Children attempting to set the scene in a story tend to fall into one of two categories: too much or too little. The too-littlers are quite content with giving the reader only a general idea of their characters’ location (“Beth and Bob were outside”). They might even skip describing the setting all together, forgetting that just because they know the setting doesn’t mean their reader does. The too-muchers, on the other hand, seem to be under the mistaken impression that their grade is based entirely on word count. For example: “Beth, wearing a red scarf and black boots, and Bob, who was her boyfriend and had blue eyes and long hair, stood outside the large, tall building which had blue and white flags and lots of windows.”
The following activity is an attempt to find a middle ground between the too-littlers and too-muchers. Students will write THREE (no more, no less) sentences describing a setting, in the following order: MASTER sentence, specific detail#1, specific detail#2. They will try this first with a series of photographs, and then move to settings from their own imagination.
Let’s walk through an example. Any landscape-type photo will do, but I like the ones on www.naturephotographers.net. Here’s a good one to start with:
After putting this up on the Smartboard or computer monitor, I ask my students for a very simple, “master shot” sentence. This is to force them to remember to establish exactly where they are, which is something the too-littlers often forget. A simple sentence is fine. In this case, it might be: “The old barn is in the field” or “I am in front of the old barn” if they are in a first person sorta mood. It doesn’t matter, as long as the reader absolutely knows where they are, in terms of the setting.
The second two sentences are where young writers can get fancy. Sentence two and three should be very specific details. This is where all that good stuff you’ve been teaching them like figurative and sensory language comes into play. For example, “A pine tree guards the barn,” “Wooden boards are coming free,” “The forest behind the barn is obscured by mist,” “The barn sits on a bed of stones.”
Give students time to share their ideas. I list the good ones on the board and then discuss which two are the best. I like to emphasize the fact that their first idea might not be their best idea.
The final result will be three sentences put together in the master-detail-detail pattern: “The old barn is in an empty field. Its boards are weathered and old. Above the barn the sun tries to break through the morning mist.” There you have it: a quick sketch of a setting, with a concrete format to keep students from feeling overwhelmed.
For a week or so I post one of these photographs as a morning assignment (I believe in repeatable activities—students shouldn’t be expected to get these things the first time through). This also works well as a center; just take a few photography books from the library and let students pick their own photo to describe. Eventually, students should draw their own setting, and use this three-sentence method to describe it!