settings

creating setting tree

When J K Rowling wrote these words: ‘Harry had never even imagined such a strange and splendid place.  It was lit by thousands and thousands of candles which were floating in mid-air over four long tables… The hundreds of faces staring at them looked like pale lanterns in the flickering candlelight.  Dotted here and there among the students, the ghosts shone misty silver’ the Great Hall at Hogwarts was forever seared on our minds.  Because when an author really nails a setting, their world becomes alive to us, as if our own world is just an echo or a photograph of the real thing.  A truly brilliant setting stays with us even after we’ve finished reading: the trees are still whispering in our ears and the mountains are towering in our minds.  So how do authors do it?

How to create a brilliant setting

1. IMAGERY

You remember SLIP from the Writing Skills section? Well, this is the ‘I’ of the storm.  Imagery.  A range of similes, metaphors and personification can help to create a really dramatic atmosphere.  Make sure the imagery you use fits with the atmosphere though.  If you are creating a terrifying forest, you could say: ‘the branches coiled around me like splintered hands’ but you absolutely definitely completely could NOT say: ‘the branches coiled around me like tons of spaghetti.’  Ummmm, no…  The imagery you use must enhance your atmosphere.

 

cave final

Similes

Compares one thing with another thing of a different kind (often using the words ‘like’ or ‘as’). Example: ‘At its foot, guarded by a solitary yew tree, was a cavern of darkness like a silent scream’ (Wolf Brother, by Michelle Paver)

 

 

Shoal of Baitfish

Metaphors

Compares one thing with another thing of a different kind (without using the words ‘like’ or ‘as’). Example: ‘My sentences will be a clutch, a collection, a pattern, a swarm, a shoal, a mosaic’ (My Name Is Mina, David Almond)

 

 

curtains

Personification

Giving human characteristics to non-living things or ideas. Example: ‘wind rushed down the hill and into his room, billowing the curtains’ (A Monster Calls, Patrick Ness)

 

 

Moontruggy Imagery Task
Visit the National Geographic website (Click Here). On the right hand side of the page there are links for different categories of photos: animals, nature and weather, landscapes, people and culture, travel, underwater etc.  Click on nature, weather or landscape and for each photograph you like, write a simile, metaphor or personification to describe it.

 

2. SENSES

eyeWhat can the character see, hear, smell, touch or even taste?  How does our character react to his or her surroundings?  Harry Potter didn’t just blast his way through Diagon Alley with his eyes shut – he listened to the owls at Eeylops Owl Emporium, he spoke with the goblins in Gringotts, he felt the cold air sting his eyes on the way to the vault, and he held the wands in Ollivanders.  Imagine you are right there in your imagined setting: how do you feel? Here’s an example of a writer using the senses to bring the setting alive: ‘Cold air burned Torak’s throat as he tore through a willow thicket towards the river…  The silence beat at his ears’ (Wolf Brother by Michelle Paver)

 

Moontruggy Senses Task
Imagine you are standing on an enormous sheet of arctic ice.  You are surrounded by snowy mountains, frozen waterfalls and icicle-fringed caves.  Perhaps it is starting to snow or maybe the blizzard is roaring around you already. Write the opening paragraph of a story set in the arctic using the senses to enhance your atmosphere.  What can you see? Curling lips of ice, a lone polar bear, ice caverns… What can you hear?  The groaning of faraway glaciers…  What can you touch?  The snow, the icicles… What can you taste?  The coldness biting at your tongue…  What can you smell?  A chill that has swallowed all smells…  Here is an opening line to get you started: I took a step out onto the ice and shuddered.  

 

3. SHOW NOT TELL

rain sqOne of moontrug’s favourite quotes is: ‘Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass’ (Anton Chekhov).  Don’t bang on about the surroundings – the moon, the stars, the sea, the trees – as if they’re a check list of things you have to wade through and describe.  Spend time on each thing and write about it as if it’s the first time you’ve ever set eyes on it.  Rather than saying: ‘The wind was blowing around us’ try ‘The wind tore Jack’s name from my lips.’  Rather than saying: ‘It was raining hard’ try ‘The rain hammered down onto the tin roof like thousands of marbles dropping onto a tray.’

 

Moontruggy Show Not Tell Task
Make these dull sentences more interesting using the Show Not Tell idea:
– It was snowing
– Jack was angry
– I could hear footsteps in the distance
– Tessa was upset by the news
– The boy was swimming fast

 

There is an amazing book called the Descriptosaurus which lists thousands and thousands of brilliant descriptions – for forests, mountains, caves, seas, rivers.  You name it – they’ve written about it.  Click here to buy it on Amazon.

