Tag Archives: Alfred Hitchcock

Setting & Atmosphere

For this post, we’ll take a page–pun intended–from Edgar Allen Poe, who demonstrated the effectiveness of imagery, atmosphere, and even the weather on a story’s impact.

When creating mood, you should be sure it fits the tropes of your genre. In other words, if you’re writing a romance, you want a setting that contributes to a romantic tone. This means your characters will be falling in love in the Colorado mountains, or a coastal cottage near the surf, or in a steamy jungle, or among the glittering throngs in Monte Carlo’s casino, or in a meadow–not, generally, in a mechanic’s shop, oil tanker factory, rural pig pen, or fast food joint. (Yes, yes, I know that love can strike anyone anywhere, but idealized, romantic settings sell solidly.)

Let’s consider the classic John Ford film, THE QUIET MAN. The movie is styled to present a very idealized view of early twentieth-century Ireland. Protagonist Sean is inclined to romanticize the country where he was born and left as a young boy. He has returned to buy the old family cottage and seek refuge in it from all that’s gone wrong in his life. When he sees Mary Kate for the very first time, she’s leading a flock of sheep across the pasture with the sun shining on her red hair. He is instantly attracted to her beauty and wants to get acquainted.

The movie is based on a short story, and if I recall the prose version correctly, the author depicts Sean in church, sitting behind Mary Kate and being struck by how the hair on the back of her neck swirls in delicate tendrils.

Each version of this first meeting between the couple works well for its particular medium. The film, shot in glorious technicolor which was made for the vivid coloring of actress Maureen O’Hara who plays the character of Mary Kate, needs her introduction to be stronger and more active so she’s out tending sheep with her glorious hair on her shoulders. The short story can present her more quietly, with minute detail of the back of her neck as seen through Sean’s point of view. Both versions convey the same plot event. Both utilize setting–a meadow or inside a chapel–to enhance the romantic aspect of this man’s first notice of the woman he’ll eventually woo and marry.

At the other end of the spectrum, if your story is dramatic and serious, you don’t want a frivolous setting. If you’re writing comedy, you don’t want the gloomy dungeon’s torture pit beneath a rotting castle unless you’re going to exaggerate the gloom, cobwebs, and ghastly screams for humorous or satirical effect. Suspense needs a somber tone. Westerns need to present the glory of a wide, untamed world. Fantasy needs to evoke a sense of enchanted wonder. Science fiction often seeks to portray a technologically advanced world that’s cold and sterile, or a dystopian nightmare of crumbling infrastructure.

Consider the stylists, prop masters, and set dressers in motion pictures. Study your favorite films–ones you’ve seen often enough that you can remain detached from the story action–and observe how imagery and mood are conveyed through the lighting, props, furnishings, and colors of the sets. Are they interior or exterior? If an intense, conflict-heavy scene is set inside a room lined with bookshelves filled with expensive leather-bound tomes and there’s a thick Oriental carpet on the floor beneath a heavy mahogany desk, ask yourself how different the same character confrontation and same dialogue would be if the scene took place outdoors.

When good filmmakers use a setting that superficially seems incongruous with the genre or plot situation, it’s for deliberate effect. In the Alfred Hitchcock classic, STRANGERS ON A TRAIN, the climactic confrontation between the protagonist and villain happens on a merry-go-round at an amusement park. The innocent children on the ride help to raise the stakes when the operator is accidentally shot and the carousel spins out of control. The wooden horses–normally perceived as happy, frolicking steeds painted in bright, happy colors–become grotesque and grim monsters thanks to Hitchcock’s framing, Dutch angles, and use of black and white film. He turns one of the most beloved of all amusement-park rides into a nightmare, but he does so in a careful, consistent manner that manipulates audience perception. He doesn’t just let his two principal characters struggle on a cheerful, brightly colored ride–thereby muddling the imagery. He shapes mood like the master he is.

