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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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