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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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Movies: A MAJORITY OF ONE

Over the weekend, I stumbled across a quiet little movie from 1961 called A MAJORITY OF ONE. Starring Rosalind Russell and Alec Guinness, it deals with cultural and generational differences as a Jewish woman and a Japanese man develop a friendship.

Russell built much of her film career on roles where women broke the mold in some way, either by pursuing a profession (such as the reporter Tildy in HIS GIRL FRIDAY) or by being a free thinker in an era of rigid conformity (as Auntie Mame). In A MAJORITY OF ONE, she plays an older widow, a Russian-Jew that immigrated to America as a child and has spent her life in Brooklyn. Her only son died in WWII’s Pacific theater, and her daughter is now married to an up-and-coming young diplomat. When her son-in-law is posted to Japan, Bertha is persuaded to go there with the young couple. During the ship’s crossing, she meets a Japanese man–a widower whose son also died in WWII and his daughter, a nurse, died in a Hiroshima hospital. Despite a rocky start, Bertha and Mr. Asano overcome misunderstandings, bigotry, and wrong advice from her daughter to establish a friendship.

This is a gentle story, with a message against bigotry that’s in favor of keeping an open mind and relating to people as people and not common stereotypes. I think it’s remarkable to find a film dealing with an older couple just as the Hollywood studio system was crumbling and the industry’s focus shifted toward youth.

I was struck most by the courtesy reflected in the film. Even Bertha and her best friend Essie are unfailingly polite to each other. While that was common at the time, it reflects a layer of civility that we seldom encounter now. We are too casual for such formalities. We are too busy, too rushed, to take the time to compliment the ice bucket a friend is loaning us for the little dinner party we’re giving.

Of course, the film’s stance against bigotry is undercut by the fact that Alec Guinness was cast as a Japanese man. Modern critics, quick to decry the practice of yellowface casting, point out that the choice of Guinness (never mind how good he is) is itself an act of Hollywood bigotry.

So I thought about that issue. The character Charlie Chan, created in the novels by Earl Derr Biggers and appearing on film for the first time in 1931, was designed to present the American moviegoers with a positive Chinese character to balance the portrayal of all Chinese men as an evil Fu Manchu. The role of Chan was played by three successive Caucasian actors–first by the Swedish actor Warner Oland (considered the best)–then by Sidney Toler, and finally by Roland Winters. Interestingly enough, Chan’s sons were played by Asian actors.

As for novelist Pearl S. Buck, she insisted that the film version of her book, THE GOOD EARTH, be played by Asian or Asian-American actors, but Hollywood could not deliver. Instead, big star Paul Muni was cast in the leading role. Who would play his wife, O-lan? Anna May Wong, the first Chinese star on the big screen and a strikingly beautiful actress who had started her film career in 1922, lobbied hard for the role. However, the Hays Code of censorship’s rules forbade her casting. Muni (being white) had to be cast with a white wife. Therefore, German-born actress Luise Rainer was given the role, and she played it exquisitely. Anna May Wong was offered instead the role of an evil dragon lady in the movie, but she turned it down because she didn’t want the only authentic Asian actress in the movie to play a villain.

In the 1932 film SHANGHAI EXPRESS, staring Marlene Dietrich, Anna May Wong plays a very strong supporting role in a film about prostitutes–both Asian and Caucasian–and manages to steal at least part of the movie away from Dietrich. But her role is secondary, not a lead part.

THE DRAGON SEED of 1944 improbably features Katharine Hepburn and Turhan Bey as an Asian couple. And in 1946, Rex Harrison was cast as the king in ANNA AND THE KING OF SIAM opposite Irene Dunne. An even bigger stretch of the imagination is Lee J. Cobb playing the Siamese prime minister in THE KING AND I with Yul Brynner. No amount of squinting and heavy eye makeup could make Cobb look Asian.

But I think the worst offense among all yellowface casting has to be the choice of John Wayne as Genghis Khan in the 1956 flop, THE CONQUEROR. Suffice it to say that this film is listed among the fifty worst movies ever made.

Hollywood did not set out to be bigoted. It did not intend to offend. It has always been driven by economics, and although in the 1920s Asian actors were sometimes utilized in major roles, the films that succeeded featured white actors as the leads. And so to guarantee box-office success, filmmakers moved Asian actors to supportive and minor parts with white stars playing the starring roles.

As for Alec Guinness, who spent six months in Japan observing the culture in order to prepare for his role in A MAJORITY OF ONE, is he to be blamed for taking the part of Mr. Asano?

