Tag Archives: imagery

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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Roving Eyeballs

Today, a friend sent me this piece of doggerel:

“She danced a while and drank some wine before she rolled her eyes at me. I picked them up and rolled them back and then we swam into the sea.” (Source unknown.)

How well it illustrates yet another pitfall the unwary writer can fall into, such as the following:

Bob threw his hands in the air. (Did he catch them?)

Armand’s eyes roved over her body. (Did they tickle, or did she slap them off?)

Jane walked across the campus to the library and sat on the fountain. (Did it shoot her into the air or did she just get wet?)

Tim dropped his head into his hands. (Good catch, dude!)

I’m sure there’s a clever name for these phrases. Anyone out there know what it is? The point is that we need to be aware of the imagery we’re creating when we use such ludicrous phrases. Are we really writing what we mean, or are we reaching for a shortcut? Imagery is a tightrope on which we balance. We need it to bring our sentences to life, and yet it can be overdone, underplayed, skewed, silly, histrionic, absurd, or ineffective.

As a writer with my admittedly nerdy moments, I particularly enjoy the film THROW MAMA FROM THE TRAIN because of Billy Crystal’s struggle with his book’s opening sentence, “The night was ….”

Such a cliched beginning anyway, and then the adjectives (moist, wet, humid) he comes up with grow increasingly silly. But don’t we all do similar things when trying to be fresh and different?

Jessie’s face was as red as … what? Beet is overdone, dried up, and over. Yet what else works? Tomato? Spanish onion? Must we employ vegetables for this image?

If we leave the veggie patch behind, what should we do instead?

Jessie’s face was as red as the planet Mars.

Ahem … I don’t think so. In reaching for freshness, we’ve overdone it. Such an image is appalling, just plain wrong.

Jessie’s face was as red as the petunias in Mrs. Streck’s flowerbed. Ah … much better.

Albert’s eyes were as round as …  Saucers–alas–are off the table. (Pun intended.) So here we go again. Round as … Coke bottle bottoms? Baseballs? Salad plates?

Of course the problem with dodging cliches is that the darned things convey the image so well. And a job well done leads to overuse, which is how cliches are created.

So maybe we should look at a character and find different ways to describe him or her besides a simile. Maybe we should be more precise in our narrative, so that when Jane walks to the library, she sits down on the fountain’s edge. Or there should be different reactions from our characters than head dropping, eye rolling, smirking, and hand throwing.

Maybe we should reach deeper into a character’s emotional state and pay more attention to what we might find there. Make your characters as complex as people, then consider their emotions. Why are they taking action?  What are their reasons? Convey that information and don’t just reach for the first hackneyed phrase or reaction that comes to mind.

 

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Moody and Broody

Here on the prairie, spring weather has been wild and crazy–much as usual. Fierce winds have buffeted us day and night lately. Last night, the wind blew around the corners of my house and tossed the newly leafed shrubbery and trees. Something–probably the iron structure supporting the bird feeder that’s slowly listing to one side like the leaning tower of Pisa–was creaking outdoors. The jolly string of wooden Easter eggs on my front door clacked steadily against the glass storm door. Night noises all around, never dying away for the stillness of sleep and tranquility. Things going bump in the night.

At one point I looked out the back door, and saw a full moon halfway above a thick bank of clouds to the east. It was an odd sight, very eerie, and seeing the moon like that immediately sparked inspiration. My imagination danced. What if? What if?

So … do you consider mood and atmosphere when you write fiction? When you’re devising your setting, do you incorporate ambiance?

In making setting vivid to readers, the atmosphere is important. After all, it’s hard to maintain a tense, suspenseful tone if you’re describing bright pastel colors and teddy bears and the cheerful sounds of children’s laughter.

You shade reader perception through the tone you adopt and maintain. You affect reader emotions, and stir reader imagination, through the diction of your story. What is diction? The words you choose to use. It’s all about vocabulary and making it work for you.

Consider the following words that have similar meanings but different connotations:

dim ………………………………..gloomy

large ………………………………cavernous

teeth ………………………………fangs

reddish …………………………..bloody

pointed leaves …………………spiky leaves

shy …………………………………withdrawn

Or these:

dim ……………………………….candlelit

large ……………………………..spacious

teeth …………………………….gleaming smile

reddish …………………………vermillion

pointed leaves ……………….palm fronds

shy ………………………………hesitant

Shading your diction or word choice to fit your story setting and its genre is also known as writing in coded language. Readers of certain genres expect writers to employ a vocabulary that suits the genre. Such word choices in turn connote more to avid readers of that genre than they might otherwise to a more casual audience.

Accordingly, romance readers expect settings to be described in ways that evoke the physical senses, are attractive or possibly glamorous, and convey a romantic atmosphere.

