My students have embarked on a creative writing unit, specifically murder mystery creative fiction. Last week’s blog post I wrote about the quest and the three laps students partake in to flex their creative writing muscles. This blog post dives deep in the first lap, descriptive writing and narrative of a place.
The setting is extremely important to a story. It can have immense effects on the plot and the characters. It can also establish the atmosphere, or mood, of a story or a specific scene. The setting establishing this mood allows the reader to relate to the characters within a story.
Let’s look at an example in literature.
Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him. With his inky fingers and his bitten nails, his manner cynical and nervous, anybody could tell he didn’t belong – belong to the early summer sun, the cool Whitsun wind off the sea, the holiday crowd. They came in by train from Victoria every five minutes, rocked down Queen’s Road standing on the tops of the little local trams, stepped off in bewildered multitudes into fresh and glittering air: the new silver paint sparkled on the piers, the cream houses ran away into the west like a pale Victorian water-colour; a race in miniature motors, a band playing, flower gardens in bloom below the front, an aeroplane advertising something for the health in pale vanishing clouds across the sky.
— Brighton Rock (Graham Greene)
Note the vivid imagery used to describe the setting. How does the author encompass all of our senses to bring us into the place this novel is set?
In my classroom I would give my students this excerpt and ask them to mark up the text noticing how place, time, landscape, weather, and atmosphere are described to establish the setting. Then, students would sketch out a visual of the setting described in the passage.
We look at examples for models in descriptive writing about setting for our own writing to stretch our writing, take risks, and try something new. In mystery writing setting helps to propel the mystery and can be the best place to leave clues for readers.
Setting is important in any fictional story. Setting doesn’t just concern nice descriptive passages about houses, woodlands, mountains, roads and so on. Setting doesn’t mean merely ‘scenery’. Careful choice of setting:
- Directs the reader’s attention to significant details of character or action. Setting can be used almost symbolically. It can stand for a mood, a state of mind, an emotion.
- Plays off character against the environments in which they live and act. Characters (and their motivations, desires, hopes) may be juxtaposed against the settings in which they appear. They may occupy the setting comfortably, or be uncomfortable in the settings in which they’re placed.
- Enhances the suspense and mystery (establishing mood and tone) in a piece of writing.
To help students build the setting in their own murder mystery, we looked at examples in film. Think about the opening scenes of your favorite movies and the opening shots that establish the setting. On one creative writing website, it states “Careful control of setting can be somewhat equivalent to directing a film camera. Many films begin with a long shot (distance), then a middle shot, then a close up. This threefold use of the camera is called the ‘establishing shot’ and is a commonplace of screenwriting. Beginning with a distance/wide angle ‘shot’ and then moving in to ever-closer details is also widely used as an orientation technique in fiction writing.”
To help my students write with depth and lots of description about their setting, they storyboarded the setting. This involved drawing out the setting and writing additional details to help stretch the setting details and give readers a clear sense of place.