Young Writers Workshop: Setting Exercise

I’ll be giving a writing workshop tomorrow at the Carlingwood Library to help kids aged 9-12 prepare their stories for the Ottawa Public Library’s Awesome Authors Contest.

We’ll do two story-building exercises: one on Character, and one on Setting.

For those who can’t be there, here is my Setting handout, with a short version of my talk to accompany it. Feel free to use it with your group of young writers.


“Jane stepped out of her house.”

Perhaps that’s the first line of your story. The reader is with you, picturing something like this.

But if this is the house that Jane stepped out of…

… you’re going to need to write more than “her house.”

What are some words you could use to describe this house?

Some adjectives: a tiny tumbledown house, a rusty old house.

Some nouns: a shack, a dump, a hovel.

And what if Jane stumbled or crawled or slithered out of her hovel? Those verbs paint a different picture still.

Writing is making pictures in a reader’s mind. Every word adds to the picture.

Think about time

In creating a setting, first ask: When does your story take place?

  • What’s the historic time? (2019? 1600? 2840?)
  • What’s the calendar time? (Ottawa is a completely different setting in summer or in winter.)
  • What’s the clock time? (Your kitchen is a different place at 7:00 p.m. during a dinner party vs. 3:00 a.m. in a thunderstorm when you’re alone, searching for a flashlight.)

A good story includes a few details that reflect the times. This is all the more important if your story is set any time but now. A jukebox is a nice setting detail in this story set in 1956:

“She walked toward the gleaming brown jukebox and pressed B4. She swayed her head to the tune as ‘Buttons and Bows’ came dancing out of the machine.” (from “A Brother Lost” by Leeah Sullivan in Pot-pourri 2017)

Think about place

“Place” in a story can be an entire galaxy or a single classroom.

Setting includes the culture of a place—its politics, its architecture—and the nature of a place—its weather, its wildlife. But don’t feel like you have to write an entire history and travel guide. Just let time and place inform your story.

That means being factual. If your story is set near the equator, don’t have the sun still shining at 8:00 p.m.

If you’ve been to an unusual place — a foreign country, a submarine, a racetrack — and you know what it’s like and how people behave there, consider it as a setting for your story. Readers appreciate authentic details.

Think Mood

If you are writing a story about a boy shipped off to his uncle’s for the summer, and this is where he arrives…

… your setting immediately builds a mood of menace.

But you don’t have to have a creepy castle to build tension. You can build mood with any sensory details that trigger emotion A creak on the stairs. A knife block on the kitchen counter with one knife missing. Eek!

And you don’t have to tell the reader your setting details directly. Even better is to have your character react to those details — as in this story, where we are told it’s chilly without having to be told:

“William pulled the cloak tighter around his shoulders to keep warm. The wind whistled through the trees and the crickets had begun their sweetly-sad melody…” (from “At the Water’s Edge” by Kate Calhoun in Pot-pourri 2017)

Select a few precise details

Don’t overload the reader with information.

“Every day at four o’clock, Miss Mildred held court in her rocking chair in front of the wide-eyed huddle of children clustered on the green carpet.” (from “The Last Storytime” by Joy Liu in Pot-pourri 2017)

We don’t need a list of all the furniture in that library; the rocking chair and the green carpet are enough.

Open your ears and nostrils

Humans are visual creatures, but if you can add some of the other senses — the feel of a carpet on bare feet, the tinkle of piano keys in a distant room – you will build a richer setting.

What is one visual detail to describe this abandoned house? What might it smell like? What sounds might be here?

And remember character when you describe setting. To me, this house is creepy. But if your character is a mouse, or a ghost, or a photographer of abandoned houses, this setting might be a happy one.

Now build your setting

You can use this handout to help create your setting.

Draw a picture, make a map, or write a description of where your story takes place. Give it a name, a time, and a location. Then capture sensory details to make it come alive.

You can describe a real place, or invent one, or expand on the setting in a story you’ve already begun. If you’re stuck, describe one of the houses in this post, or your bedroom at night during an alien invasion, or a dog’s view of your yard.

Share your settings in a workshop. Ask questions about them. Put characters in them. Use your setting descriptions to inform your scenes as you write your story.

What is Pot-Pourri?

The exemplary excerpts in this post are from stories by writers aged 9-14 published in Pot-pourri 2017.

Pot-pourri is an annual anthology of student writing published by the Friends of the Ottawa Pubic Library Association. This year’s Awesome Authors winners and honourable mentions will appear in Pot-pourri 2019.

So write your best story. (With the best setting.)

4 Comments on “Young Writers Workshop: Setting Exercise

  1. This is great! I’m doing a middle-school short-story workshop next week, and this will be most useful! Thanks so much for sharing.

  2. Pingback: Young Writers Workshop: Know your Character – Catherine Austen

  3. Pingback: Things hide in the Dark (Episode 1) – Cabin Tales

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