Posts Tagged setting

The Life of the Party: Setting Is Where the Action Takes Place

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

A Sense of Atmosphere

As an artistic quality, atmosphere is easy to spot—sometimes. A moment of high suspense in a scary movie, for example, is highlighted with an accompanying soundtrack; a musical comedy in a theatre might showcase brightly painted backdrops and set pieces. In literature, though, atmosphere must be conveyed through descriptive phrases and other text details. It might be a little more challenging to cultivate atmosphere in books, but it’s just as important for the audience. A convincing sensory environment in a story makes for a tale in which one can get lost, a quality sought by all readers—and certainly by middle grade. Memorable and fulfilling books allow the reader to step inside, breathe the air, sense the mood—these are books with atmosphere.

Since setting and atmosphere are so intertwined, let’s break down setting first: How does a writer create a setting that pulls the reader along for a trip outside their ordinary? It’s a skill worth practicing if you write middle grade, and one worth recognizing if you are a parent, teacher, or librarian. Setting is a lot more involved than its old standby definition you probably learned in elementary school (the time and place of the action). Setting is indeed time and place, but also consider:

  • Weather
  • Hour of day
  • Season and month of year
  • Landscape
  • Geography (natural and manmade)
  • Color, lighting, and shading (of outdoor or indoor light source)
  • Regionalism (the dialect, customs, traditions, and local setting characteristics in a story)
  • Communication systems, language, and vernacular
  • Environment
  • Character observations
  • Socioeconomic factors
  • Back and forth flow of time: impact of past (events, family) and expectations of future

Whew! And when used effectively, the setting details can help this necessary story element become an extraordinary component—one that allows a reader to sink in for a more fulfilling read. All of these setting characteristics work collectively to create the offshoot of a well-composed, well-built world: atmosphere.

Atmosphere is tricky to define, but most literary terminology sources suggest it has to do with the mood or overall “feel” of the scene, based on the setting description, tone, and other literary devices. The mood of the character can match this mood in the air of the scene, but it doesn’t have to. In fact, sometimes the actions and attitudes of the characters can serve as a literary foil to the atmosphere, heightening suspense or making a bittersweet mood even more poignant.

How does a writer cultivate atmosphere? Imagery, word choice, and connotation all contribute, as do character reactions and pace. Some figurative language devices like symbolism and metaphor can add to the developed atmosphere, as well. When seeking inspiration for establishing atmosphere, writers might use photographs, illustrations, history, music, colors, travel experiences, dreams, patterns, and nature.

From my to-be-read pile, I chose a few middle grade openings to think about in terms of atmosphere: one realistic, one sci-fi, and one fantasy.

The Ethan I Was Before by Ali Standish – In the opening chapters of this first-person novel, the atmosphere is heavy and uncomfortable, much like the oppressive heat in Ethan’s new town of Palm Knot, Georgia. As a twelve-year-old boy terribly conflicted over the loss of his best friend, his narration has few lengthy descriptive passages. But Standish provides all the right details through environment, weather, temperature, and observations about this sleepy locale (a rusty parked truck, an untended baseball field, a cracked highway, a murky bay) that readers need in order to feel like they’ve stepped into its atmosphere.

Last Day on Mars by Kevin Emerson – This middle grade science fiction offers up opening chapters with a crisp, tense, nervy atmosphere in which the conflict increases at an alarm-inducing pace. Set in Earth Year 2213, humans living in a Martian colony must evacuate the planet and its rapidly deteriorating conditions. A prelude serves up danger and emotion before delivering a fearful and mysterious clue; here, descriptions are futuristically foreign, yet technologically familiar enough to pull readers in. The main characters resist an acknowledgement of the danger throughout the first chapter, which only serves to increase the suspense. As a solar radiation storm begins to flare, protagonists Phoebe and Liam start a quest of discovery in an atmosphere of uncertainty and confusion.

A Single Stone by Meg McKinlay — This middle grade dystopian abounds with atmosphere from the first paragraph. Young protagonist Jena has a crucial job to perform for her isolated society—she is the leader of a small team of girls who must find harvests of mica inside the mountain. In the opening pages, Jena is crawling through a narrow, natural crevice with only a thin rope connecting her to the six other girls who follow her lead. In the dark, with the chilly rock of the mountain hugging her close on all sides, every movement and every touch seems amplified and intense; the reader immediately feels as if she too is crawling, squirming, wishing for a harvest spot, counting on having enough air to keep going. The dark, the mountain, even the bones Jena happens to grasp accidentally all work to establish a tangible, claustrophobic opening atmosphere—though, paradoxically, Jena seems to feel no such confinement.

The atmosphere of each title considered here had me invested as a reader from the opening chapters. Feel free to comment on the post if you know of a great, atmospheric MG to recommend, or with how-to ideas for writing settings and situations with strong atmosphere! Thanks for reading!

Where the Story Is …

“Geography of Nowhere” – the session at the Association of Writing Programs (AWP) conference on April 11, 2015, caught my interest before I noticed the powerhouse lineup of authors presenting (Kirstin Cronn-Mills, Nikki Loftin, Janet Fox, and Geoff Herbach). The topic of setting as character is one a writing pal and I have recently been discussing (read: obsessing over). How do some writers create a sense of place that roots the story and gives the characters context? On the flip side, how can we avoid the excessive description that I keep encountering in books I’m reading (and abandoning) recently?

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Details in “The Sinister Sweetness of Splendid Academy” by Nikki Loftin bring each corner and shadow to life. Setting is a sinister character.

I walked into the session just as Kirstin Cronn-Mills talked about the setting of one of her YA books (The Sky Always Hears Me and the Hills Don’t Mind) as “fifty miles from the closest Target.” Brilliant! With six words she immediately conjures the expansiveness and confines of the character’s hometown.

Each of the panelists talked about sensory details, like how the sound of wind changes at the top of a hill. And in some locations, you can’t overlook the weather. In Texas in August, Nikki Loftin said, the weather is a character; it’s there in the dust and the sweat and the sheer oppressiveness of heat.

“Choose details that will reflect an aspect or emotion of the main character,” Janet Fox advised. In Nightingale’s Nest, Loftin created a bargain store — the kind that exist in towns too small to attract big-name big-box stores — called Emperor’s Emporium. She needed the specificity of this store to show the longing of her main character, John, whose family’s poverty is a level below the people who shop there

What about the settings that seem so mundane and repetitive to many of us? The suburbs or the residential housing along interstate corridors? Cronn-Mills sees these as “a blank canvas that you can embroider;” authors can create quirky places where kids want to go.

My notes from this conference session are full of arrows and underlines, along with my own characters’ names and details of their surroundings. In the midst of revising a manuscript, the nuggets I gained from this session are helping me cut and clarify. And that is a glorious thing.

This was my second year attending the AWP conference, and I again was overwhelmed by how helpful, instructive, and motivating these sessions can be. There were 13,000 writers in Minneapolis for the 2015 AWP gathering, and hundreds of sessions on the craft of writing. This is a hard-working and hard-writing group, and workshops were every hour, right through lunch and dinner, and beyond. The focus of the conference isn’t on writing for children — there were only a handful that specifically called out middle-grade — but every presentation I attended had a valuable take away. I want to be a better writer, and this focus on words — rather than marketing and selling — was pretty spectacular.