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How to Write Great and Memorable Settings and Descriptions in Children Short Stories
 
 
How to Write Setting and Descriptions in Short Stories for Children
Introduction

One of your goals in telling a story is to pull the reader in, to make him feel not as if he's merely reading (or listening) but as if he's actually experiencing the events you describe. One of the key ways to create this sensation is through vivid description. As you write, see the story unfold in your mind. Where is this story happening? If you watched a movie that had no background scenery, the action and characters would seem less real to you. It would be obvious that they were actors on a stage. The same is true in a story. Give your characters a place to interact.

Use All Five Senses

The more sensory information you include in your description, the more real the reader's experience will be. You can go beyond the visual description of a scene and tell us what sounds can be heard. What does a place smell like? What does a kitten feel like when your character holds it in her hands? You don't need to list all five senses with each item you describe, of course. This would quickly become clumsy. Think of which sense might predominate in a given place or situation. In a kitchen, for instance, the smell of food cooking might be the first thing a character notices. In a crowded outdoor market, the mixture of different sounds might be prominent.

Be Specific

Giving specific, concrete details about the places and things you describe helps your reader picture them. Instead of, "the walk in front of their house was lined with flowers," try, "the walk in front of their house was lined with geraniums, her mother's favorites." Here, not only do we name a specific flower that the reader can identify, we can also use them to describe a character in the story: This character has a mother who loves geraniums.

Here's a longer example. Which version tells you more about this character?

"What do you want for your birthday, Richard?" his father asked. "That radio controlled car you've had your eye on?"

"Yes," Richard answered."

Or:

"What do you want for your birthday, Richard?" his father asked. "That radio controlled car you've had your eye on?"

He thought of the car he'd seen in the hobby shop window. The deep blue Chevy Monte Carlo stock car with white racing stripes and the number "2" under the driver's window. Rusty Wallace's number. He loved Rusty Wallace.

"Yes," Richard answered."

While it is common to use specific brand names when describing items, watch out for making your description sound like a commercial. Sometimes a product name is indispensable in description:

Uncle Ken pulled up in his car, a rusted orange Volkswagen Beetle he had nicknamed "Old Faithful."

Other times, brand names can be gratuitous:

The smell of bread toasting brought Paul to the kitchen. His dad had set the table with two places. A stick of Parkay margarine sat on a small plate between them.

In this case, the margarine was probably not in its labeled container, so it would simply look like margarine. Use of the brand name in this case sounds like a margarine company has paid the writer to hawk their products at the expense of his story.

While vivid, concrete description is crucial to good storytelling, don't get hung up on it. As we will soon discuss, much of the writing process is revision after you've got your basic story down on paper. You can always go through a story and add more detail later.

Down with Adjectives

While adjectives like "gigantic" and "heavy" are important in description, the use of adjectives alone can leave too much up to the reader and should be replaced with specific detail whenever possible. Instead of "the dog was huge," try "the dog stood nearly as high as Paul's shoulders."

Less is More

While vivid description is crucial, too much of it in one place can get in the way of your story. Children's stories are generally much shorter than those for grownups, so you will only have room for a few words of description. The trick is to learn to describe settings and people by highlighting just enough detail to help the reader fill in the rest. Though relying only on adjectives can make your description too vague, mixing adjectives with a specific detail or two can give your reader a well rounded picture of someone or something with a minimum of words:

The substitute teacher was tall and thin, with a sharp nose and dark eyes that seemed to stare directly into Paul's mind.

To practice efficient description, try this exercise. Write a description of a real setting you're familiar with. Use up to ten sentences,

working in as much detail as you can. When you are finished, cut your ten sentences down to five. Which details can you cut while still providing a good sense of the place you are describing? Next, cut your description down to one sentence. You will have to whittle your ten sentences down to two or three details that can give your readers the chance to picture your setting. While this isn't easy, it is a skill that can be practiced and learned. As you do this exercise and write your stories you will get better at it.

He Said, She Said. Dialog in the Children's Story

Dialog is a tremendous tool in the writer's toolbox. It can move the story forward, help the writer give the reader information, help describe the character who is speaking, and help describe the story's setting. Writing effective dialog is another skill that can be practiced and learned, and you will get better as you work at it.

Dialog is not Conversation

You want your characters to sound like real people, right? Of course you do. So shouldn't you make them talk exactly as real people do? You could even transcribe actual conversations and use them in stories, couldn't you? That would make your stories real in the reader's mind, right?

Wrong.

Real conversation is messy. People often grope for words, cut each other off, or let sentences trail off when their listeners make it clear they know what is about to be said. They say "um" or "er" as they try to think of what they really want to say. They use a lot of place holders, like "let's see" or "let me think."

Dialog must communicate information much more efficiently than real conversation. Your reader must be clear on who is speaking at all times, and this can be difficult to follow if your characters interrupt each other too much. The limited word count requirements of the average children's story means you don't have time for characters to hem and haw before getting around to what they're saying, and in any case, hemming and hawing makes for pretty boring reading.