 

The best settings from children’s books

YOUR TURN…

From haunted graveyards to magical streets, from moonlit seas to desert islands, moontrug has selected some of the best settings authors have created over the years.  Pick your favourite one, study the techniques the writer uses to bring it to life and then have a go at creating your own setting. Think IMAGERY, SENSES and SHOW NOT TELL.  And if you want some feedback from moontrug on your invented setting, send it in an email to: abi@moontrug.com.

 

Desert island

desert isLord of the Flies by William Golding

‘The shore was fledged with palm trees.  These stood or leaned or reclined against the light and their green feathers were a hundred feet up in the air.  The ground beneath them was a bank covered with coarse grass, torn everywhere by the upheavals of fallen trees, scattered with decaying coco-nuts and palm saplings.  Behind this was the darkness of the forest proper and the open space of the scar.  Ralph stood, one hand against a grey trunk, and screwed up his eyes against the shimmering water.  Out there, perhaps a mile away, the white surf flinked on a coral reef, and beyond that the open sea was dark blue.  Within the irregular arc of coral the lagoon was still as a mountain lake – blue of all shades and shadowy green and purple.  The beach between the palm terrace and the water was a thin bow-stave, endless apparently, for to Ralph’s left the perspectives of palm and beach and water drew to a point at infinity; and always, almost visible, was the heat.’
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Frightening landscape and house

baskThe Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

‘Our wagonette had topped a rise and in front of us rose the huge expanse of the moor, mottled with gnarled and craggy cairns and tors.  The cold wind swept down from it and set us shivering.  Somewhere there, on that desolate plain, was lurking this fiendish man, hiding in a burrow like a wild beast, his heart full of malignancy against the whole race which had cast him out.  It needed but this to complete the grim suggestiveness of the barren waste, the chilling wind, and the darkling sky… A few minutes later we had reached the lodge gates, a maze of fantastic tracery in wrought iron, with weather-bitten pillars on either side, blotched with lichens, and surmounted by the boars’ heads of the Baskervilles.  The lodge was a ruin of black granite and bared ribs of rafters…  Through the gateway we passed into the avenue, where the wheels were again hushed amid the leaves, and the old trees shot their branches in a sombre tunnel over our heads.  Baskerville shuddered as he looked up the long, dark drive to where the house glimmered like a ghost at the farther end.’
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Graveyard

gyardThe Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

‘The fog was thinner as you approached the top of the hill.  The half-moon shone, not as bright as day, not by any means, but enough to see the graveyard, enough for that. Look.  You could see the abandoned funeral chapel, iron doors padlocked, ivy on the sides of the spire, a small tree growing out of the guttering at roof level.  You could see stones and tombs and vaults and memorial plaques.  You could see the occasional dash or scuttle of a vole or a weasel as it slipped out of the undergrowth and across the path.  You could have seen these things, in the moonlight, if you had been there that night.  You might not have seen a pale, plump woman, who walked the path near the front gates, and if you had seen her, with a second, more careful glance you would have realised that she was only moonlight, mist and shadow.’
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Enchanted forest

deerThe 13 Curses by Michelle Harrison

‘As midnight approached in Hangman’s Wood two girls fled through the forest, desperately searching for a way out.  Every pounding step through the suffocating darkness brought the witching hour closer, and with it, a moment’s fusion as the human world and the fairy realm intersected…  On and on they ran, threading through the trees and over the carpet of leaves and roots that was the forest floor.  In the air above, fey creatures glided and swooped; waiting for the moment when the girl would be surrendered to them.  Within the gnarly barks of the trees they passed, faces stirred and called out to them…  The vines crawling over Tanya slowed… then shifted their direction, edging towards the other girl.  She felt the cool damp of the dark leaves against her skin as the branches crept over her…  Humming began in her ears, a low swarm that eventually gave way to murmuring voices.  She felt herself being tugged at by the vines that covered her, pulling her this way and that, like a cat toying with a spider.  The voices became clearer; the curious comments of fey creatures as they awaited the new arrival into their world.  Then the foliage drew back as swiftly as it had advanced, leaving her huddled on the ground central to a crowd of fairy onlookers.  They watched with glittering eyes; some merely curious and other with more intent; young and ancient, beautiful and hideous.’
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Fog

