Writing Exercises for Exploring the Theme of Man and the Natural World

by Sara Letourneau
published in Writing

When it comes to working with literary themes in your writing, it’s not enough to identify or study them. It’s also crucial to practice incorporating themes logically and thoughtfully into your work. We did this last year with a series of writing and brainstorming exercises for the theme of family. Today, we’ll do this again as we finish our reexamination of the theme of man and the natural world.

If you missed our previous posts on this theme, why not read those first? Start with our case study on man and the natural world if you’d like an introduction to the theme. Or check out our recommended reading list of books about man and the natural world or our five reasons for why this theme matters. Otherwise, let’s get writing!

Make the Setting Integral to the Plot

Setting is already one of your story’s central elements. So when man and the natural world is one of the themes, the setting becomes an even bigger player in the game–so big, in fact, that it can influence the plot.

Think of stories you’ve read where the plot relies on the setting. How do the unique natural elements of the setting make the story’s events possible? In Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, for example, Mary’s transformation from sickly and selfish to healthy and caring happens as a result of her nurturing her uncle’s abandoned garden back to life. The friendships she develops with the other residents of Misselthwaite Manor contribute to this as well. But how would the story change if Mary was sent to live in a downtown orphanage that had no garden? The theme of man and the natural world would probably disappear—and the plot of this classic children’s tale would be drastically different.

So as you determine how the setting influences the plot, consider the following six keys to connecting these two building blocks of storytelling:

  1. Location: Where does the story take place? Ensure you think about the macro (country, state, town / city) and micro (neighborhoods, buildings, landmarks) elements of the location.
  2. Time: When does the story take place? Consider the time period, season, and (for certain scenes) the time of day. Whether it’s daytime or nighttime can significantly impact how a scene plays out.
  3. Natural Elements: What are some of the unique natural elements (e.g., topography, climate, bodies of water, weather conditions, wildlife) of this location at this time?
  4. Goals: What is the character’s goal in this story? What conflict is he trying to resolve?
  5. Connection: How does the character’s story goal or main conflict connect with the setting? In other words, how do the setting and its unique natural elements make the story possible?
  6. Impact: How do the natural elements of the setting affect or influence the character’s ability to achieve his story goal or resolve the main conflict?

If you’re unsure of how to answer the final question, stay tuned for more insights and a related exercise in the next section.

Exercise #1

Choose a setting with natural elements that could play a big role in a story, and write down your answers to the six questions listed above. (This setting can be one you’ve written about before or one that’s brand new.) Then write a scene or short story in which the character’s story-goal pursuit or the main conflict relies on this setting and its natural elements. 

How does the natural world make the character’s struggles or the scene’s events possible? How would the scene / story change—or be rendered impossible—if it occurred in a setting with different natural elements?

Also, check out the writing exercises in our post on using setting to illustrate literary themes.

“Characterize” Nature as Your Character’s Friend or Foe

No story ever goes smoothly for the protagonist. Between the beginning and the end, she’ll run into complications and setbacks as she struggles to reach her goal or resolve the main conflict. And in stories where man and the natural world is a central theme, these complications include natural obstacles that hinder the character’s progress or threaten the safety of herself and others. In this way, nature acts as one of the story’s antagonists. It may not be a human character whose motives and actions oppose the protagonist’s, but the power it holds over the protagonist through changing weather, expected seasonal conditions, and natural disasters can just as easily throw her off course. 

It’s also important to consider how the natural world can help the protagonist. Sometimes it’s more like a friend or ally and assists the character through shelter, sources of food or water, and signals of danger. Elements like these can give the protagonist a sense of hope, relief, joy, and other positive emotions that can, among other things, rekindle their commitment to their story goal. They must also be carefully chosen based on what occurs or is available in the story’s setting.

If you need some examples on how nature can antagonist or assist your character, here are two excellent ones:

  • Rae Carson’s Walk on Earth a Stranger: Leah Westfall rides in a covered wagon across the American plains and Rocky Mountains to reach the gold mines of California. Along the way, she braves whitewater rapids, a buffalo stampede, oppressive heat, and other natural elements that act as obstacles to her journey and overall safety. She also witnesses the beauty of natural landmarks and acknowledges her gratitude for off-road hiding spots and other ways that nature protects her.
  • Andy Weir’s The Martian: After being left behind on the planet Mars, astronaut Mark Watney must find a way to survive until a rescue mission arrives. The planet’s harsh environment—marked by dust storms, frigid temperatures, dangerous terrain, and lack of oxygen—makes this the biggest challenge of his life. But thanks to his engineering ingenuity, Mark figures out how to grow a crop of potatoes inside his laboratory using technology, Martian soil, and (*ahem*) human waste, which stretches his food supply and increases his odds of living long enough to come home.

Exercise #2A

Create a two-column table on paper or in a word processing document. Label the columns “Antagonize” and “Assist.” Then, in each column, list the ways in which the story’s setting and its natural elements either antagonize or assist the protagonist as she works toward achieving her goal or resolving the main conflict. Don’t worry if you fill one column with more ideas than the other, but make sure you consider how the natural world can both hinder and help the protagonist in her efforts.