Thriller/mystery/horror readers expect settings to hold a sense of danger and to be edgy. Therefore, a poorly lit room might seem romantic in one genre but a dangerous trap in another.

Fantasy readers expect settings to be magical, unusual, exotic, and surprising.

Writers who take the time to enhance their stories with coded imagery–to set the mood appropriate to their plot, location, situation, and scene–add considerably to the overall effect. Consider the stories of Edgar Allen Poe. They ooze dank despair. Consider the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling which enchant and charm on every page. Consider the romantic story The Wedding Dress by Virginia Ellis, in which three sisters distract themselves from the bleak economic hardships immediately following the Civil War by hand-sewing a wedding dress, hoping with every button and every stitch that once the gown is completed a bridegroom will appear for at least one of them.

Now of course, there are some writers who want to play against type. They want to contrast the bright, cheery nursery with a grim crime scene down the hall in the master bedroom. They want to show an empty crib, a dropped teddy bear, and the bloody handprints on the wall going down the stairs. Such writers aren’t ignoring atmosphere or coded language. They are instead making it work for them in a different way, to surprise and stress readers deliberately. Such contrasts create atmosphere effectively.

Whether you set up straightforward mood or go for a contrast, be aware of your setting and make it work harder for your story’s success.

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Setting the Mood

Mood … atmosphere … ambiance. Whatever you call it, this aspect of writing fiction is yet another means of connecting with reader emotions.

And when you touch reader emotions, you bring your stories to life.

We instinctively understand this, whether as a writer or a reader. Hollywood relies on it via lighting, camera angles, set design, and soundtrack. When you attended your first childhood sleepover, and sat clustered around the person telling a ghost story in a dark room with a flashlight shining on her face, you were positioned into the mood for fright and shivers.

Edgar Allen Poe didn’t invent the atmospheric story, but he sure put it on the map and gave writers a blueprint for how it should be done: boldly and with gusto.

Or, to phrase this another way, if you’re going to be timid about establishing mood in your story, don’t bother.

All stories need it. Each genre draws on different word choices to accomplish it.

Horror and urban fantasy require descriptive passages filled with shadowy streets; unlit alleys; abandoned warehouses; gloomy parking garages; broken pavement; decrepit, empty buildings; the wind blowing pieces of trash against a rusting chain link fence; the creaking sway of an ancient tree on a moonless night.

Romance requires description of the charming cottage at the end of the lane; rose petals floating in a bathtub filled with perfumed salts and oils; the soft glow of candlelight; moonlit strolls on the beach; snowflakes drifting down gently during a sleigh ride in the Vermont countryside; crackling fires on the hearth; a ballroom filled with couples waltzing the night away.

Mysteries and crime stories stand on imagery drawn from secretive passages; mysterious messages and clues; the chalked outline of a body on the pavement; tawdry motel rooms; smoky bars; isolated villages; unfriendly people peering out past the safety chain on their doors; dark streets littered by homeless winos; drug dealers watching from doorways; the metallic tang of blood; cheap offices and PI paperwork; stakeouts and greasy fast food; the faded letter hidden in a trinket box; the pornography pictures taped beneath a drawer in a blackmailer’s bedroom; that sense of being trapped or watched.

Westerns require the openness of the old West; the sense of a lonely individual standing bravely against the wilderness; the small, primitive towns with dusty streets; the ring of spurs with every bootstep; the bawling of cattle; the dust and danger of a cattle drive; the heat and relentless sun; thirst alleviated by a few sips of tepid water in a canteen dangling from the saddlehorn; the smell of horses and leather.

Traditional fantasy relies heavily on pseudo-medieval tropes, including cold, drafty castles; almost impenetrable forests; pomp and pageantry; ale-houses; falconry and stag-hunting; herbs hanging to dry from the rafters; poisons lined in crude pottery flasks on shelves; bubbling cauldrons; alchemists muttering incantations over parchment inscribed with arcane symbols; swords, shields, and armor; the hot breath of a sleeping dragon.

Of course, those are the most obvious factors in these particular genres. In some cases, they’ve been worn thin by over-use, and yet readers still respond to such imagery. And writers temper the mood depending on whether a story is serious or comedic.

To spark the mood for readers, a writer has to feel it first. Have you ever tried creating a mood board? That’s a term used by interior decorators and designers, where they assemble a collage of fabric swatches and paint chips in selected colors, maybe a sample of wood stain, and a photo or sketch of a chair leg or room layout.

Writers can also benefit from creating mood boards. It can be as simple as drawing a map of a fantasy kingdom so you can remember where the mountains and river are. Romance writers have often clipped photos of models or magazine spreads of beautifully decorated rooms to represent their characters and/or the hero’s bachelor pad.