You can also use the weather as part of your setting to brighten or darken a story’s tone. Thriller novelist Dean Koontz has done this for years, and it’s quite effective. He draws on thunderstorms and torrential downpours to close in around his beleaguered characters, to create additional adversity for them, and to make the situation tougher as his story people struggle for survival against predators and psychos.

Diction is another tool at our disposal when we’re creating atmosphere. That’s a fancy term for word choice, but again, the details you choose when describing your settings will either enhance your story or undermine it. Utilize adjectives, verbs, and nouns to support the mood you’re trying to convey.

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From My Bookshelf: Alistair MacLean

Recently I was out and about at a sale when I spied a slim book bound in fake blue leather. The title on the spine said The Golden Rendezvous. My heart leapt. I reached and took down the book. I opened it. Yes, indeed, it was written by Alistair MacLean. My favorite story among all his works. No mustiness. No damage. It even had a sewn-in ribbon to mark the place.

I bought it and carried it home with a small warm glow of accomplishment. Because at his best, nobody wrote action thrillers or spy books better than MacLean.

I discovered him in 1973, my attention caught by a book called The Way to Dusty Death. I read it and was hooked immediately. Little did I know that this novel marked the beginning of MacLean’s literary decline. It was just good enough to grab me, and I quickly busied myself in digging his earlier, better works out of the library. How I enjoyed his crisp, lean style, his flawless pacing, his relentless brand of action that pushed cynical protagonists to the edge of their endurance.

MacLean wrote from 1955 to 1986. At his best, he was superb. At his worst, he was both sad and truly awful, his efforts hindered by bouts of alcoholism. The last book of his that I read was a pathetic shambles of a story, published near the very end of his career, and I did not return to him until now.

So ignore the books published in the 1970s and 1980s. Hunt down his earlier stuff. It is terrific, whether his characters are struggling survivors of a plane crash in the Artic or a poignant spy assisting defectors over the Berlin wall during the Cold War. Altogether he wrote 28 novels, many of them NY Times bestsellers, along with a collection of short stories and three nonfiction books. For a time he fell completely out of print in the USA, but when I checked Amazon this evening, I found that some of his better-known titles were reissued in 2015.

Earlier this week, I remembered I’d bought The Golden Rendezvous and picked it up to see if the old magic would still work on me. I hadn’t read this novel since I was a teenager. But I remembered the plot twist and the danger the characters went through. I remembered that I once loved it.

Other than knowing what’s coming, it’s like reading the story for the first time. MacLean takes his time establishing the characters and the ship they’re on. I’m reminded of Alfred Hitchcock’s pacing. Introducing all the elements and players slowly, taking the time to firmly settle readers into the plot situation before BAM! trouble hits in a big way.

I’d forgotten MacLean’s style. It is as lean and precise as Dick Francis–only better. Man, I wish I could write that well. And to think, English was MacLean’s second language after Gaelic.

A Scotsman, MacLean served as a torpedo operator in the Royal Navy during World War II. His first novel, HMS Ulysses, was a hit and he is world-famous for The Guns of Navarone, which was made into a successful film.

If you like action-adventure or spy thrillers, give him a try. Just make sure the books were written before 1971. Then hang on to your seat! 

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Can Softies Survive Zombie Apocalypse?

Last night, I was quick-watching a few episodes of the AMC zombie show, Walking Dead, in an effort to choose something for my Writing Science Fiction & Fantasy class at the University of Oklahoma. I try to cover a broad spectrum of subgenres in the course, letting students examine various types of stories and then discussing aspects of plotting or story shaping, etc. And although I’m no fan of horror and don’t care for zombies as a matter of personal taste, I intended to spend a class period dealing with this slice of the market.

In my scan, I watched an episode which seemed so-so. One zombie beheading, a brutal fight, some wife abuse, a raving man handcuffed to a pipe like bait while zombies tried to swarm him–not too bad. But the plot had some holes and lacked good character motivation, so I decided to check another episode. I chose the series opener.

