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Monday, May 14, 2012

The Power of Setting

Nothing creates atmosphere and mood faster than a carefully-crafted setting.  Judiciously selected words can be powerfully evocative.  If you're not convinced, you should sit by my sister the next time she attends a hypnotism show.  Watch how her face goes blank and how her eyes grow glassy when the hypnotist speaks in a deep, soothing voice to his on-stage volunteers.

Cotton candy. . .rumbling roller coaster wheels. . .an icy lime-green snow cone. . .the smell of vomit near an overflowing trash can. . .  Look into my eyes.  Look deep into my eyes.  You are at an amusement park. You are enjoying the sweet cinnamony flavor of a warm, golden-brown churro.  You feel happy and relaxed.  (My spell-checker just informed me "cinnamony" isn't a word.  I'm leaving it.  I like the way it sounds.)

Nouns, adjectives, verbs.  Sprinkle them like pixie-dust across your setting to mesmerize readers and whisk them without warning into your make-believe world.

Consider the following dark gem from Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights

One may guess the power of the north wind, blowing over the edge, by the excessive slant of a few stunted firs at the end of the house; and by a range of gaunt thorns all stretching their limbs one way, as if craving alms of the sun. . .

How does Ms. Brontë SHOW her setting?  Which words create the gloomy, foreboding feeling woven throughout the scene?

When I show this passage to 7th graders, they rarely know the meanings of the words "gaunt" and "craving," but they FEEL the dark energy crackling around them.  "North wind," "excessive slant," "stunted firs". . .  These are some of the other words they like to point out.

I will now return you to the present.  When I snap my fingers, you will awaken and successfully add atmosphere and mood to your key settings. . .