mistWolf Brother by Michelle Paver

‘The fog stole up on them like a thief in the night.  When Torak crawled stiffly from his sleeping-sack, the valley below had disappeared.  The Breath of the World Spirit had swallowed it whole…  The fog was so thick they couldn’t see Wolf five paces ahead.  It was the kind that the clans call the smoke-frost: an icy breath that descends from the High Mountains at the start of winter, blackening berries and sending small creatures scuttling for their burrows.  Wolf led them along an auroch trail that wound north up the side of the valley: a chilly climb through frost-brittle bracken.  The fog muffled sounds and made distances hard to judge.  Trees loomed with alarming suddenness…  Twice, Torak thought he saw a figure in the undergrowth, but when he ran to look, he found nothing.’
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Magical street

olivandHarry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J K Rowling

‘The brick he touched quivered – it wriggled – in the middle, a small hole appeared – it grew wider and wider – a second later they were facing an archway large enough even for Hagrid, an archway on to a cobbled street which twisted and turned out of sight… There were shops selling robes, shops selling telescopes and strange silver instruments Harry had never see before, windows stacked with barrels of bat spleens and eels’ eyes, tottering piles of spell books, quills and rolls of parchment, potion bottles, globes of the moon… Now they were facing a second pair of doors, silver this time…  A pair of goblins bowed them through the silver doors and they were in a vast marble hall.  About a hundred more goblins were sitting on high stools behind a long counter, scribbling in large ledgers, weighing coins in brass scales, examining precious stones through eyeglasses.’
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Underground

undergroundMy Name is Mina by David Almond

‘She took a deep breath, and steeled herself, and headed down into the earth.  She kept stumbling on the rubble, stretching out to steady herself on the damp walls.  She kept expecting her voice to be called out but there was nothing.  ‘My name is Mina,’ she kept on whispering, and her words echoed back to her…  There was a dull roaring sound from far away.  She stopped and listened.  Maybe it was water, or could it be the yelling and groaning of the dead?  Something brushed against her leg.  She leapt away and screamed in horror and locked down and it was a black cat, weaving its way around her legs…  And then there was a ditch, crossing the route of the tunnels.  By the frail light of the dangling bulb, she saw the stream rushing through the ditch.  Mina caught her breath.  She stroked the cat.  This must be the river that Orpheus had to corss, the rover between the world of the living and the dead.  Suddenly, the cat drew back.  There was a growling, and on the other side of the stream, two eyes had begun to shine.’
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House in the city

bedroom saveReckless by Cornelia Funke

‘The night breathed through the apartment like a dark animal.  The ticking of a clock. The groan of a floorboard as he slipped out of his room.  All was drowned by its silence.  But Jacob loved the night.  He felt it on his skin like a promise.  Like a cloak woven from freedom and danger.  Outside the stars were paled by the glaring lights of the city, and the large apartment stale with his mother’s sorrow.  She did not wake as Jacob stole into her room, even when he carefully opened the drawer of her bedside table.  The key lay right next to the pills that let her sleep.   Its cool metal nestled in his hand as he stepped back out into the dark corridor.’
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Fairy Underworld

goblinsssssArtemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer

‘Holly rolled off her futon and stumbled into the shower.  That was one advantage of living near the earth’s core – the water was always hot.  No natural light, of course, but that was a small price to pay for privacy.  Underground.  The last human-free zone.  There was nothing like coming home after a long day on the job, switching off your shield and sinking into a bubbling slime pool.  Bliss…  With the moon already rising on the surface, there was no time for a proper breakfast.  Holly grabbed the remains of a nettle smoothie from the cooler and drank it in the tunnels.  As usual there was chaos in the main thoroughfare.  Airborne sprites jammed the avenue like stones in a bottle.  The gnomes weren’t helping either, lumbering along with their big swinging behinds blocking two lanes.  Swear toads infested every damp patch, cursing like sailors.  That particular breed began as a joke but had multiplied into an epidemic.  Someone lost their wand over that one…  The LEP station doors were crammed with protesters.  The goblin/turf war had flared up again and every morning hordes of angry parents showed up demanding the release of their innocent offspring.  Holly snorted.  If there actually was an innocent goblin, Holly Short had yet to meet him.  They were clogging up the cells now, howling gang chants and hurling fireballs at each other.’
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Chocolate factory

