As I was driving with my tween, she made a comment about the high school parties she’s seen in movies. In each one, something awful occurred, making her a little wary of wanting to go to parties when she’s older. As I thought about it, I realized that parties and school dances in movies do often feature a horrifying event unfolding . . . just think of the prom scene in Carrie.
I started to think about how parties and school dances are portrayed in middle grade books. Even my own novel has the big climax scene happen at a school Halloween party. It occurred to me that my thoughts were worth sharing with fellow writers and teachers (who, I hope, will share them with their middle graders): What is the power of the setting?
Often we think of setting as where the story takes place. We are taught that it helps the reader gets a sense as to what the scene looks like (which, of course, includes the concept of time: year, season, time of day, etc.). A well-developed setting is also crucial to ground a scene and prevent the “floating in air” phenomenon that I have been accused of when I give no mention of where my characters are.
But the setting can have an even bigger role in the story. Here’s where the party scene comes in. Most stories have more than one setting: school, home, the dentist’s office, etc. This helps to keep the story interesting but allows us to focus on the character and their actions. However, if you also take your reader somewhere out of the ordinary, such as a school dance, something monumental had better happen there, such as an argument that’s been building up, the character’s first kiss, or the mom showing up and dragging the character out. You can’t just have a school dance scene where nothing unusual occurs or where the plot doesn’t move forward.
The setting can be closely linked to the plot parts: In the exposition, it helps us learn more about the main character. Where does the opening scene take place: on a soccer field? In the main character’s bedroom? At an arcade? This gives us a window into the main character’s life and interests. Of course, we can add an extra layer if the main character does not like where they are. If the setting is on the soccer field and the main character is groaning and wishing the game would just end already so he can get out of there, we glean some details about who the character is.
A muted setting is also used to help us focus on what the characters are saying. I have found that just about every movie has a tooth-brushing scene for this purpose (watch for it in live-action films and animated films, even those with animals as characters). Two of the characters chat while one or both are in the bathroom brushing their teeth. They discuss the problem or give some details we need to know about the characters. In your own story, where does this scene take place? Maybe over dinner at the kitchen table? Or in the main character’s bedroom?
A unique setting is a great place for the climax to occur. If the scene seems a little off or needs more pizazz, is it possible to rewrite the scene somewhere else? In my novel, the story needed one extra push with the main character and her soon-to-be-friend. It was suggested to me that they get lost in the woods—this was great for my non-outdoorsy main character. This added scene ended up being a turning point in the book, because the main character faced one of her biggest fears.
As for rising action and falling action, it’s often where the upcoming setting is mentioned—such as a school dance the character or characters plan to attend. Here is where the reader can also get excited about the imminent scene and feel the importance of the event to the character(s).
Finally, the setting can make the resolution scene pop. I’m picturing that first kiss at the school dance that we, the readers, have all been waiting for. Or maybe the opposite is true—the scene would have more punch if it happens somewhere more common. Playing with this can really change the impact of the action.
Teachers: When you’re working with your students on finding the setting in a novel, help them see how the setting is more than just where the story takes place. How does it impact the action? What if that climactic scene took place somewhere different? [Writing prompt: rewrite that scene with a different setting.] Was there any growth by the main character shown through how the setting is described?
Writers: I hope this made you think about your own setting; and teachers: I hope it gets your students to notice the importance a setting can make within a story.
And may the parties you attend be less eventful than the ones we’re creating.
Here are some books that have a dance or party scene.
Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret by Judy Blume
Book Scavenger: The Unbreakable Code by Jennifer Chambliss Bertman
Bug Girl: Fury on the Dance Floor by Benjamin Harper & Sarah Hines Stephens
Cookie Cutters & Sled Runners by Natalie Rompella
Counting Thyme by Melanie Conklin
Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Third Wheel by Jeff Kinney
Dork Diaries: Tales from a Not-So-Happy Heartbreaker by Rachel Renée Russell
Dork Diaries: Tales from a Not-So-Popular Party Girl by Rachel Renée Russell
Fortune Falls by Jenny Goebel
Hoops: Elle of the Ball by Elena Delle Donne
In Your Shoes by Donna Gephart
Jessica Darling’s It List by Megan McCafferty
Lily and Dunkin by Donna Gephart
Rules by Cynthia Lord
Sorry You’re Lost by Matt Blackstone
Take Your Best Shot by John Coy
The 12th Candle by Kim Tomsic