When Snoopy takes out his typewriter and begins to compose a novel atop his doghouse, he always begins with "It was a dark and stormy night..." This phrase — originally appearing in a schmaltzy 19th century British novel — has come to symbolize all that can go wrong with melodramatic writing, especially the clumsy attempts of a writer trying to evoke a dramatic setting within the first sentence of a work of literature.
Setting is tricky business. Many teachers try to boil it down for students as "time and place," but this reductionist view of setting does not acknowledge the tremendous power that setting has over a work of literature's mood or tone. The Cliff's Notes version of the setting for The Great Gatsby, for example, would be "1920's Long Island (and New York City)," but when you instead savor Fitzgerald's descriptions of the settings of specific scenes, you can see how much is lost in only acknowledging its decade and spot on the map.
Fitzgerald doesn't need to tell us that it's summer in Long Island; he just takes us there. We see the guests sun bathing and diving, and the Long Island Sound's "cataracts of foam" in the background. And, more importantly, we are forced to recognize the contrast between the ethereal moth-like partygoers who flit around in the romantic landscape of champagne, stars, and blue gardens with the all-too-mundane mops, scrubbing brushes, hammers and garden-shears that are the tools needed to "repair the ravages" of Gatsby's decadent lifestyle.
Implications for teaching:
One way to support developing writers in getting past their "it was a dark and stormy night" impulses is to expose them to such rich examples of setting such as this paragraph by Fitzgerald. Once they have read such an example, ask students to answer the question "What's this place like?" in one word, and to then identify the particular words in the text that led them to their one-word conclusions. This seemingly simple exercise can promote a heightened sense of word consciousness and can also lead students to discover how much latitude they have as writers in establishing a strong sense of setting.
The nuts and bolts:
Have students write their one-word responses to "What's this place like?" in the center of a piece of paper and to then draw radiating spokes from the word, each ending in a different word from the text that supports their one word response.
For example, if a student writes the adjective wealthy in his assessment of the Gatsby setting, then the words he might cull from the paragraph to support that assessment could include champagne, motor-boats, aquaplanes, Rolls-Royce, parties, and servants.
In order to push students to recognize the contrast in Gatsby's setting description, you could suggest using words like unfair or ironic in the center of their graphic organizers. More evaluative words like this will encourage students to deepen their analysis of Gatsby's setting and to include a more diverse group of words.
Supporting the Common Core:
Activities like this word-centric setting analysis are right in line with the Common Core State Standards. In the ELA Reading Literature standard cited above, note how the standard highlights both "word choice" and "evok(ing) a sense of time and place." The key here is that this activity asks students to realize how specific words evoke a sense of time and place without directly stating time and place.
Sometimes imposing restrictions can paradoxically free up a writer to grow. If you challenge students in their own creative writing to try to "evoke a sense of time and place" without using direct references to geographic locations, years, or even the "dark and stormy" weather, you might be surprised by how their depictions of setting may expand.
Georgia Scurletis is Director of Curriculum for the Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.com. Before coming to Thinkmap, she spent 18 years as a curriculum writer and classroom teacher. Georgia has written curriculum materials for a variety of Web sites (WGBH, The New York Times Learning Network, Edsitement) and various school districts. While teaching high school English in Brooklyn, she was a recipient of the New York State English Council's Educators of Excellence Award, the Brooklyn High Schools' Recognition Award, and The New York Times' Teachers Who Make a Difference Award.Click here to read other articles by Georgia Scurletis