Writing Prompts

Writing Prompt: Use Setting to Show Character and Theme

Wind swept cedar at Kylemore Abbey in Connemara County, Ireland. Photo Credit: Lâle Davidson 2019

The way we see things is influenced by our mood. Setting detail can be used in a story to show character and highlight themes concretely, to “show instead of tell.” It’s also a way to make setting do double duty, which, Janet Burroway says in her many fine texts on writing, it is always good to do. Setting should never be mere decoration.

  1. Write a description of the tree in the picture above from the point of view of a man whose only son died at the age of ten. Do not tell us that his son has died. Do not refer to the death or the son directly in any way. Show his mood and imply the death by the way he looks at, talks about, or describes the tree.  We want to see, smell, hear, feel the tree and surroundings. Use words to describe the branches, bark, leaves, and posture of the tree that evoke his mood without telling us about it– or even mentioning the son. You can have him talking, or writing, or merely describe the tree in a dark way without the father’s presence at all. I leave that to you.
  2. Now describe the same picture from the point of view of a woman who has just given birth to a child.  Again–do not tell us that mention her pregnancy or body directly. Instead, show her mood by the way she looks at, and talks about the tree. Let us see, smell, hear, and feel the tree in concrete detail.

Often, in response to this prompt, students narrate the father and the mother’s thoughts as they look at the tree, or they create memories of the child. This isn’t a bad thing. After all, narrating people’s thoughts is one of many ways to show character, but the point of this prompt is to use concrete detail to create an image and to closely observe and then to chose diction that evokes a mood.