Updated: May 15, 2019
I always found setting descriptions quite difficult to write. Part of the problem was that I was seeing the scene as a flat 2D postcard, rather than thinking about how my character(s) interacted with the environment. As soon as you start to experience the setting in the shoes of the character it becomes easier to make the scene come alive. I was also too heavily bound to any stimulus material, rather than seeing it as a means to spark my imagination.
Why is your character there?
What is their motivation?
Are they moving or standing still? Why?
Exactly where are they in the setting?
How are they feeling? How does this alter how they view and interact with the environment?
Is anyone else there? Why?
Jenny glided along the path beside the abandoned factory on her scooter, pleased at how the smoothness of the path enabled the wheels to whirr. As she rounded the corner, she smiled. A wide expanse of concrete stretched out in front of her. Ideal. It was clear no-one ever came here. She could make a hopscotch board and a scooter race track with her chalks and still have room to draw. Her very own blank canvass. She had a feeling that living in Poppleton was going to be far more exciting than her stuffy, rule-filled life in Olventon.
Jenny's lip quivered. The school playground was a dirty, scruffy patch of concrete. It had none of the slides, swings and tree-trails that she loved at Olventon High. The best it offered was a hopscotch board that someone had scratched onto the hard surface with chalk. Dust devils swirled long the red brick walls that enclosed the yard like a high prison fence. She knew then that living in Poppleton was her worst nightmare come true.
Settings are brought to life by authors who can create vivid images in your mind; authors who can transport you to the scene and connect you to the environment as deeply as the characters are themselves.
To achieve this, authors:
pay attention to detail;
use precise language;
use prepositions and positional statements to help you navigate the land;
use similes, metaphors and personification;
use the five senses (see, hear, touch, smell, taste); and
connect you to the scene through how the character interacts with the environment (actions, thoughts, feelings, memories).
Examine closely how the above techniques are used in this Wind in the Willows extract.
It is impossible for pupils to be able to create great descriptions without background knowledge and vocabulary. Ideally, the development of this is supported through personal experience as well as a range of secondary sources such as non-fiction texts, images, video clips and sound files. If you really want your pupils to create brilliant descriptions of forests and woodlands - then visit one with your class. The quality of pupil writing and their enthusiasm goes through the roof when pupils immerse themselves in the place they are writing about. Pupils who touch the smooth bark of a silver birch, listen to the sounds of a woodpecker tapping at a tree trunk, bounce on a carpet of fallen pine needles and see droplets of water splash from a horse chestnut leaf will create beautiful scenes for their readers.
What would this child take away from the experience of wrapping her arms around this tree?
What senses would she use?
What descriptive words might she, and the other pupils she is with, generate?
What lovely books and poems might the class read whilst in the woods?
What treasures might be found?
Non-fiction back in the classroom, along with photographs and video footage they have taken during their trip, are great sources for developing vocabulary and securing knowledge.
Work in teams, or as a whole class, to collect nouns, adjectives and verbs related to your setting. Gather ideas and try out sentences that match the atmosphere you are trying to create.
Nouns: treetops, branches, clump, berries, roots, canopy, bark, saplings, ferns, acorn, pine cone, seeds, sticks, pine needles, fungus, toadstools, moss, stump, hazel catkins, frond, lichen, bud, crown, mud.
Adjectives: magnificent, sharp, thorny, gnarled, twisted, bent, vast, decaying, squashy, scratchy, ridged, sticky, rough, spikey, shiny, lustrous, twisted, brittle.
Verbs: arched, chocked, trapped, frolicked, covered, floated, fluttered, swayed, spread, rose, dripping, tapping, buzzing.
Phrases and ideas: Lustrous red berries hung in clumps as if the tree had been kissed by the lips of a witch. Roots, gnarled and twisted, snaked out from the base of the giant oak tree, blocking the path ahead. We waded through rotting leaves and squelching mud.
Of course, once you are in the forest it is hard to leave as there are so many wonderful story avenues you could venture down.
I am currently enjoying Robert MacFarlane's 'The Wild Places' and thought the opening scene could serve as an excellent teaching tool to unpick how authors create vivid scenes and how the setting and the character interact.
