Monday, December 6, 2010

Setting Up for a Giant Leap

So, in preparation for my students to focus on setting, I went looking for great setting descriptions from great novels. I did find a few descriptions that really focused on the setting, but most had the characters and/or plot so worked into it, that I couldn't separate them for my students to look at setting alone. I was getting a little frustrated before finally finding clear setting-focused descriptions in Dracula, Wuthering Heights, and The Call of the Wild, among others.

However, in the midst of this search, I ran into a couple of articles that got me thinking in a certain direction. One I really enjoyed was Nathan Bransford's What Makes a Great Setting . He talks there of how the setting has been left out of the efforts to develop plot and characters. "The best settings," he says, "are not static, unchanging places... Great settings are dynamic." He has quite a bit more to say about setting, which is well worth reading.

However, the one I'd really like to talk more about is called Writing Descriptions: Setting the Scene by Kaye Dacus. She has very good advice about how to describe a setting, which I completely agree with (there are always exceptions). One thing she warns against is stopping the story to describe the setting. Instead, she encourages the writer to "have the characters interact with the setting." This is good advice. Unless you are trying to teach 7th graders, who have barely been taught the parts of speech and didn't want to be in this stupid, boring class to begin with, how to write good setting. They need to grasp what setting is and how completely it can be incorporated, through the 5 senses, and maybe even a 6th if you like; the way it can be described using figurative language and well-chosen descriptors and verbs; how a mere setting description can set the tone of an entire story before nary a character even graces the stage. They have to get what this is before they can begin lacing it into the action of the plot, or the experience of the characters.

I'm sure no one denies that this is the basic level of teaching setting and that Nathan and Kaye were both trying to get writers to move past this most basic level. Once they get what setting is, they shouldn't stop there. As Nathan and Kaye pointed out, they need to learn to make the setting an active part of the story, not just the boards their characters stand on. Writers must weave setting into the story the way plot is woven among the characters, taking all to become one, to make it something to experience as a whole.

What concerns me, is that in our public school system, the students are taught the basics, exactly what I am teaching them now, but never told that what they are learning is only the very most elementary aspects of life, so they graduate and proceed, thinking they have learned it all, many never realizing that they stand on the brink of a vast expanse of knowledge and are only staring at the edge of it between their toes. My wife excelled in writing tests in school, aceing it every time, until she followed the pattern they gave her to pass and she scored lower. The average public school student (or graduate) can probably list off the three branches of government if you ask them, but how many can explain the difference even between Republican and Democrat? Or name their local representatives? Gravity is expressed as a "constant" of 9.8 m/s2. You have to get into astrophysics before any professor will admit that it's wrong. Gravity isn't constant, it changes based on mass and distance from the center of the mass, and other things. The old concept that a bowling ball and a feather fall at the same rate in a vacuum is a myth. We just can't see the difference because of relative mass (thank you Einstein) and so 9.8 is deemed "good enough."

Why do we accept the least of standards when greater is within our reach? Granted, I have to get these students to identify setting and be able to write setting instead of ignoring it, and isolating it is the first step, but why do we stop at the first step? First steps are necessary, and they are for babies. The moon is a giant leap above us, but we can reach it.


  1. So interesting that you should post this today--my mom and I were just having a discussion last night about the difference between memorizing facts and figures and learning critical thinking, and how it goes back to a child's earliest years as to whether they develop that all-important critical thinking skill or not.

    You're so right in that most people believe that by the time they graduate, they know everything they need to know. Adults who "wanna be a writer" come into writing classes and conferences with this misconception---they learned how to write sentences, paragraphs, essays, short stories, in school; therefore, they know everything already and just need to figure out how to get published. I've counseled so many of my mentees who've come back after their first writers' conference broken and disheartened because once they got there and started hearing about plot, five-senses settings, point of view, showing vs. telling, etc., they realized just how much they still had to learn; and it seemed insurmountable to them.

    Good luck with teaching those seventh graders---I don't envy you at all!

  2. Be glad they learned how to write sentences and paragraphs! We're still struggling with those!

    Thanks for dropping in!

  3. Yeah, growth in writing can be pretty unexpected for some people. When I left my first conference I was surprised by the number of things I didn't know. But I'm a learner, and the propsect of discoveering a whole new world intrigued instead of intimidated me.

    You may be surprised with some of your students; they may enjoy learning more. Look how well they did for NaNo. Seems to me like you're a good Teacher David.

    Maybe you can use a modified version of a writing prompt from my group.

    Pass around an envelope with setting pictures and set a timmer for them to write exatly what they see. Let them read aloud their description, showing their picture to see how accurate they wrote.
    Have them keep the prompts, and next class, pass around pictures (not all have to be human or real) and have them describe their picture in detail, and read again.
    Both exercises will stimulate lots of comments and discussion - hopefully. then you can have them use both their setting and character descriptions and integrate them into a scene.
    It usually ends up with some fascinating situations, internal monoluges, and almost always in omni POV. Gotta be a little tolerant for craft's sake :)

    Hmm, I'm sitting here watching my 6th grader play video games and wondering what he might do with such a challenge.

    I'm so glad I'm not you David . .


  4. Thanks for the suggestion, Donna! I actually just did part of this last week. I've found that calendars are great. Take last year's calendar of "Scenes from America" or "Classic Barns" or whatever, and cut them in half. On one side you have a month, but on the other side a great image to use for inspiration or writing exercises like this one. I have assorted images like that posted all around the top of my room, and I held a stack for setting to use in that exercise. I hadn't done that with characters, though... have to remember that one.

    I'm glad you're not me, too, Donna; then I'd be missing out on all the fun I have!