Tag Archives: word choice

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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Searching for Diction

It’s that spooky time of year, the week leading up to Halloween when my neighbors drape cobwebs across their doorways and front yards sprout headstones, pumpkins, and life-size zombies. Even this morning, the classical music station on my car radio treated me to Saint Saens’s Danse Macabre, an anecdote about how some people at the turn of the twentieth century believed composer/musician Paganini had struck a deal with the devil in order to play so well, and very eerie scrapings on a violin intended to depict the dancing of La Strega.

So, given the slanting golden days of late October with the wind whipping falling leaves and shoppers rushing to load up on candy in preparation for All Hallows’ Eve, I’m joining in the spirit of things by writing a post devoted to diction and the imagery it can create.

Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines diction as “choice of words especially with regard to correctness, clearness, or effectiveness.

And a much simpler way of defining it is just “word choice.”

Can that make much difference in writing? You bet! Words are our sculptor’s tool, our chisel, our brush, our paint. We manipulate reader imaginations through the various words we use as descriptors. We can make a setting dull and uninteresting or vivid and appealing. We can evoke reader sympathy for characters or influence readers to dislike them intensely. By utilizing vocabulary with precise intent, we can add another layer of entertainment value to the stories we create.

Let’s look at some examples:

The large, red dog trotted along the sidewalk. He seemed to know where he was going. He ignored all the pedestrians he passed. At Sixth and Elm, he crossed the street, evading the oncoming cars. A cop noticed him, but by then he’d vanished into an alleyway.

Are you enthralled?

No?

I’m not surprised. The diction of this example is flat, dull, ordinary, and without imagery. It lacks the specialized (or coded) language that would fit it into a particular genre, and it is not focused into any sort of dominant, lasting impression.

Let’s shift and tweak this a bit so it fits instead into the romance category:

The magnificent Irish Red Setter trotted along the sidewalk as though leading a parade of pedestrians. With his coat gleaming like a copper penny in the sunshine, he disdained all the passersby and ignored every attempt to catch his attention or touch him. So regally did he move that the crowd parted ahead of him, and even at the normally busy intersection of Sixth and Elm the cars halted to let him pass. By the time a cop saw him, the setter was disappearing into an alleyway with a jaunty wave of his plumed tail.

More adjectives? Yes. More adverbs? Yes. Longer? Definitely. The dog is moving down the sidewalk, but now we have a specific breed, plus visual cues from similes, and a focus on the animal’s beauty and regal bearing.

What about putting our pooch into a mystery?

No doubt about it, the mutt was a stray. I watched him scurry down Broad Avenue, searching from doorway to doorway for the little bowls of kibble that softies among the shopkeepers left there. Good way to attract rats and roaches, if you ask me. But the dog knew the drill and was ready to mooch for what he could find. A couple of guys in suits called to him. One even tried to grab the dog’s collar. It was just a piece of dirty rope tied around his neck, the snapped end dangling where he’d made his break for freedom. But he dodged the attempt to catch him with an outraged yelp and shot across the intersection of Sixth and Elm. Cars honked and squealed brakes to avoid hitting the mangy fleabag.  On the corner a cop put in a call, probably to the dog catcher. Yeah, like the pound could arrive in time to catch anything. Muttsie meanwhile was already ducking out of sight in the nearest dark alley.

Yes, I used “shot” deliberately as a verb and “snapped” as an adjective. I gave the street a name because mysteries focus on specific details. I used a first-person narrator and viewpoint in the detective tradition. Other terms selected as appropriate for this genre include “stray,” “mooch,” “rats,” “roaches,” “drill,” “break for freedom,” “dirty rope,” etc.

And urban fantasy?

In the thickening twilight, nightfall spread across the broken pavement. Dead weeds had pushed up through the cracks in the cement and died there, their desiccated corpses casting crooked little shadows in the streetlights’ amber glow. A lean hound, as black as the cloak of death, moved between shadow and light, seen and unseen, its pads silent upon a sidewalk littered with glints of broken glass and the occasional crumpled soda can or food wrapper. Only a few people remained out. They hurried, clutching their coat collars, and dodged to let the hound pass unhindered. No one reached out to the animal. No one called to it. For it wore the heavy black chain of its master, and to meet its glowing red eyes was to look through the gates of Hell.

Here, I’ve chosen harsh descriptors, making the weeds into dried-up corpses, crumbling the sidewalk, and littering it with trash and broken glass. I’ve also set my stage with darkness and shadows, long the playground of danger. And, yes, this time I’ve given people the collars and the dog a chain–all on purpose.

As you can see in each of these examples, I’ve altered the dominant impression to create imagery and to establish a certain mood in my readers’ minds. I’ve chosen to emphasize very different details, or created them to fit the atmosphere I want. Essentially the same action is occurring–although in the fantasy I dispensed with traffic and alleys. But each sample points to a very different plot and story world.