With today’s computer technology, you can pin the images you like into a virtual mood board. Even if you aren’t sure what to include–after all, how can you pin or clip images of ghosts, for example?–give it a try. Maybe a particular paint chip of dark purple makes you think of a brooding figure materializing over the heroine as she sleeps. Use it!

Your finished board may not look like much to anyone but yourself, but as long as it sparks your creativity in some way, that helps YOU. Which is the whole point of this exercise.

A few years ago, I wanted to write a series of books set in a small, invented community. With that in mind, I decided to “collect” pictures of old houses. So whenever I drove through a town, I’d detour into the historic district and snap photos of both stately and humble homes. My intention was to print them and glue them to posterboard, thereby making “streets” of houses. (This was before Pinterest, by the way.) I don’t know how many pictures of Victorians, 1920s Tudors, bungalows, and Spanish Revivals are on my camera’s memory cards.

Did I ever make the collage? Nope. But it didn’t matter. The concept of that project and the photos I shot were enough to keep my imagination cooking. I could see the town in my mind’s eye, and that’s what truly mattered.

For my fantasy novel THE PEARLS, I felt the hero-villain Shadrael’s armor and weaponry were an important aspect of his character design. His gear wasn’t conventional, so I spent an afternoon drawing war axes and daggers in a sketchpad. I’m no artist, but sketching helped me refine the details into something plausible. (For example, my initial idea would have beaned him between the eyes if he’d tried to use it!) As a result of having worked through the details, when I was writing I could describe the weapons with authority and authenticity.

You see, vagueness won’t carry you far in fiction.

Presently, I’m working on a story set in Greece. I’ve been there, and I remember the trip well. But my visit happened several years ago, and some details have faded in my mind. Last week, when I came across a Google image of a Greek island, it reinforced and jogged my memory. So helpful!

A story without mood is cake without icing. You can still enjoy it, but wouldn’t it be better with?

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SPARKLE: Punch Up Those Sentences

Remember the comedy film, THROW MAMA FROM THE TRAIN? Billy Crystal played a man with writer’s block. Over and over, he struggled with the opening line of his manuscript: The night was … He couldn’t think of the perfect adjective to complete his sentence, and he remained compulsively stuck there.

Funny? You bet!

Good writing? Absolutely not.

We’ve all been taught somewhere along the way to avoid as many passive sentences as possible in our copy. Passive means using the weak “to be” verb and its variations. Yet we all reach for it anyway because it’s easy.

(Whoops! I just used it.)

I admit to using “was” too often when I write, just as I eat too much chocolate and indulge in Lay’s potato chips (real, not the wussy baked) from time to time.

But just like eating junk food, the overindulgence of passive sentences leads to flab. Even worse, the weak “was” construction cries out for the usage of adjectives and adverbs. They weaken sentences, too. Just ask Mark Twain, who claimed that whenever he found an adjective, he killed it.

The night was soft. The air was fragrant. The dog was big and red. It was sniffing at the base of the pretty flowers. Jack thought maybe the dog was after something that shouldn’t be buried there. He decided he would walk gently and quietly over to it. He didn’t want to frighten the dog or call attention to the spot.

Whew!

This paragraph is like an overripe apple which looks okay until you bite it and discover the rot beneath that pretty, red-blushed skin.

Let’s smash the “to be” verbs from Jack’s paragraph.

The night … soft. The air … fragrant. The dog … big and red. It … sniffing at the base of the pretty flowers. Jack thought maybe the dog … after something that … buried there. He decided he … walk gently and quietly over to it. He … not want to frighten the dog or call attention to the spot.

Now the paragraph looks dumb despite its promising situation. (Ever since Alfred Hitchcock released the film REAR WINDOW, the prospect of something buried in a flowerbed makes us blissfully uneasy.)

What we need is some oomph. This poor paragraph is too plain. Why not amp up the qualifiers?

The night air felt balmy, sultry. The air smelled lush and moist with the heady fragrance of jasmine vine mingled with gardenias. A vast, hairy dog–burnished like mahogany wood veneer–kept sniffing at the base of exotic, tropical flowers. Jack surmised the dog was investigating something buried there. He paused, debating whether to investigate, too. Then he sauntered toward the animal, not wanting to frighten it away.

Imagine a student handing me this paragraph. Imagine me slapping my forehead. Better yet, let’s imagine me giving this muck-maker a head slap instead.

Overdoing the qualifiers doesn’t create sparkling prose.

“But of course it does!” Bewildered Bart cries. “I’ve made it vivid. I’ve given it life! And I only used ‘was’ once.”

Ever hear of the phrase “purple prose?” It means overdone, and if you want examples of it, read a few passages penned by the Victorian novelist Bulwer-Lytton, a hot-selling writer of the 19th century.

Nope. Let’s back away from Bewildered Bart’s draft and try again. This time, we’ll remove the adverbs and adjectives, no matter how vivid and lively Bewildered Bart has made them.