The trick is making dialog sound like natural speech without all the fits and starts that characterize actual talking. A little bit of reality can be helpful, but a little goes a long way. You might have one character interrupt the other once per conversation, but not four or five times. You might include an "um" or a "let's see" here and there for verisimilitude, but not as many as you would hear a real person say. Dialog is what real speech might sound like if people generally knew what they wanted to say before they started talking, and if they let other people finish their sentences more often then they generally do in reality. A great way to learn what works well in dialog writing is to study published stories. Read published dialog out loud. Listen to the way it can sound real without being so messy. Try this in your own writing.

Listen to Children

To write effective dialog for children's stories, it is essential to have children's voices in your ears. Even though you won't want to write exactly as they talk, as we just discussed, it helps to know how their speech differs from that of adults.

Listen to children every chance you get. If you have children of your own this will be easy. If you don't, seek out ways to be around them. Volunteering at a school or community center with children's programs is one idea. Offering to watch nieces or nephews or your friends' children is another. If you happen to walk by children playing outside, open your ears. Besides gleaning raw material for use in your dialog writing, you may hear something that sparks a story idea.

Please use common sense and discretion when doing research of this kind. Adults who are seen hanging around unsupervised children are apt to be suspected of ill intentions. It's best not to approach kids you don't know (and whose parents you don't know).

Attribution

It is crucial that your reader knows which character has spoken each line of dialog. The standard method of attributing speech is to tell who said what immediately before or after each line, as in:

"I hope we get home before it rains," Kyle said as he looked up at the sky.

If Kyle says something else right away, and before anyone else speaks, we can usually do without additional attribution:

"I hope we get home before it rains," Kyle said as he looked at the sky. "Looks like we're in for a doozy of a storm."

If two characters are talking back and forth for several sentences, it is usually possible to drop the attribution after the first line or two:

"Hey," that's my cookie," Kyle said.

"No it's not," Meg said.

"Yes it is."

"Is not."

"Is too."

If three characters are involved in a conversation, there's really no choice but to attribute each line. To avoid a mechanical repetition of "he said, she said," try breaking things up by attributing to characters through their actions:

"Let's shut off the lights and tell ghost stories," Jim said.

"Yeah," Greg said.

Billy shook his head. "that's boring," he said. "How about watching a movie?"

Here, we still attribute each line, but the rhythm is varied with the inclusion of Billy's gesture.

In a story that is heavy on dialog, it can seem like a bad idea to use the word "said" over and over. Using other verbs when attributing dialog can be helpful to a limited extent. "Asked" and "answered" can be useful under the right circumstances"

"What time is it?" Joey asked.

"It's a quarter after nine," his mother answered.

If a character's voice is raised, a verb other than "said" is probably more appropriate:

"Don't touch that!" Jenna yelled from across the room, her voice full of fear.

You may be tempted to vary your attribution verbs with each line. You will find published work from time to time where this technique is common. Resist the temptation. Constantly varying the way you say "said" can quickly become too noticeable and the way something is said will draw your reader's attention away from the actual dialog:

"I hope we get home before it rains," Kyle worried.

"Yeah, it looks like we're in for a doozy of a storm," Bill exclaimed.

"Nah, I bet it blows over," Joe interjected.

This kind of writing makes the writer's vocabulary the most prominent part of the line instead of the things the characters are saying. The writer's hand should disappear in the story, letting the characters speak for themselves. The things they say should express their emotions without the clumsy addition of a verb that describes how they said them. It is all right, in fact it is best to stick to "said" and a limited number of variations when attributing dialog. Let your writing be the foundation of your work, not the window dressing.
Writing, and Punctuating, Dialogue
When we write dialogue, there is a specific way that we need to punctuate what is said. Many writers have trouble with this, it seems to be one of the first things we forget when we leave school.
This is simply a section that will brush up on those rules. If you'd like a more in-depth review, a great book that can help isWriting Dialogue, by Tom Chiarella
Back to our review:
To set off quoted material, you'll use a comma. This sets the quoted bits off from the main body of the sentence, in sentences that contain quotes. If the main body of work precedes the quote, your comma will appear between the end of the main body and the beginning of the quote. Sound confusing? It's really not. Here's an example:
Michelle said, "Hand me that book."
The boy thought, "Why doesn't anyone understand what I'm trying to say?"
For those two examples, when you are setting the quoted material--what is said or thought, off from the speaker, the comma is outside the quotation marks. But if the main body follows the quote, the comma (or other punctuation) goes inside the quotation marks.
For example:
"I am so happy!" she screamed.
"I think you are going to win," Jim told Alexis.
The comma is there (or the other end punctuation) to show that this is still part of the same sentence. If it were not, then you would put a period to end the sentence.
For example:

"I think you are going to win." John then turned to Alexis and shook her hand.
Now, if the spoken words are broken up, here is how you would punctuate the sentence:
"Well," she said, "there goes the ball game."
The main body, above, comes between the first piece of what is said and the second. Note that your punctuation is inside the quotation marks on both sides.

 
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