Tag Archives: John Ford

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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Beware the Cavalry!

ATTENTION! This post contains spoilers.

Once upon a time, the ancient Greeks grew bored with staring at each other and the mountain scenery around them. They decided to tell stories. Then they decided to write stories. That was so much fun they decided to perform stories on the stage, (inventing stone theater seating and acoustics along the way.)

They were clever, those Greeks. Thanks to a guy called Aristotle, rules of writing guided the slightly less-clever writers that followed. (You know, rules such as “Anything that doesn’t advance the story should be cut.” And that means you, too, Euripides!)

They figured out that the hero should take on forces of antagonism and wade into deeper and deeper trouble, but the ancient writers were a bit shaky on how to get said hero out of said corner. So they invented deus ex machina, aka the god machine.

You know about that, don’t you? A statue of Zeus was wheeled out on a little wooden cart. (Can’t you hear that primitive axle creaking as it bumped across the stage?) And Zeus dispensed poetic justice.

Big hit!

Audiences loved it. Everyone got what he deserved. The damsel was saved. The hero was rewarded. The villain took one of Zeus’s thunderbolts and fell in a puff of smoke. Ah, yes, the dawning of special effects.

Fast forward to the modern era and twentieth-century movie-making: at least in the early days of film, deus ex machina was still in use. Zeus had been put out to Olympian pasture, but lots of substitutes took his place. The white-hatted sheriff could burst into a saloon just in time to save our hero from being killed by a gang of outlaws in black Stetsons. Pauline could be saved from peril–whether an oncoming train or a giant buzz-saw–by her hero. The G-men could arrive in the nick of time to save the hero from Putty Nose and his gang. Et cetera. All characters had to do was hang on long enough for help to arrive.

One of the most popular genres in film became the Western. What’s not to love? Lots of action, whooping, shooting, and galloping horses. Even my Scottish terrier likes to watch that sort of excitement on television. (He’s bored, however, whenever John Wayne gets soft-voiced and kisses Maureen O’Hara.) In the early westerns, the cavalry was going to come if you could just wait for them.

Supreme among the early western films is a black-and-white masterpiece from 1939 called STAGECOACH, directed by John Ford. It made John Wayne a star. It also presented in-depth character studies of the cast members, something most westerns of that era didn’t bother with. The third act of the film involves a long chase scene of the stagecoach hurtling across the desert badlands, with screaming Apaches in pursuit. There are stunts a-plenty–astonishing for their day and notable now because they created the imitators that followed. You have the daring leap off the stagecoach onto the backs of the galloping horses. You have the bullets slowly running out until there’s only one left in the Colt of the last able-bodied male passenger. A bullet that he’s saving for the young lady saying her prayers, so she won’t be taken captive. And then, a bugle sounds and here comes the cavalry. They vanquish Geronimo’s warriors and save the day.

If we watch this classic film today, it’s easy to be caught up in the story until the finish. Then we tilt our head to one side and feel confused. Deus ex machina doesn’t quite work for us anymore. We’re left thinking, who sent the text message so the cavalry knew to arrive in this square mile of Arizona?

Try watching the Errol Flynn movie, ROBIN HOOD. It builds up to a rousing battle scene in Prince John’s castle. Robin and his merry men are fighting with all they have, but they’re hopelessly outnumbered.

Hark! A trumpet sounds, and suddenly here’s King Richard the Lionhearted and his army galloping over the drawbridge to save the day. He’s escaped captivity in Austria and returned from Europe at the very moment Robin most needs him. Woe to Prince John and his fellow traitors. Hurrah for Robin! Boo to the Sheriff of Nottingham. Make way for lovely Maid Marian!

As a child, watching justice return to ye olde England, I was happy with this outcome. As an adult, I watch happily until the end and then I sigh, thinking of how it’s grown a bit hokey there. A bit too convenient and contrived. A bit too coincidental for belief.

Modern audiences have become used to seeing the protagonist save herself just seconds before the FBI agents arrive to rescue her. We want our heroes to be more daring, more capable, and more successful. If the cavalry shows up, it’s only because our hero sent for them.

Are you thinking, yeah, yeah, yeah, I know this writing principle already. What’s the point?

The point is that every time I tell myself that by now surely every aspiring writer out there knows the cavalry can’t come anymore, I see it in use. Only this afternoon, I found myself correcting yet another student manuscript where the protagonist is rescued from danger multiple times during the story.

No! No! No!

The protagonist must find the solution. The protagonist must locate the means of escape and have the daring to try it. The protagonist must not fold his hands and sit tamely in place, hoping a dear friend whom he’s never met until this moment in story time will show up to save his neck from the guillotine.

That, my friends, is weak plotting. Check every danger point in your story for the cavalry and send them back to their fort at once.

Beware!

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