Is Rosalind Russell to be criticized for playing a Jewess when that was not her actual religion?

If we can’t accept that–because it isn’t authentic–where is the justification for the producers of the BBC television program MERLIN to use a rainbow cast including blacks and Asian actors to play pre-medieval British roles? That’s hardly authentic either.

All I know is that–issues aside–A MAJORITY OF ONE remains a charming film that requires you to use your imagination and accept the casting. Just as you have to use your imagination and accept that Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon could not even remotely pass themselves off as women in SOME LIKE IT HOT.

It’s called “make-believe.” And while that doesn’t excuse the bigotry shown in a film thematically opposed to bigotry, at least the play ran and the movie was made and audiences were exposed to its message.

Give A MAJORITY OF ONE a chance. It has sweet things to say about how far kindness, honesty, good manners, and an open mind can take you.

 

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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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Sparkle: Characters to Cheer For

Do you think it’s just chance if readers like your characters?

Not at all!

Do you think your material is more compelling if you write bleak, depressed, passive, unhappy, apathetic characters?

Not at all!

Do you think your material is cheesy and unsophisticated if you create active, upbeat, heroic characters?

It probably is!

Is that a problem?

Only if you’re opposed to creating saleable fiction.

Let’s keep this piece of advice simple:

Readers want a protagonist they can identify with, sympathize with, like a lot, and cheer for.

That protagonist may be as snarky in attitude as Harry Dresden in Jim Butcher’s bestselling series about a wizard PI in Chicago. But underneath his jaded exterior, Dresden really cares about people and he really wants to be helpful as he fights Evil.

Robert Crais’s popular tough guy, Joe Pike, is stoic, taciturn, and hard to know. He’s also brave, loyal, extremely competent, cool in a crisis, and a person that’s going to save your backside if bad guys come after you.

The late Betty Neels wrote Harlequin romance novels in a career that reached from the late 1960s into the 21st century. Her heroes are arrogant, rich, autocratic, and less than likely to give a plain, perhaps plump, heroine a second glance. yet the Neels hero is a supremely competent surgeon/doctor, generous, intensely protective of those he loves, willing to rescue and adopt the most pathetic mixed-breed stray dog or cat on the planet, and someone rich, handsome, and successful who will give the plain nobody of a heroine both the moon and the stars.

Ms. Neels remains in print constantly, unlike the majority of her colleagues.

One of the most popular novels in thriller author Dean Koontz’s impressive oeuvre is a book called WATCHERS. The human characters Travis and Nora are likeable, but it’s the dog Einstein who steals the show. Einstein is a genetically modified, highly intelligent golden retriever who loves Mickey Mouse cartoons, is able to read, and communicates with humans by spelling sentences with Scrabble tiles. If you can’t adore this character by the time you finish reading his story, then I worry about you.

What is that special quality that makes a star?

Different people have differing definitions of it. Figure out how you identify it and give it to your protagonist.

Don’t be afraid of sophisticated literati out there jeering at your hero/heroine. (They only read each other’s stream-of-consciousness passages anyway.)

Don’t be afraid of exposing your heart a little to readers. (It’s the only way to truly touch their hearts.)

Don’t be afraid to let your protagonist care about others. (The empathy within your character creates sympathy within readers.)

So go ahead and let your good guys take a stance, stand up for the little guy, defy the odds, dare to try, speak up when others won’t, express their values, shoulder responsiblities, and help little old ladies cross the road.

In Tom Clancy’s novel, PATRIOT GAMES, ex-Marine Jack Ryan is just a tourist in London’s Hyde Park when Irish terrorists attack members of the royal family. It’s a moment to duck and take cover, keeping your head low until the shooting’s over.

Instead, Ryan makes sure his wife and child are safe before he sprints across the park and single-handedly fights off the terrorists, killing one, assisting in the capture of another, and being seriously wounded himself. All to help people he doesn’t know.

Later, a friend asks Ryan why he took such a wild risk. Ryan shrugs and then opens up: “I saw what was happening. It made me mad.”

Boo-yah!

John Wayne was a savvy actor who played heroic roles. He didn’t try to be sophisticated and nuanced. His characters stood for what was right, regardless of what the law or authority might say. John Wayne delivered poetic justice in film after film.

Result? Other than Marilyn Monroe, are there many other actors besides Wayne with their pictures hanging in American living rooms?

People of the 21st century may wear ennui like a jacket, but if they were suddenly standing on the TITANIC they would want 1) access to a lifeboat; and 2) a leader who could help them get it.

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