'The wind was rising, so I went to the wood. It lies south of the city, a mile from my home: a narrow, nameless fragment of beechwood, topping a shallow hill. I walked there, following streets to the city's fringe, and then field-edged paths though hedgerows of hawthorn and hazel.
Rooks haggled in the air above the trees. The sky was a bright cold blue, fading to milk at its edges. From a quarter of a mile away, I could hear the noise of the wood in the wind; a soft marine roar. It was the immense compound noise of friction - of leaf fretting on leaf, and branch rubbing on branch.' Page 3, The Wild Places.
It is also worth buying a copy of 'Lost Words' by the same author - you might get a shock as to which words are in danger of not being part of a child's vocabulary.
The internet provides us with a rich source of information, so pupils who have never heard rooks haggling or experienced tree climbing, can be supported in understanding and appreciating the text.
https://www.hbw.com/ibc/species/rook-corvus-frugilegus (pictures and bird call of rooks)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8HElPHLxgco (climbing a beech tree in the wind)
Prepositions, prepositional phrases and adverbial phrases are vital in setting descriptions:
'I just stood there on the deck of the ship, in the shadow of the sails, clutching onto the rail. A wild October wind whipped the sails, rattling the rigging above me. The ship lurched and rolled in the waves.'
'How green it was there and how quiet, and what soft crisp grass under their feet! They could hardly believe it was true, and yet here were green branches huskily rattling on their hats as they bent beneath them, and little coloured flowers curling round their shoes.'
Mary Poppins, P.L.Travers
'With' makes a particularly good link.
'In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a dirty wet hole, filled with the end of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.
It had a perfectly round door like a porthole, painted green, with a shiny yellow brass knob in the exact middle. The door opened in to a tube-shaped hall like a tunnel: a very comfortable tunnel without smoke, with panelled walls, and floors tiled and carpeted, provided with polished chairs, and lots and lots of pegs for hats and coats – the hobbit was fond of visitors. The tunnel wound on and on, going fairly but not quite straight into the side of the hill.'
The Hobbit, J.R.R.Tolkien.
Pupils may find the following planning format useful:
A range of setting descriptions for use with KS2 have been combined into a single document which teachers might find useful, including a couple of short extracts from the Nowhere Emporium. Click here to download.
If you have not purchased a copy of this fantastic book, you should do so now. It provides brilliant jumping off points for writing.
Pupils can each create their own 'room' which can be combined together with rooms created by other pupils to create a unique class emporium. The cost of entry is 'a piece of your imagination.' Sublime.
It is useful to unpick a range of setting examples and consider which techniques the author has chosen to use.
For KS1 pupils, using detailed pictures can be useful starting points for adding some setting details into their stories.
What can you see from the train?
Building up a sentence:
Cows. (What did they look like?)
Black and white cows. (Where were the cows?)
Black and white cows in a field. (What were they doing?)
Black and white cows eating grass in a field.
Add a sentence starter
From the window I could see…
From the window I could see black and white cows eating grass in a field.
Looking out, I could see…
Try the power of three (commas in a list which is a Y2 feature)
From the window I could see black and white cows eating grass in a field, a family having a picnic and a red combine harvester.
There were black and white cows in the field, and if you looked carefully you could see them eating grass.
For lower Key Stage 2 pupils, we might start to use subordination, e.g. to show two things happening at the same time by using the subordinating conjunction 'as'.
They waved at us as we passed by.
As we passed by, they waved at us.
The family having a picnic waved at us as we passed by.
As we passed by, the family having a picnic waved at us.
We might add some fine detail into our description by considering size and shape, e.g.
The village in the distance that looked as if it was made from tiny dolls houses.
Consider what happens next... (using subordinating conjunction 'when').
When we came out of the tunnel, I could see a harbour filled with fishing boats. Seagulls flew overhead, swooping and diving. French flags fluttered from the tall turrets of a magnificent grey-stone castle.
Have fun creating setting descriptions.
If you would like to learn more about teaching pupils how to write descriptions, then why not come along to one of our courses or book an in-school training session.
Contact Vicky Crane firstname.lastname@example.org
I am always delighted to receive examples of writing pupils have produced. Feel free to send them to email@example.com and if you provide contact details, I will write back to your class.