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Descriptive Essay Writing

Setting The scene


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Whether education is being provided by a private English tutor or in a classroom of thirty or more, the problem remains – how to set a scene in an essay.

So important is ‘setting the scene’ that it is doubtful if an essay can be written without a scene. An essay simply cannot be set in ‘no place’. Try it! Try opening the first page of any novel and almost certainly you will see the setting of a scene. This crucial foundation of scene setting can be broken down into five points:

 

i.                 Where

ii.               When

iii.             Using our knowledge of other scenes

iv.             Mood and atmosphere

v.               Reader’s response

 

     i.      Where

The whole essay could be description of ‘where’. It need contain no characters and no happenings. We do not necessarily need characters or even things happening but we do need ‘where’.

Accuracy of detail is the all-important element here. You need to paint a picture with words. The image in your mind has to be transferred to that of your reader. Try imagining you are there; look around and carefully describe what you see. Take in all the detail, pass over to the reader the necessary descriptive elements.

Look at the simple but effective detail of a door here:

‘It had a perfectly round door like a porthole, pained green, with a shiny yellow brass knob in the exact middle.’

The Hobbit – J.R.R. Tolkien

 

     ii.    When

For a complete description we need to know not only where something is but also when something is happening there. This may as vague as which century or as precise as which second.

There are times when you don’t have to say the actual ’when’. If you are writing about the siege of a castle we have a rough idea of the period of history or perhaps the moon has just appeared, that may be enough to signify the time to the reader.

The following brief description gives us an idea of where in the world and the exact time of day the scene is set:

‘Far away, the desert dawn-wind blew through a British Military Cemetery.’

The Scarecrows – Robert Westall


    iii.   Using our Knowledge of other Scenes

Our lives are built up of many happenings. We have been witness to many scenes. Recall them in your writing. Why not cross time barriers? When writing about a market, don’t simply restrict your description to the one in your local town. Why not use your historical knowledge and set the scene in a medieval market in England. Consider the sights, sounds and smells – you wouldn’t find hotdogs there! Look at the following description of Fez in Morocco:

‘Getting to know the medina is a long story! Do not rush... in the western world you have high speed trains, but in Africa we still have time!’

http://www.visit-fez.com/visitfezfiles_en/visits.php

 

    iv.    Mood and Atmosphere

How a place is set influences the reader’s reaction to it. Moods and atmospheres can by anything from spooky to romantic. Your use of adjectives play a crucial part here and must be given careful thought. Look at the following example. An American is thinking of the tranquillity of London Parks:

‘All the parks here are very serene. Young couples go by arm in arm, no transistor radios or guitars in hand. Families picnic on the lawn sedately. Dogs go by on leashes, equally sedate, looking neither to the right nor to the left.’

84 Charing Cross Road – Helene Hanff

 

    v.    Reader’s response

The description of a setting is entirely in your hands. Do you want it be grim and foreboding or perhaps light and fanciful? Do you want to create one mood and then produce a sudden about-turn? Consider your vocabulary very carefully; think about who are aiming your writing at. Is it your peers, is it you lecturer, is it a paying readership? Knowledge of your audience will dictate your choice of words.

Consider the two following descriptions and think how the vocabulary changes the mood:

‘From inside the castle could be heard the sounds of merry-making; laughter mingled with sounds of the spring birds to produce a musical interlude.’

‘The moat below looked dark and forbidding, the black, murky waters lapping against the grassy banks, made a nasty sucking sound.’

Scene setting is crucial, take time to get it right.



Dean Nixon is a private English tutor in Stoke On Trent, Staffordshire, England. Working with him is

Norma Shaw who offers private Sociology tuition.

Please feel free to be a guest blogger at our Experienced Tutors blog.


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  (C) Dean Nixon 2012 - Private Tutors - Stoke-On-Trent - Descriptive Essay - Setting the Scene