There will usually be a question specifying the setting. For instance, it will ask you to write a story in a busy train station. That’s where you decide which of your objects and characters you want to bring in.
If you are given the setting, then think about what senses are going on. This helps to immerse your reader and brings your scene to life a lot more. It involves a lot of the skills covered in the Writing to Describe pages. So you’ll know that when you specify the senses being stimulated in the scene, it helps set a mood for your writing.
Here’s a really good example of creating a mood for your setting from Margaret Atwood’s novel ‘The Testaments’ – it’s taken from a scene where a girl realises her mother is seriously unwell.
“Her room no longer smelt like her – that light, sweet smell, like the lily-flowered Hostas in our garden – but as if a stale, dirtied stranger had crept in and was hiding under the bed.”
The smells there are familiar to us – even if we don’t know what Hostas are, we generally know what flowers smell like. So the contrast between that familiar and pleasant smell against the stench of a stale, dirty stranger, is really effective to emphasise an unwelcome atmosphere of sickness and pending danger.
But the smells also say a lot about the characters in a small number of words: the ‘light, sweet smell’ shows how delicate and feminine the mother is, and the astuteness of the girl to recognise all that shows her intelligence and sensitivity – and how close their relationship must be.
Senses can be a really good place to start your story as well.
For example, “The smell reminded me of…” throws the reader straight in and creates some intrigue.
Even more so if you add some contrast and juxtapose the sense to the setting:
“The smell reminded me of my step-mother smoking at the breakfast table.”
Firstly, we don’t expect someone to be smoking at the breakfast table, so we start making some flash assumptions about the characters, which may or may not turn out to be true. We’re intrigued by these two characters and whatever story is going between them, all because of a smell that wouldn’t normally fit the setting.
Sometimes in the exam you’ll be given a sense to write about and the setting will be up to you. For instance the question might ask you to write a story starting with “There was complete silence…”.
Well where is that silence? And that’s for you to decide.
Here’s where it’ll help for you to have some ‘Setting’ ideas up your sleeve. So mine are:
A wooded forest
A crowded beach
Inside an elevator
A wedding reception
Inside a car
On the surface, it might not look like there can be silence on a busy beach or in a car. But again that contrast and incongruity makes for a really interesting plot. So perhaps the beach has gone silent because there’s an eclipse happening or the music’s stopped at a wedding because someone is about to make a dramatic announcement.
It helps if you have 1 or 2 generic spaces like an elevator or car because you can easily adapt them to fit most questions.
- It’s generally a good idea to stick to what you know with your settings.
- If you’ve never been to a wedding or a funeral before, maybe avoid writing about those as there’ll be lots of details you won’t know about.
- Having said that, if you get a question set at a wedding and you don’t like the other question options, then practice ways to get around it – could the weeding be on the beach or in your family’s garden?
- Enclosed spaces tend to be really fertile ground for creative writing too because the atmosphere can be intense.