Beyond Setting: A Couple of Thoughts and Some Fun Writing Prompts
Setting: the time and place where the story happens. Yawn. Compared to characters and plot, setting can be a snoozefest. What happens next? That’s what most readers, young or old, want to know.
But here’s what genius writer Katherine Paterson has to say on the subject: “Setting for me is not a background against which a story is played out, but the very stuff with which the story is woven. The characters will not determine the setting, but the setting to a great extent will determine both what they will be like and how they will act.”
Think of “Bridge to Terabithia” and you’ll immediately understand what she means. Could that miraculous, heart-wrenching story be set anywhere but the kingdom Jess and Leslie create together? Not only is that place enchanted, it’s secret, a spot where they feel all-powerful and safe from the real world–which of course makes the book’s tragedy all the more devastating.
Setting can be a catalyst. It can make things happen. Stanley Yelnats gets sent to Camp Green Lake where, instead of a lovely lake, he finds a desert full of strange holes, and the die is cast. (“Holes”, by Louis Sachar). Ditto what happens when Brian Robeson’s plane goes down not on the edge of a corn field, but in the middle of the Canadian wilderness (“Hatchet” by Gary Paulsen).
Full confession: sense of place is all important in my work. “What Happened on Fox Street” pivots on how much Mo Wren loves her home. Everything she treasures is there–her friends, her secret hide-out, her fox-quest and her memories of her mother. The discovery that her adored father means to move away makes her furious and sets the rest of the story in motion.
In “Mo Wren Lost and Found”, Mo has had to move away after all. Here the setting reflects and enhances her feelings of confusion and lonesomeness. “East 213th . Their new street didn’t even have a name. Just a number. That was only the beginning of how different it was. Being a dead end, where Fox Street began and where it stopped were perfectly clear. Once Upon a Time and The End. But if East 213th was a story, it’d say To be continued…with those three dots that mean anything might happen.”
My newest book, “Moonpenny Island”, is about how living on a small lump of limestone surrounded by water is paradise for some, prison for others. The very stuff of the story!
I always encourage young writers to think about setting. Think, I tell them, how important place is to “Harry Potter”, “Percy Jackson” or “The Giver”. Think how much you love stepping into a story’s new, amazing and compelling world. Experiencing a great setting is the closest we can come to teleportation. When you’re a writer, you have the power to build a world!
Below are some writing exercises to help kids understand the power of setting–and have fun too!
- Take a familiar story and set it in another place or time. What if Little Red Riding Hood lived in New York City? How would the plot change if Cinderella was set in the present day?
- Without naming it, describe some place you know as fully as you can. Use all five senses. Trade descriptions with someone else, and use each other’s place as the setting for a new story.
- Draw a map of an imaginary place. Go wild! Use it as the setting for a story.
- Describe the room you’re in right now. Just the facts please. Messy classroom desks, windows onto the street, one kid asleep in the corner.
Now describe the room through the eyes of a fictional character. A shy, nervous new kid entering for the first time. An ant on the floor. A girl with a crush on the boy sitting next to her. An alien whose saucer has just landed outside. (It’s up to you. Remember, when you’re a writer, you’re the boss of your story!) Will they all see the same setting? How will past experiences and present feelings influence the way each of them perceives the room?
Tricia Springstubb is a frequent speaker in schools and libraries. When she can’t get there in person, she enjoys doing Skype visits. Her new middle grade novel, “Moonpenny Island”, publishes with HarperCollins on February 10. “Cody and the Fountain of Happiness”, the first book in her new series for readers ages 7-10, publishes with Candlewick in April.
Moonpenny Island Summary: Moonpenny is a tiny island in a great lake. When the summer people leave and the ferries stop running, just the tried-and-true islanders are left behind. Flor and her best, her perfect friend, Sylvie, are the only eleven-year-olds for miles and miles—and Flor couldn’t be happier.
But come the end of summer, unthinkable things begin to happen. Sylvie is suddenly, mysteriously whisked away to school on the mainland. Flor’s mother leaves to take care of Flor’s sick grandmother and doesn’t come back. Her big sister has a secret, and Flor fears it’s a dangerous one.
Meanwhile, a geologist and his peculiar daughter arrive to excavate prehistoric trilobites, one of the first creatures to develop sight. Soon Flor is helping them. As her own ability to see her life on this little lump of limestone evolves, she faces truths about those she loves—and about herself—she never imagined.
Tricia Springstubb tells a warm and deeply affecting story about what it means to see, and why the biggest feat of all may be seeing through someone else’s eyes.
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