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Creative writing: setting and atmosphere

The new GCSE English Language Assessment Objective 5 states candidates should
communicate clearly, effectively and imaginatively. In creative writing, presentation
of setting can be important in helping you communicate the kind of atmosphere, mood
or tone you want to convey to the reader.

Reading
Read extract A, from the short novel Heart of Darkness (1902) by Joseph Conrad, and
then work through the following activities, to discover how the writer uses setting to
create an eerie, mysterious atmosphere.
The narrator is travelling up the River Congo in Africa to find Kurtz, who runs an isolated
native trading post in the jungle and is believed to have gone mad.
Extract A
Going up that river was like travelling back to the earliest beginnings of the world,
when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings. An empty stream, a
great silence, an impenetrable forest. The air was warm, thick, heavy, sluggish. There
was no joy in the brilliance of sunshine. The long stretches of the waterway ran on,
deserted, into the gloom of overshadowed distances. On silvery sandbanks hippos and
alligators sunned themselves side by side. The broadening waters flowed through a
mob of wooded islands; you lost your way on that river as you would in a desert, and
butted all day long against shoals, trying to find the channel, till you thought yourself
bewitched and cut off forever from everything you had known once somewhere far
away in another existence, perhaps ...
The reaches opened before us and closed behind, as if the forest had stepped leisurely
across the water to bar the way for our return. We penetrated deeper and deeper into
the heart of darkness. It was very quiet there. At night sometimes the roll of drums
behind the curtain of trees would run up the river and remain sustained faintly, as if
hovering in the air high over our heads, till the first break of day. Whether it meant
war, peace or prayer we could not tell. The dawns were heralded by the descent of a
chill stillness; the wood-cutters slept, their fires burned low; the snapping of a twig
would make you start.
1. The writer uses various senses in his writing, including sight, sound and touch.
Highlight any examples you can find.
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Creative writing: setting and atmosphere


2. How do the following contrasts add tension to the atmosphere? One has been
completed as an example.
heart of darkness

brilliance of sunshine

great silence

snapping of a twig

a chill stillness

the broadening
waters flowed

you lost your way on


that river

as you would in a
desert

Dark and light without colour create a


shadowy, sinister setting.

3. How does personification add a sense of threat to the forest? One example has
been filled in.
big trees were kings

Suggests the trees are powerful and rule the landscape.

vegetation rioted on the


earth

a mob of wooded islands

the forest had stepped


leisurely across the water to
bar the way for our return

4. How does vocabulary choice affect the presentation of the setting as isolated?
Look up the words in a dictionary and comment on:

an impenetrable forest

you thought yourself


bewitched

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Creative writing: setting and atmosphere


5. How does the sentence structure add suspense to the telling of the story?
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6. Look at how all these techniques start to suggest the narrator feels unsettled,
even frightened, by this journey up river.
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Writing
Now try some of these techniques in your own writing. Choose one of the following
scenarios and create a tense, mysterious atmosphere in a paragraph.

Lost in a strange city.


Stranded on a mountain overnight.
Thunderstorm!

Before you start, plan your answer making notes on:

setting e.g. where and when


atmosphere e.g. threatening
feelings e.g. fear, confusion
techniques you could use to convey these to the reader e.g. senses, contrasts,
personification, vocabulary, sentence structure.

Now write your first paragraph!


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Creative writing: setting and atmosphere


Reviewing creative writing
1. Re-read extract A and note:

any similes, metaphors, interesting nouns, adjectives, verbs and adverbs that are
used.

the effect of Conrad writing in the first person, but using we and you, to draw
the reader into the narrators experience.

2. Exchange your creative writing paragraph with that of a partner; read and discuss
each others work. Make a note of your partners choices and compare them with
your own:

Setting: ............................................................................................

Atmosphere: ......................................................................................

Three techniques used:


1. .......................................................
2. .......................................................
3. .......................................................

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Creative writing: setting and atmosphere


Development
Read the following two short extracts for more ideas on how to develop your writing
skills with regard to setting and atmosphere.
Extract B
Read this extract from the opening page of the novel Rebecca (1938) by Daphne du
Maurier, describing a garden that was once very neat and cared for, but in a dream
appears to have been neglected and returned to nature.
The woods, always a menace even in the past, had triumphed in the end. They
crowded, dark and uncontrolled, to the borders of the drive. The beeches with white,
naked limbs leant close to one another, their branches intermingled in a strange
embrace, making a vault above my head like the archway of a church. And there were
other trees as well, trees that I did not recognize, squat oaks and tortured elms that
straggled cheek by jowl with the beeches, and had thrust themselves out of the quiet
earth, along with monster shrubs and plants, none of which I remembered.
What sort of atmosphere do the following techniques help to create and how effective
are they?

simile e.g. a vault like the archway of a church


metaphor e.g. monster shrubs
verbs that suggest a struggle or invasion e.g. They crowded, dark and
uncontrolled

Extract C
Read this extract, from the opening pages of the short story Kew Gardens (1919) by
Virginia Woolf, presenting a detailed, snails eye view of a garden.
In the oval flower-bed the snail, whose shell had been stained red, blue, and yellow for
the space of two minutes or so, now appeared to be moving very slightly in its shell,
and next began to labour over the crumbs of loose earth which broke away and rolled
down as it passed over them. Brown cliffs with deep green lakes in the hollows, flat,
blade-like trees that waved from root to tip, round boulders of grey stone, vast
crumpling surfaces of a thin crackling texture all these objects lay across the snails
progress between one stalk and another to his goal.
What features does the author use and how effective are they?

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