quaranTEEN voices Writing Prompt: ‘Setting as a Character’
Samira Ahmed is the New York Times bestselling and award-winning author of Love, Hate & Other Filters, Internment and Mad, Bad & Dangerous to Know. Her poetry and short stories have appeared in anthologies including: Take the Mic, Color Outside the Lines, Ink Knows No Borders, Who Will Speak for America, Vampires Never Get Old, and A Universe of Wishes. She was born in Bombay, India, and grew up in Batavia, Illinois, in a house that smelled like fried onions, spices, and potpourri. A graduate of the University of Chicago, Samira has taught high school English in both the suburbs of Chicago and New York City, worked in education non-profits, and spent time on the road for political campaigns. You can find her online at www.samiraahmed.com Twitter & Instagram: @ sam_aye_ahm
Whether you’re writing fiction or non-fiction, setting is often the unsung hero of a story, able to operate almost as a character. Setting is the backdrop, it can create or swing the mood of your scene, it can create conflict, it can introduce emotion or heighten it. I like to think of setting as incorporating three broad elements: environment, place, and time. And each of those three elements can have many details or characteristics that create it. Social and economic conditions, historical time periods, geography, place, weather, time of day, season, are all part of setting. The setting of a story doesn’t necessarily have to be a concrete place, it can be fantastical, imaginary. What brings a setting to life in your story are the details you choose to convey to the reader. Not every detail is necessary and it’s up to you to figure out what details are important to your story. My novel, Internment, is set at a detention center in the desert and dust was an important detail that I wove into the novel. It was always present in the characters’ lives, in their clothes, the wrinkles in their skin, they breathed it and washed it off their faces, sometimes it blotted out the sun. It was a nuisance, but it was also a symbol. But no one wants to read pages and pages about desert dust, so I had to be strategic about when and where I wrote about it so it would have the greatest impact. Let’s dig a bit deeper into setting.
Prompt 1: Favorite Room
Choose your favorite room, real or imagined. It could be a room in your home or a room that’s not in a house, like the Rose Reading Room in the NYPL or a room in a dollhouse like the Thorne Miniature Rooms at the Art Institute of Chicago. It could be a room you imagine on another a starship or in another universe. Your choice! Now write a description of the room as if you are character (one from a story you’ve written or one you’ve made up just for this exercise) entering the room for the first time. What does your character see, smell, hear? What mood does the room convey? Does the room reflect a certain time in history? If so, what historical details show that? Is it a specific time of day or season? How would you convey that to the reader? Consider how what your character “sees” reflects who they are or what is important to them. Write it from any point of view that works for you!
Prompt 2: Zoom In
Now that your character has entered the room, zoom in on a corner or specific area of the room and describe it with vivid details. What about that area has drawn your character’s attention? What details strike your character and why? How does your character feel when they see that spot? Does it remind them of something? Do they have questions? Are they awed? Disgusted? Surprised? Scared? What about the objects and area you describe compel that feeling or mood?
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