Tone, mood, atmosphere, weather, and setting. Beyond the writer tools of plot and characters, adopt the strategy of making diction also work for you. Edgar Allen Poe employed it in the nineteenth century, and yet this device is by no means out-dated. You can use it to frighten or enchant readers, charm them, alarm them, or even make them laugh out loud.

 

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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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Grumble, Snarl, and Gnash

I’m wearing my curmudgeon coat right now. Today, I’m grumbling about language and the general decline of American literacy. Now, I’m not a trained grammarian. I can’t quote all the grammar rules, and I use sentence fragments when it suits me to achieve a certain informal tone. What I know about vocabulary and grammar I learned from voracious reading instead of formal training. Nevertheless, I wish to rant and therefore I shall.

The French language is lovely, precise, and protected. Consider a culture and an academy of letters that gets upset when the word “weekend” is allowed to creep into the language. “Le weekend” created quite a scandal a few decades ago. Zut alors! An English word being adopted wholesale? C’est incroyable, n’est-ce pas?

It’s probably safe to say that Americans are generally indifferent to such matters. Despite the steady bloat of government administration in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere, most of us dislike bureaucracy and red tape. We take a native pride in dodging rules. Our culture is built on independence and doing things our way. We’ve made a mythology of it.

However, when it comes to our language, I think we might benefit from taking a page from the French and tightening our standards. After all, the English language is an intricate, complex, and fascinating tongue. English is filled with quirks, idioms, and inconsistencies. We enjoy a parterre of regular and irregular verbs. We possess an enormous vocabulary from which to draw. American English is constantly borrowing words and terms from other languages, and it flirts with British English without ever fully committing. (Post Revolutionary War, Daniel Webster was hired to alter American spelling from the English version. Therefore, gray is American; grey is British; pronunciation is the same.)

Okay, so given the richness of our linguistic heritage, why don’t we cherish it? Why don’t we preserve it? Why isn’t our educational system fighting tooth and nail to see that every jot and tittle is correctly learned by American youth? And why aren’t we bothering to protest as grubby, semi-literate gobbledygook crawls into our texts, emails, reports, letters, articles, and books?

Here’s the offending sentence and “word” that set me off on this diatribe: “Once the room is clutter-less, arrange the furniture for better flow.”

Clutter-less! I ask you, who in the world thought that one up? What writer, producing copy to be published in a national magazine, is so inept as to utilize such a ghastly term? Hyphenated, no less. (Undoubtedly because if you type “clutterless” without the hyphen, Word codes it in red to indicate a misspelling. And we wouldn’t want to misspell a word that doesn’t exist, would we?)

Quick, boys and girls! What’s the correct term?

That’s right. “Uncluttered.”

Let’s move beyond the hapless writer who stumped her toe and fell splat on this one. Let’s stamp indignantly on her editor, who let it go through. Let’s bellow at the magazine which published it. No, wait. They don’t have a letters-to-the-editor section. I could track down their email address on the Internet and send in a protest, but I doubt it would gain their attention.

After all, who cares? Uncluttered vs. clutter-less. What difference does it make?

A lot.

I could draw on the parable of the tiny leak in the big dike, but I’m sure you get the idea. An illiterate population is a population that can be–and will be–controlled. Just give it time.

After wincing through novels whose authors don’t know the correct usage of “may” and “might,” and whose copyeditors obviously don’t either, I try to console myself by thinking of the past–say, Shakespeare’s era, when spelling wasn’t standardized and even the bard himself was wont to vary the appearance of his own name. Alas, such consolation fails to soothe me because American spelling has been standardized since the establishment of national public education. At least it was until the combined onslaughts of advertising slogans and phone texting. Now I understand that some language arts teachers allow students to spell as they please, as long as the teacher can guess the intended word.

Is that progress? Looks like regression to me.

Another peeve of mine is usage of the verb “shine.” It’s irregular, which means that the past tense should be “shone,” yet more and more frequently it appears as “shined.”

Maybe that doesn’t bother you, but when I read it, the experience is akin to watching a scorpion scuttle across my foot.

Then there’s the misspelling of the term, “all right.” It’s been clipped and smashed together into “alright.” Am I the only individual who finds that visually offensive?

When I hammer students into spelling all right correctly, they blunder forward and alter the spelling of “altogether” into the incorrect “all together.”

I see the logic of what they’re doing–poor dears. But it’s wrong, wrong, wrong! The English language isn’t about logic. It’s about flavor and spunk and vivacity. It’s contradictory and odd. It’s a hodge-podge of all that it’s borrowed and adapted. Without the peculiar spellings that make no sense unless you burrow deep into Anglo-Saxon history and Norman conquest and the Louisiana Purchase, Manifest Destiny, and Ellis Island, we are bland, featureless drones tapping out acronyms and calling it good.

It is not good. It is pap, when we could be eating steak. And not just steak, mind you, but filet mignon.

Clutter-less … phooey!

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