If ever there was a time to learn about describing words, it's when writing the setting of a story! It's been said many times that the setting of a story is actually another character in the story. Nothing could be more true! Think about actors of a science fiction movie acting in front of a green screen. This is a scene without a setting! It doesn't come alive until that setting is added in! The setting is the skeleton writers use to build and develop the characters and the story.
So...how can we, as teachers, help our young writers learn how to write a good setting? Below are a few practice exercises that have worked well for me. Many of the exercises below can be added to the writing notebook. That makes them available should students want to expand on them later.
1. Show students a picture of a setting. You can use picture books, magazines or pictures you find on the Internet. How does the picture make them feel? List adjectives that dscribe that feeling when looking at the picture. Why does it make them feel that way? Ask students to brainstorm a sentence or two about the setting that could start the story. Finally, ask students to write a paragraph describing the setting and give a hint about how it may impact the story later on. i.e. "The forest sparkled in the sun that drifted to the ground through the trees. It seemed friendly, even a welcoming place as it stretched it's arms out to meet Sarah. Little did she know what was hidden behind that welcome."
2. Ask students to visualize their favorite place. Ask them to not only see it, but listen to sounds. What do they smell? What can they touch? Next ask students to write down what they visualized. Finally, ask students to use that setting to write the first paragraph of a story, and how a fictional character might fit into that setting. Remind them that the opening of any story needs to hook the reader and make them want to read more!
3. Give students a setting, (the hospital, the side of a mountain, deep inside a cave etc.) and ask them to use it to write one or two of the first paragraphs of a story using this setting. Allow students who want to share, to do so. I never force students to read this type of writing. Some students take time to overcome shyness. Forcing them to read stunts what they will write. Doing this type of writing at least once a week or so will become something your students look forward to, and can be the spark they need to create a great story.
4. Choose a favorite fairy tale. How would it be different if it happened in a different time, or a different place? What types of things would change? Would the three pigs build different kinds of houses if they lived in the desert? What would change if Snow White was the president of the United States? Choose one fairy tale to brainstorm ideas with the class, write the ideas on the board, and the first couple of sentences the group generates. Next have students choose their own fairy tale and change the setting. Write at least one or two paragraphs to start the story.
5. Use improv! Choose one story, movie, or fairy tale and have a group of four or five students come to the front of the class. Give them two or three changes in settings to act out in a minutes or two. It's not only fun, it really makes kids think! It is a great way to see how setting can change everything!
6. Give a setting (desert, swamp, city street etc.) and ask students to get with a partner and write a description of the setting using what they see, hear, smell and touch.
Do you have other ways you help your students write about setting? Be sure to jot down your ideas below!