Assisting Young Writers To Develop A Sense Of SETTING

Recently I have been working with young writers who are developing narratives. We have been focusing on helping our reading audience to visualize where the story takes place- the setting.

For many student writers setting is often receives a cursory mention and glossed over. The rush to get to the action means the all important sense of place receives little attention.  And yet, a sense of place is strongly linked to our hearts and minds. It makes sense to tap into this rich vein as writers.In my classroom work I have undertaken some awareness training around setting by investigating how other authors develop this aspect of their writing and how it assists the reader. I want young writers to understand the potential of settings to enhance the quality of their writing.

Ralph Fletcher in his book, What A Writer Needs writes about setting in this way, ‘The setting or place, creates the world in which the characters live and struggle.  In this world, the plot unfolds. Something will happen.’  As teachers, we need to help our student writers link their characters to the setting. So, when we ask students to think of a setting, it is helpful to have them think about describing it in terms of the senses.

•Touch •Smell •Sight •Sound •Taste

Some Ways to Centre on Settings:                                                                                                          A brief description of a place is an excellent way to set the scene and lead into a piece of writing. It gives the reader time to feel at home before moving into the real action. The setting does NOT have to mean a large place. Place could be as confined as a cupboard, a hiding place under a house, a branch of a tree.

 Example From Quality Literature:                                                                                                                                                                                                                        ‘Jedda was utterly embarrassing and I had to share a bedroom with her. She made  stables out of furniture on her side of the room and slept in them instead of her proper bed. She ate in there too, which I didn’t think was very hygienic. There was always a long line of ants parading across the bedroom floor after Jedda’s left over jam sandwiches and soggy cornflakes.’    

Hating Alison Ashley, Robin Klein

I modeled my own writing to show how I write about contrasting settings.

 Remembering the Forest
       The forest had a magical feel to it. It began directly where our fence line ended. - A magical place to run, hide or explore. We found snakes and lizards. We heard kookaburras. Bright orange fungi sprouted out of fallen logs. Some distance into the forest, there was a clearing that sloped away down the valley. At the base, spring water trickled out of the side of the hill. Just a little beyond that, a creek snaked slowly through the forest. In some places the creek was so narrow, you could leap over it.The forest surrounding the creek created shadows and dappled light where the sunlight squeezed through the canopy of trees. It was a damp dimly lit place most of the year. The smell of dank earth floated up from the forest floor. Moss covered logs, frogs and leeches were features of this cool place. We knew the creek as the home of native black-fish, rainbow trout and yabbies.  On occasions wallabies visited this tranquil place, grazing on the grasses that covered the hillside above the creek line. Over the years, I was lucky to also meet up with echidnas and wombats.

New York’s Springtime Splendor   
    With the start of spring, New York dramatically sheds its drab winter coat. Spring finds it impossible to arrive quietly, it bursts open! It is a brash season to say the least.. A New York spring arrives with a huge build up of energy that can no longer be contained. People take to the parks and streets with vigor. They grasp the opportunity to be out and about.  Cafes and restaurants expand onto sidewalks. The change of seasons is far more dramatic than what we experience in Australia. The air becomes suddenly warmer and heavier. People are more exuberant. If you watch closely you might even see someone skipping along the sidewalk, such is the adrenalin rush that spring provides.  People quickly change to spring costumes. Last week’s heavy coat is no longer suitable.  
       In Central Park people set up games of volleyball, soccer, and team Frisbee. Kids lurch about uncertainly on roller blades, and people run, walk, jog or cycle in every direction. Little leagues baseball begins and numerous games are played at the one time in this huge parkland. Picnics are very much a part of this new scene. The people flock to this great green space with much enthusiasm. They don’t hug the trees or drape themselves in newly arrived leaves–but the urge is barely contained. 

I encouraged students to turn and talk about settings they were familiar with in real life, or settings they clearly recall from books they have read; inviting them to jot down their ideas for settings in their notebooks.

Follow up possibilities:

  • ·Find further examples from books where authors develop a strong sense of place in their writing.  Add an exemplar to your notebook as a reference.
  • Choose to rewrite an existing piece of writing that deals with a setting
  • Place yourself in a different setting.
  • Write about a setting in which an animal or insect may live.
  • Think of a meaningful place. It could be anything from the kitchen table in your home to your favorite place. List small moments related to that place.

It is the writer’s challenge to create a convincing sense of place in the reader’s mind. If the writer can achieve this, the reader is more likely to make an enduring connection with the text they are reading


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