Exercise #2B

Return to the scene or short story you wrote for Exercise #1, and write two new scenes: one where the setting and its natural elements antagonize the protagonist, and one where they assist her. Or, if you’re up for a challenge, write a single scene where the natural world does both for the character. How does your character react to these events? How do they complicate or aid her progress? How does it all make her feel? Is it even possible for nature to be both friend and foe in your story? If so, what does the protagonist think about this duality?

Infuse Your Descriptions of Nature with the Character’s Mood

Stories about man and the natural world never skim the setting’s surface. The natural elements must be carefully considered and described appropriately. This doesn’t mean you need to write about every leaf, insect, or drop of water. Rather, focus first on the elements that the character would notice and that best serve the scene, and then phrase those descriptions based on how the character thinks, feels, or reacts at that moment.

Put yourself in your character’s shoes and imagine he’s in a natural setting. What kind of environment is he in? What time of day is it? What’s the weather like? What kinds of wildlife (flora, fauna, etc.) does the character notice? What other unique elements of that setting does he make note of? Then consider the character’s circumstances and emotions at that moment. What just happened or is currently happening in the story? What thoughts or emotions is the character experiencing as a result? How do the setting’s natural elements and current conditions exacerbate his situation and feelings? Or how do they make things more bearable for him?

Remember that the key here is to illustrate the character’s relationship with nature. This is why it’s crucial to frame the description according to his observations, circumstances, and attitude at that moment. Depending on what’s happening, the character might not pay much attention to the dry grass or the chirping of crickets, but he may be exhausted enough to notice the heat and lack of shade. Or maybe he’ll be so distracted by the beauty of the moon that he doesn’t realize how much the temperatures have dropped. By inhabiting your character fully in each scene, you’ll ensure your descriptions of nature are accurate, imaginative, and meaningful.

Exercise #3

Review the last scene you wrote for your story, and notice your character’s state of mind at the end. Then, imagine your character going outside immediately after this scene ends and into the closest natural environment. What is that environment like? How does that environment affect the character’s mood? Or how does the character’s mood influence what he notices about the natural setting? List various scenarios such as daytime versus nighttime, heat versus cold, rain versus sunshine, etc. and determine how the character’s reaction changes in each one. If the story’s next scene were to occur outdoors, which scenario would be most impactful? Why?

Use the Story’s Events to Demonstrate Humanity’s Impact on Nature

We’ve likely read stories where trees are cut down, animals are forced to leave their homes, and pollution dirties the water and air. These and other moments are meant to remind readers of the havoc humanity can wreak on the natural world and the potential consequences if no one takes action to stop it. This also creates the reverse scenario of Exercises #2A and #2B above. Instead of nature acting as an antagonist to a human character, this time the character is antagonizing nature.

When taking this approach to the theme, first consider why the destruction is happening. For example, if characters are razing a forest, what are their reasons for doing so? Do they want the land for farming or development for homes and businesses? Do they need wood and other natural resources for their use or consumption? Are they driving out inhabitants such as birds, animals, and people—or using them to further their goals?

Next, ponder the consequences of this devastation. How would the natural elements of this setting change forever if the antagonist’s plans are carried out to completion? Think about how the terrain, wildlife, climate, and other aspects of nature would be impacted. How would these changes affect the characters living and working there? (Food and water supply, weather conditions, options for shade or cover, and nature’s aesthetic qualities are just some of the things to consider here.) Maybe even the worst-case scenario has already become reality. Jay Kristoff’s Stormdancer is a harrowing example of characters living—and dying—in a country where deforestation and pollution due to industrialization have led to climate change, famine, and disease, among other problems. 

This angle on the theme doesn’t have to be all “gloom and doom,” though. In most cases, one of the characters—your protagonist, for instance—may be determined to fight back or counter the damage that’s been done. If so, then ask yourself why this character cares so much about the world she lives in. What is she willing to do to save what’s left of it? Most importantly, what steps will she take (perhaps with help) to achieve her goal? Once you’ve brainstormed this as well as the reasons for and consequences of the destruction of the natural setting, you’ll have in place the first puzzle pieces for an exciting and emotionally charged story.

Exercise #4

Brainstorm the ways in which the natural world of your story’s setting could be impacted by your characters. If it helps, create a table that lists different “man-made” scenarios, possible reasons for each one occurring, and its impacts on the environment and the characters. Where does your protagonist fit into the picture on any of these scenarios? Would she be assisting with the destruction? Or fighting to stop it? Make note of her motivations for engaging in either side, then write a scene or short story in which the character witnesses or participates in the devastation. What does she or other characters try to do to save the story’s setting?

How have you explored man and the natural world in your own stories? What other writing prompts or exercises would you recommend to nurture this theme?

Sara Letourneau is a freelance editor and writing coach who lives in Massachusetts. She’s also a poet whose work has appeared in Mass Poetry’s Poem of the Moment, The Aurorean, The Avocet, The Bookends Review, Golden Walkman Magazine, Soul-Lit, and other journals and anthologies. She can often be found performing her poems at local open mic nights, reading good books, roaming the shores of Cape Cod, and enjoying a cup of tea. Learn more about how Sara can help you with your writing at Heart of the Story Editorial & Coaching Services. You can also connect with her at her writer website, Twitter, Goodreads, or Instagram.

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