Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Environment-Scaping While Keeping Those D*mn Kids Off Your Lawn!

Though the poll itself was a total flop. I did get two responses--one on facebook, the other on here-- on what to post about next. So to get to first things first, this post will answer Jeff's request to discuss the development of atmosphere and scene environment.

Setting (or "place" as my former creative writing professor often referred to) is an often neglected element of story telling that you need to be mindful of when writing fiction. I'm not just talking about describing the place and setting, I am talking about the skill to successfully draw the reader into the environment on more levels than the visual one.

You won't be needing one of these.

Ever notice how certain places incite different moods within you? Of course you have! Why do you think that is? Could it be the music playing off in the distance? The way certain things move or don't move around you? The temperature or weather? The answer is yes to all. One of the best ways to show and not tell in your writing is the ability to create an environment that evokes or harbors certain emotions without having to tell the reader that they should feel them. The best way to do this is by putting yourself into an environment and visualize using your physical senses. For example,"The park was a peaceful place" could have a deeper impact if it was elaborated like so:

The park was a vision of soft gold and lush greens as the sun dappled the ground through the forest's patchwork canopy. Even the wind itself was sighing as it winnowed about the benches, shifting about but not disheveling those who passed through it. Off in the distance, the Hertfordshire Brass Band could be heard lazily playing "Que Sera!" from the bandstand and those walking through the park could not help but step to the music. Even upon the pond the ducks were waltzing about the wads of bread an old woman was pitching into the water.
I know, that may have made you gag a little. However did you notice how I created a peaceful environment without actually telling you that it was peaceful? I'm not saying you need to do this for every statement. Heck, you even say it was peaceful, but then elaborate on saying why it was peaceful. The big question is why. What is it about this environment that defines its character? In this sense, I suppose you could say the setting and environment are characters in themselves.

Cute...but that's not what I meant.

What happened to this environment to make it look, sound, smell, or taste (Yes, taste! Trust me on this one!) this way? Or conversely, what sort of things about your environment would you notice with the physical senses considering its history? Are the prison cell bars new and untouched, or are they so old and neglected that you would need a tetanus shot after touching them?  How has the current political regime in a place affected the appearance of the surrounding villages? How would the street your character grew up on look and sound like with regards to his and his family's background or economic level?

This would probably explain my cookie addiction...

Also an environment can also be colored by the character, both physically and mentally. Think about your bedroom, what could it tell others about your personality? You don't necessarily have to reveal every background detail of a character, however it is possible the subtly hint at them by describing the sort of apartment they live in, or even the contents of the backseat of their car. You can even reveal what mood they are in with what they might have recently done to their environment by cleaning, destroying, neglecting, or even rearranging it.

Mentally, the character could also view an environment through their emotions. A person could look at something like two trees towards each other and think several entirely different things based off of what his or her mood is at the time.
For example:
He stopped. On each side of the path there was a tree. One was seasoned and strong, though scarred. The other was thinner, far younger, but recently wounded by a foolish bird who had thought to build its nest on a set of branches that were not strong enough to bear the burden. Both trees grew towards the center as what any arborist would assume was to fight for the same patch of light over the path. It might have been the reason, he thought, to begin with. But through the years the trees unknowingly grew towards each other. And now even though their roots held them so far away, they slowly raised their branches in familiar, yet reluctant greeting, unsure whether to take hold of the other's for fear of falling in the space between.
"Seattle..." he mused, shaking his head, and continuing on his way down the shaded path.

Notice the projection and personification I'm using to reveal this character's feelings? Now if these trees were viewed by someone seething over a new enemy, he may see it as the trees reaching out to fight or protect their territory. Someone religious or seeking salvation might see a steeple being formed by the trees. Someone imaginative or superstitious might see it as a possible doorway into the faerie realm. Think of using your environment as a Rorschach test for your characters.

I see a herd of wild ponies running across a plain...
Writing this way will also help draw your readers into the emotional environment of the character, allowing them to empathize with him or her without slapping them across the face with feelings.

With picture of what a slapped face looks like.

There are many tricks you can use to bring a reader into your story so they will experience it rather than just read it. Feel free to experiment with some of the methods I've used here to work place (Thank you Dr. Taylor!) into your fiction. I think you'll be rather satisfied in how it often brings out the richness of the rest of your story elements by giving the reader the chance to escape into the unfamiliar by experiencing the story themselves. Keep in mind that by reader, I also mean you. You should take the time to explore your story's environment. You should be able to experience the story yourself. So have fun and keep working at it. You'll find that if you can draw yourself in and be enveloped by your setting, the readers will soon follow.

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