistic as possible and include details that have a chance of informing as well as entertaining.
We can help here with our historical settings inspiration packs for KS2 pupils. Whether it’s Victorian Britain or the Wild West, these comprehensive resources provide all the images and inspiration your pupils will need to create a convincing backdrop for their stories set in these iconic times.
Beyond reality – creating your imaginary setting
Of course, not all stories are set in the real world. Although this gives writers more scope for letting their imaginations run free, they still need to have some form of containment – otherwise the reader will be just too bamboozled to read very far. That is when planning becomes particularly important.
Fantasy adventures, for example, are set in places that, although familiar in many respects, are in fact different worlds.
Therefore, the writer needs a clear idea of where each key location is placed in relation to the others, whether it is the hero’s village, the wizard’s tower or the monster’s lair. That is why so many of these tales include a map at the beginning.
Science fiction tales also contain the problem of creating a whole new universe, which is why they are often constrained to a limited range of locations, such as a particular planet or spaceship.
For both genres, we offer writing inspiration packs containing images, inspirational ideas and planning sheets to help your pupils create vivid settings for their stories.
Getting going with your descriptive writing
Whether it’s a short story, novel, non-fiction book, script or anything else, once they are happy with their plans, they still need to weave all the details into a coherent tale. Never underestimate how difficult it might be for children to pull all the elements together.
You might even find it necessary to provide more structured writing frames for when they ultimately start composing their stories. Nevertheless, with a good setting firmly embedded in their minds, at least they won’t be starting with a blank canvas.