choc2Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl

‘They were looking upon a lovely valley.  There were green meadows on either side of the valley, and along the bottom of it there flowed a great brown river.  What is more, there was a tremendous waterfall halfway along the river – a steep cliff over which the water curled and rolled in a solid sheet, and then went crashing down into a boiling churning whirlpool of froth and spray.  Below the waterfall (and this was the most astonishing sight of all), a whole mass of enormous glass pipes were dangling down into the river from somewhere high up in the ceiling!  They really were enormous, those pipes.  There must have been a dozen of them at least, and they were sucking up the brownish muddy water from the river and carrying it away to goodness knows where.  And because they were made of glass, you could see the liquid flowing and bubbling along inside them, and above the noise of the waterfall, you could hear the never-ending suck-suck-sucking sound of the pipes as they did their work. Graceful trees and bushes were growing along the riverbanks – weeping willows and alders and tall clumps of rhododendrons with their pink and red and mauve blossoms.  In the meadows there were thousands of buttercups.  ‘There!’ cried Mr Wonka, dancing up and down and pointing his gold-topped cane at the great brown river. ‘It’s all chocolate!’
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Magical world

bay of seaThe Chronicles of Narnia by C S Lewis

‘It is as hard to explain how this sunlit land was different from the old Narnia as it would be to tell you how the fruits of that country taste. Perhaps you will get some idea of it if you think like this. You may have been in a room in which there was a window that looked out on a lovely bay of the sea or a green valley that wound away among mountains. And in the wall of that room opposite to the window there may have been a looking-glass. And as you turned away from the window you suddenly caught sight of that sea or that valley, all over again, in the looking glass. And the sea in the mirror, or the valley in the mirror, were in one sense just the same as the real ones: yet at the same time they were somehow different – deeper, more wonderful, more like places in a story: in a story you have never heard but very much want to know. The difference between the old Narnia and the new Narnia was like that. The new one was a deeper country: every rock and flower and blade of grass looked as if it meant more.’
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Entering a new world

narnia doneThe Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C S Lewis

‘Looking into the inside, she saw several coats hanging up – mostly long fur coats. There was nothing Lucy liked so much as the smell and feel of fur. She immediately stepped into the wardrobe and got in among the coats and rubbed her face against them, leaving the door open, of course, because she knew that it is very foolish to shut oneself into any wardrobe. Soon she went further in and found that there was a second row of coats hanging up behind the first one. It was almost quite dark in there and she kept her arms stretched out in front of her so as not to bump her face into the back of the wardrobe. She took a step further in – then two or three steps always expecting to feel woodwork against the tips of her fingers. But she could not feel it… Then she noticed that there was something crunching under her feet… But instead of feeling the hard, smooth wood of the floor of the wardrobe, she felt something soft and powdery and extremely cold. “This is very queer,” she said, and went on a step or two further.  Next moment she found that what was rubbing against her face and hands was no longer soft fur but something hard and rough and even prickly… And then she saw that there was a light ahead of her; not a few inches away where the back of the wardrobe ought to have been, but a long way off. Something cold and soft was falling on her. A moment later she found that she was standing in the middle of a wood at night-time with snow under her feet and snowflakes falling through the air. Lucy felt a little frightened, but she felt very inquisitive and excited as well. She looked back over her shoulder and there, between the dark tree trunks; she could still see the open doorway of the wardrobe and even catch a glimpse of the empty room from which she had set out…It seemed to be still daylight there… She began to walk forward, crunch-crunch over the snow and through the wood towards the other light. In about ten minutes she reached it and found it was a lamp-post. As she stood looking at it, wondering why there was a lamp-post in the middle of a wood and wondering what to do next, she heard a pitter patter of feet coming towards her. And soon after that a very strange person stepped out from among the trees into the light of the lamp-post.
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Secret garden

midnight gardenTom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce

‘He drew the bolt and, very slowly, to make no sound, turned the door-knob.  Hurry! whispered the house; and the grandfather clock at the heart of it beat an anxious tick, tick.  Tom opened the door wide and let in the moonlight. It flooded  in, as bright as daylight – the white daylight that comes before the full rising of the sun. The illumination was perfect, but Tom did not at once turn to see what it showed him of the clock-face. Instead he took a step forward on to the doorstep. He was staring, at first in surprise, then with indignation, at what he saw outside. That they should have deceived him – lied to him – like this! They had said, ‘It’s not worth your while going out at the back, Tom.’ So carelessly they had described it: ‘A sort of back-yard, very poky, with rubbish bins. Really, there’s nothing to see.’  Nothing … Only this: a great lawn where flower-beds bloomed; a towering fir-tree, and thick, beetlebrowed yews that humped their shapes down two sides of the lawn; on the third side, to the right, a greenhouse almost the size of a real house; from each corner of the lawn, a path that twisted away to some other depths of garden, with other trees.
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Sinister lands