The night … The air … The dog … It … sniffing at the base of … flowers. Jack thought maybe the dog … after something that … buried there. He decided he … walk … over to it. He … not want to frighten the dog or call attention to the spot.

This is looking as hopeless as patching a punky wood windowsill with a bottle of carpenter’s glue. Not much remains.

Solution? We gotta rewrite the sentences.

Soft air brushed Jack’s cheek as he peered through the shadows. He saw a dog–maybe an Irish setter–sniffing along the flowerbed at the Wilkins house. The animal’s intensity spiked Jack’s curiosity. He turned in that direction, his movement unhurried to avoid frightening the dog or calling attention to himself.

See the difference? Cutting the qualifiers forces us to select active verbs. Nouns become more specific. Specificity creates plausibility. This paragraph doesn’t serve up prize-winning prose, but at least we can focus better on the actual story event. If a reader decides her curiosity equals Jack’s, she’ll turn the page. If she tosses the story aside, it’s because of the premise and not flabby writing.

“But you left out the gardenias!” Bewildered Bart might say. “You cut the jasmine vine, and I wanted that imagery there. Imagine the moonlight shining on those white blooms, like tiny stars in the night.”

If we write about body parts buried in the flowerbed, we don’t need romantic imagery. Match your sentence tone to the subject matter. Edgar Allen Poe sure did, and he’s still in print. Just sayin’.

To reiterate, vary sentences in type and length, use strong voice, rely on specific nouns and precise verbs, avoid qualifiers, and match your topic’s tone. Imagery then becomes vivid, not because we’ve plied an excess of details the way a toddler paints herself with mommy’s lipstick, but because our sentences are clear and easy to read.

George Orwell said that good writing should be “like a pane of glass.” The sentences should fade from a reader’s consciousness, so that only the story is seen.

That, folks, is sparkle.

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Training

Writers, no matter how adept, need to keep their skills sharp. It’s foolish to become complacent or think there’s nothing else to learn about this profession.

(If doctors have to keep going back to refresher courses and seminars on new methods, why should writers be exempt from continuing education?)

As I see it, we wordsmiths face three general areas where we should keep fit:

Imagination

Writing Craft

Style

Let’s tackle them one at a time.

Imagination: I’ve written many posts about the care and feeding of one’s muse. I’ve also delved into suggestions about how to discipline imagination and keep it hard at work.

But imagination also needs to be let off the chain. From time to time, give it freedom and let it play.

You can dabble in other forms of art if that’s enjoyable for you. One of my writing friends paints. Another creates mixed-media collages. I’ve pieced quilts in the past, which is both artistically satisfying and a restful, soothing activity.

But I also like to write for sheer fun, playing with words, knowing as I spill them onto the page that the passage will never be part of anything published. I call this play-writing.

Write a scene that’s not connected to anything. Write description that breaks all the rules of correct syntax and grammar. Write the isolated event blaring vividly in your mind even if you don’t know anything else about it. Don’t connect the dots. Leave logic behind.

Seize a famous character from a classic in literature and write new dialogue for him or her.

Some writers indulge in free-writing in their journals, spilling thoughts and snippets of ideas or bits of dialogue onto blank pages without making anything of them.

Whatever works for you!

Writing Craft:  This is where you stay vigilant about your skills. You keep your scene conflict focused. You work on honing your dialogue to a clean edge that advances story. You look at passages of description and rewrite them so that instead of rambling they are centered around a dominant impression, presenting the imagery you want.

Constantly seek to improve your techniques. Who are the authors you most admire? John Sandford is a master of scene fragments. John D. MacDonald surpasses everyone at characteristic entry action. A Dick Francis passage of description is brilliant for its brevity. Choose your authorial heroes and study what they do. Think about ways to incorporate what you learn from them into your own work.

Style:  Any of you who have taken my classes may be blinking in surprise right now. Style? Since when does Deborah Chester care about–or even think about–style?

I think about it all the time. I don’t bother with it in the courses I teach because my primary objective there is focused on technique. But never suppose that I dismiss style. It’s extremely important.

It just doesn’t matter more than the story! What I can’t stand are writers who put style before everything else. That’s like trying to eat a meal of buttercream frosting instead of protein, vegetables, and a slice of cake to finish.

George Orwell said that good style should be like a pane of glass. Which means it should be crisp, clean, grammatically pure, and plain.

Never let it come between the reader and the story. We shouldn’t strive to write so beautifully that readers stop to exclaim over our lyrical passages. And we shouldn’t be so clumsy with punctuation and syntax that we come off as semi-literate.

Good style means being easily understood. It means never confusing readers or over-relying on adjectives and adverbs. I consider style a tricky, highly advanced aspect of the writing craft. It can get away from us if we don’t stay maintain our guard against convoluted, pompous wind-baggery.

 

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