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Imagine a stage before the start of a show, rich velvet curtains brushing the bare boards. The murmur of audience conversation hushes as the lights begin to dim, and then the curtains part to reveal the first scene.
What will it be?
Perhaps the interior of a Victorian house. Maybe a trellised outdoor garden. It might be a ship’s deck, or a castle parapet, or a hospital room. Whatever the case, the scene is set using backdrops, furniture, props, and clever lighting, all carefully arranged to create a particular mood.
Dark and dramatic? Warm and inviting? Cold and bleak? Cheerful and chaotic?
It all depends on the story, and the effect the director wishes to convey.
But creating an atmosphere for the opening scene is not enough. If every scene took place on the same unchanging set, it would make for a yawn-worthy play. The most dazzling set eventually becomes overly familiar, even wearying. The most dramatic and heart-wrenching play would be too much if not for moments of comic relief. The audience needs a break, a change of scene.
And so, each time the curtains fall, the scene changes. In location, but also (often) in something even more innate – atmosphere.
When it comes to the art of novel-writing, you are the director of your story. Setting is integral to creating the right atmosphere. But setting shouldn’t be static, or it will lose impact. You can heighten atmospheric effect by changing things up from scene to scene to create contrast.
I’ll use some examples from my WIP to illustrate what I mean.
Maya’s childhood is harsh, impoverished, and emotionally barren. The landscape of Broken Hill, an outback Australian mining town, encapsulates this perfectly:
Maya walked hand in hand with her dead father beneath a sky so blue she surely could not have dreamed it. With every step her sandals scuffed up red dirt. The dust settled between her toes and beneath the cracked vinyl straps of her shoes. She couldn’t remember what had come before this moment, just that she was here, with her Papa once again, her mind empty of questions and heat shuddering from the ground in waves.
It felt as though they had walked together a long time. The landscape around them seemed alien and yet familiar, like the phantom ache in a long-ago fractured limb. The flat horizon. The shimmering light. The earth an open wound, cauterised by sunlight.
Maya’s aunt is her ally throughout this story – at times, her only ally. Her aunt’s beachside home represents an emotional and spiritual oasis:
As her mother’s demands grew more frequent and more fretful, the thought of Aunt Sylvia’s coastal cottage became a shimmering mirage against the red dirt of Broken Hill. Maya knew her aunt’s house was little more than a cheap shack set several blocks back from the bay; still, whenever she thought about it, the sea breeze ran cool bewitching fingers through her mind. She imagined days spent painting, twilight strolls along the shore with cold wet sand sucking at her toes, midnight feasts and girlish giggles. The need to escape her life grew into a solid mass of longing inside her chest.
Notice how, juxtaposed together, the image of the red-dirt town and the house at the bay each heighten the impact of the other.
When Maya moves to Sydney, she stumbles into a glamorous world of high society, completely removed from the narrow poverty of her upbringing. The contrast between these two settings creates a marked impression:
Maya lingered at the door, taking in the room before her. The ceilings seemed to rise up forever, and all around the walls, tiny sparkling stars had become entangled in a forest of trees. For a moment she had the heady sensation that she’d stumbled into the outdoors; she cast a quick glance back at the sweeping staircase to reassure her that she was, in fact, inside.
The trees were in pots, she saw as she turned back. In the low magical lighting, the people thronging this room seemed somehow imbued with otherworldly grace. Maya took in the swish of satin, the low smoky swell of conversation and laughter, evening gowns that dipped and flared and shimmered like so many delicate butterfly wings. In one corner, a trickle of mellifluous notes poured from a concert grand piano, while the pianist leaned into a microphone and crooned a Joe Cocker song.
But this world, as well as being beautiful and extravagant, has a cold and hard side. I’ve explored this atmospheric shift in several scenes, such as this one:
Twilight fell quickly in the city, the last warmth of sunlight cut off the instant they left the harbor for the high-rise shadowed streets. Maya shivered in her short sleeves and huddled close to Jed. On their way back to catch the bus they passed a storefront of black polished granite. Ornamental dwarf cypress trees stood in heavy black urns either side of the door. The bronze script above the entry read Van Norden. Maya slowed as they passed the window, her attention caught by the lights that gleamed through the dusk. Spotlit glass display cases seemed to hover before her eyes, set into the black granite like a row of square portholes. Each pure white case contained diamonds, sparkling from rings and bracelets and necklaces like a spill of stars.
“Are you trying to give me a hint?” Jed said, but Maya barely heard him. Her fingertips lingered against the glass, leaving a faint smudge of sap-green from the pastels she’d touched hours before. The diamonds floating in the dusk stirred something in her, some desolate wonder she could not describe; the same sensation she felt sometimes as she stared at the stars in the night sky: their ancient light a beauty so remote, so cold that it hurt.
No matter how vividly an author hopes to paint a setting, the impact is lessened if the setting remains static. Provide contrast, however, and each scene springs into sharp relief against the next.
Am I suggesting that you setting-hop relentlessly, or that every scene should sweep from one exotic location to the next? Not at all. A change of scene can be as simple as a visit to a new house or a focus on a different room. It can involve a change of place, a change of pace, a change of weather, or a change in mood.
The key is to take a step back and survey the bigger picture. Are you staging your story for dramatic effect, or does scene after scene pass by in the same fashion, with the details of setting always the same?
What are YOU doing to create atmospheric contrast in your WIP?
Karen Schravemade lives Downunder and likes to confuse her American friends by using weird Australian figures of speech. When she's not chasing after two small boys or cuddling her baby girl, she spends her spare minutes daydreaming about the intricate lives of characters who don't actually exist. Find her on her website and Twitter.