marshThe Two Towers by J R R Tolkien

‘Dead grasses and rotting reeds loomed up in the mists like ragged shadows of long-forgotten summers.  As the day wore on the light increased a little, and the mists lifted, growing thinner and more transparent.  Far above the rot and vapours of the world the Sun was riding high and golden now in a serene country with floors of dazzling foam, but only a passing ghost of her could they see below, bleared, pale, giving no colour and no warmth.’
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Goblin Tower

towerGoblins by Philip Reeve

‘In the lands of the west, where men are few and some of the old magic lingers still, there stands the ancient fortress of Clovenstone. A wide wall rings it, tumbled now and overgrown with weeds.  The trees and waters of the wild have crept inside and made their home again among its steep, deserted streets and crumbling buildings  At its heart a crag rises, Meneth Eskern, most westerly of the Bonehill Mountains, and on the summit stands a black Keep, tall as the sky, with sheer walls and horns of stone.  Around this dark tower, like a stone crown on the crag’s brow, there runs a lofty inner wall, guarded by severn lesser towers.  All are in ruins now, the men who raised them long since gone.  Crows caw about their sagging roofs, and gargoyles lurk in their ivy like lice in beggars’ beards.’
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Moonlight

moonlightLord of the Flies by William Golding

‘Along the shoreward edge of the shallows the advancing clearness was full of strange, moonbeam-bodied creatures with fiery eyes.  Here and there a larger pebble clung to its own air and was covered with a coat of pearls.  The tide swelled in over the rain-pitted sand and smoothed everything with a layer of silver.  Now it touched the first of the stains that seeped from the broken body and the creatures made a moving patch of light as they gathered at the edge.  The water rose further and dressed Simon’s coarse hair with brightness.  The line of his cheek silvered and the turn of his shoulder became sculptured marble.’
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Marshland by the sea

The Snow GooseThe Snow Goose by Paul Gallico

‘The Great Marsh lies on the Essex coast between the village of Chelmbury and the ancient Saxon oyster-fishing hamlet of Wickaeldroth. It is one of the last of the wild places of England, a low, far-reaching expanse of grass and reeds and half-submerged meadowlands ending in the great saltings and mud flats and tidal pools near the restless sea. Tidal creeks and estuaries and the crooked, meandering arms of many little rivers whose mouths lap at the edge of the ocean cut through the sodden land that seems to rise and fall and breathe with the recurrence of the daily tides. It is desolate, utterly lonely, and made lonelier by the calls and cries of the wildfowl that make their homes in the marshlands and saltings – the wildgeese and the gulls, the teal and widgeon, the redshanks and curlews that pick their way through the tidal pools. Of human habitants there are none, and none are seen, with the occasional exception of a wild-fowler or native oysterfishermen, who still ply a trade already ancient when the Normans came to Hastings. Greys and blues and soft greens are the colours, for when the skies are dark in the long winters, the many waters of the beaches and marshes reflect the cold and sombre colour. But sometimes, with sunrise and sunset, sky and land are aflame with red and golden fire.  Hard by one of the winding arms of the little River Aelder runs the embankment of an old sea wall, smooth and solid, without a break, a bulwark to the land against the encroaching sea. Deep into a salting some three miles from the English Channel it runs, and there turns north. At that corner its face is gouged, broken and shattered. It has been breached, and at the breach the hungry sea has already entered and taken for its own the land, the wall, and all that stood there. At low water the blackened and ruptured stones of the ruins of an abandoned lighthouse show above the surface, with here and there, like buoy markers, the top of a sagging fence-post. Once this lighthouse abutted on the sea and was a beacon on the Essex coast. Time shifted land and water, and its usefulness came to an end.’
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‘If there’s a book you really want to read but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.’

(Toni Morrison, author)

One thought on “settings

  1. E R Cooke

    Setting is so hard to teach – students really struggle sometimes and you get dry description, or they go OTT and litter their word with a metaphor a minute! This is going to be so helpful when I start imaginative writing controlled assessments after half term. THANK YOU!

    Reply

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