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IN THE MIDDLE OF ANYWHERE BUT SOMEWHERE
Todd J. Holcomb
HOW TO USE SETTING AND ATMOSPHERE
Just about every story I wrote used to open with some great panoramic sweep over the countryside, and then I would swoop in on my main character. I used to write as if a movie was playing in my head and I was trying to describe every nuance of the scene unfolding before me. This made for a great burst of emotional writing, but the problem was that I had no concept of how to correctly use setting and atmosphere.
Nancy Huddleston Packer wrote, "It's the job of the writer to create a world that entices you in and shows you what's at stake there." While I was able to portray a beautiful setting, I wore my reader out with a plethora of adjectives, and I had not point! Janet Burroway instructs that an atmosphere is necessary for keeping readers engaged and coherent of what is going on. The place and time that I create must work with, not against, my ultimate meaning; unfortunately, I lacked ultimate meaning altogether, so my setting proved to be a "nowhere" even though it was aptly depicted.
ON DEFINING A STORY'S DIMENSIONS
Setting works together with narrative time to define a story's dimensions. Furthermore, character is a product of the place and culture created through setting and time. So, in this way, a world is created in which it makes sense for the character to exist, and possibly to be at conflict with his setting. In order for the reader to understand the significance of the character and conflict it is necessary to create the correct atmosphere.
Janet Burroway in her classic text Writing Fiction aptly states, "Your fiction must have an atmosphere because without it your characters will be unable to breathe." Details such as the time of day, and the weather, will enhance the setting to build the atmosphere in part. The other part is constructed by the author's tone. So, in my own stories, I would begin by establishing a serene setting with a bright and beautiful early morning sunrise. Then I would use the same tone trying to introduce a character completely incongruous with the atmosphere that I had created.
This brought about confusion, since I did not show the reader how the character contrasted with his serene setting. Because of this my story lagged. I could not seem to get my character moving, and now I know that it was because I was suffocating him with the wrong atmosphere!
Contrasting a character with his background setting can be a useful technique, if done correctly. This technique is often used in painting where the contrast can be seen and understood; likewise, the contrast needs to be seen and understood in writing. The secret is details. Let the reader see, touch, smell, and feel the contrast between character and setting. Then make it go somewhere, have a purpose for your contrast. Perhaps you want to lead the reader to an emotional conclusion, or you want to build tension, suspense, etc. Whatever your goal is, without it the contrast may be confusing or counterproductive.
ON DELINEATING A CHARACTER
As stated before, a character is a product of his place and culture; consequently, you can introduce the reader to a character simply by showing the reader that character's personal space, such as a bedroom, office, or the inside of their car. A character's personality can be glimpsed through what they hang on their wall or from their rearview mirror. Age is something that can be conveyed through personal possessions, as well as social status, interests, etc.
Not only can the setting show something of whom a character is, but it can also reveal his inner emotions. When seen through the eyes of a character, everything about the setting takes on a certain light based on their emotional state. Is the night enchanting, or fearsome? Is the thunderstorm charged with passion, or laden with sorrow? Does the sunrise bring hope, or dread? In this way, the setting can help to establish, or heighten, the character's emotion, even the emotion of the whole scene. Again, tone and details will establish the appropriate effects.
ON EVOKING EMOTIONS
Ultimately, creating emotion in your story is about evoking emotion in your reader. But be careful, for you may undo what you accomplished with atmosphere by misusing narrative time. In my earlier writing, I did not understand the difference between summary and scene. I did not know that a scene acted like a mini-story, complete with its own mini-crisis and mini-resolution, which give the story its forward action. Janet Burroway writes, "Scene is to time what concrete detail is to the senses; that is, it is the crucial means of allowing your reader to experience the story with the characters." An entire short story can be made up of one scene, but an entire story cannot be made up solely of summary.
THE DEPTH OF A STORY
Personally, I tended to write in summary, thus my writing lacked depth. My characters' dialogue was flat and ineffective, too. This was truly frustrating for me, until I began to learn that the forward action in my story, the turning points and crises, occur as significant moments that cannot be summarized. Such misuse of summary can leave the reader confused about the conclusion because the crisis moment of a story must always happen as a scene. Looking over my own work, I realize that I most commonly misuse summary and scene when I forget that my reader cannot get into my mind and know the details of the story the way that I do. When I falter here, I cease to tell a story and merely report an occurrence instead.
DO NOT LET YOUR READERS BE NUDGED OUT OF YOUR STORY BY BOREDOM
The flip side of misusing summary and scene is to depict as a scene what should be summarized. I have put down more than one excellent book because I got nudged out of the story by boredom. This is why a lot of beginning writers may slack on developing scene and timing. The key is to create an atmosphere that is not recognized as a description, but that is simply experienced. I see that I have a ways to go yet in mastering this craft, but I look forward to the journey. For without these skills I am not much better with a pen than Alejandro Murrieta was with a sword. When asked how to use it, he responded, "You put the pointy end into the other guy!"
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Todd J. Holcomb
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