Tag Archives: mood

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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The Importance of Setting

In some fiction genres such as fantasy, science fiction, and westerns, setting is so important it is considered a character. In mysteries and romance stories, it serves to contribute to the discovery or misdirection of clues, to enhance plot and mood, and to elevate what could be banal or mundane into something fascinating. In horror and thrillers, it evokes spine-tingling atmosphere and can raise the stakes in cat-and-mouse suspense.

What setting should never be is generic, interchangeable, and dull. Plunking your plot and characters into a blah, ho-hum backdrop is shortchanging your readers and sabotaging the full potential of your material. Does this mean you have to set your story in Barbados instead of Backyard, USA? Not at all. A skilled, experienced writer can make just about anywhere interest someone, but it takes work, attention to detail, and knowledge to bring it to life.

Setting in creating fiction is a technique important enough to justify a series of posts devoted to it. I’ll be bringing you those posts soon.

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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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