The initial hook has a sheriff’s deputy encounter a small girl in her jammies, carrying her teddy bear. The deputy wants to help her, but when the child turns around, it’s revealed that she’s a zombie. He shoots her between the eyes. In slow motion, with blood splatter.

I nearly threw the remote at my set. Then I nearly threw the DVD away. Then I thought the experience over.

Granted, the genre is horror. By definition, horror should shock and horrify its audience. But to what extent? What separates good story from gratuitous violence?

As a writer, I understand exactly where the author of this teleplay was going. We really need to grab viewers by the throat with this show. We’ll set up a sharp contrast between a sweet little blonde girl in her bunny slippers and a shuffling monster. We’ll show her blown away by a man in a uniform, a man that wants to help a little girl and instead has to destroy a monster. Oh, and we’ll make sure we take screen time to demonstrate that she’s a killer and he’s giving her a head tap in self-defense. Gotta keep him sympathetic while we make the audience scream.

I understand TV. I understand story. I understand plot hooks and stingers. I understand visual imagery.

But I think writers need to think about what they’re doing and why. When you’re writing shock to make your readers (or viewers) gasp and scream, how far will you go? And should you go there?

When should cheap entertainment surrender to decency and responsibility?

Some might argue that there’s no longer a line, that writers bear no part in what viewers or readers do after encountering the actions in a story. Others can cry censorship.

I’m not calling for that. I don’t think writers should be strangled, stifled, or banned. However, I do think writers should govern themselves.

Too idealistic? Perhaps I am. Just don’t offer me the defense of, gory shock sells.

Of course it does. It always has. (Just ask the gladiators of ancient Rome.)

But there are alternate ways in which to supply shock. Alfred Hitchcock’s classic film, Psycho, was plenty horrifying but it didn’t supply a visual of every knife wound–complete with stabbing entry crunch and sucking blade exit.

Before the 1980s, there were certain taboos–lines, if you will, that most writers didn’t cross. One of those was that a writer didn’t harm a child character directly in a scene through  violence. Stephen King was among the authors who broke that taboo. I’ve read that he was uneasy about killing the little boy in Pet Sematary and that he was uncertain whether he could get the novel published or that people would even read it. But he did and they did, and the broken taboo was stepped on and kicked and mangled by enough writers subsequently that it hasn’t been put together again.

Today, I can’t think of any writing taboos still standing. Writers are lobbing any topic, any character action, any degree of violence that they please at their readers, and readers seem to eat it up. Some, like Dennis LeHane and Andrew Vachss, do so for a cause. They say they’re trying to make people understand the depravity of child predators. Reputedly they hope that if the public learns about this type of horrific crime, public outcry will demand something be done about it.

But does public outcry happen?

Look at how desensitized we’ve become. Entertainment, in an effort to keep topping itself, runs farther and farther down a road that’s very hard to return from.

I have a friend who stopped watching NCIS at the close of its first season because Kate was shot in the head. In slow motion. With blood splatter. My friend has worked hard to KEEP her sensitivity. Good for her. I can’t imagine what she’d have to say about a deputy plugging a little girl between the eyes in our living rooms, just so we can laugh and cheer.

This morning, when I mentioned my disgust about the child scene to another friend, his reaction was an enthusiastic, “Isn’t that great? She’s a zombie!”

Instead, I’m thinking about teenage boys being shot on the streets of Florida and fathers striking their small boys with axes before setting fire to them. The news hands us one brutal crime against children after another in a reality seemingly gone mad.

As a novelist, I’m no wuss when it comes to violently wiping out my characters, but I don’t intend to contribute to desensitizing a mass audience just to gain cheap thrills.

I was called a softie this morning. Jokes were made about how I wouldn’t survive a “real” zombie attack.

That’s not the point, is it?

What do you think?

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