Tag Archives: A Tale of Two Cities

Atmosphere and Mood, the Conjoined Twins of the Word-Pond #amwriting

Within the depths of the Word-Pond that we call Story is the inferential layer. This is the layer where the reader must infer (deduce, guess) many things, all of which form a subtle, invisible path to understanding and connecting with the story.

We have talked at length about conveying Emotions, Part 1 and Part 2. But the inferential layer is about far more than the immediate emotional condition of your characters. The mood of the piece also comes into play.

Mood and atmosphere are two separate but entwined forces that form subliminal impressions in the awareness of the reader. Where you find atmosphere in the setting, you also find mood in the characters. For this reason, when talking about depth in a narrative, the conjoined twins of mood and atmosphere are best discussed together.

We know that emotion is the character’s experience of transitioning from the negative to the positive and back again. The overall mood also changes over the course of the story. Mood is an emotional setting that begins with the characters and their experiences, and encompasses the reader as they immerse themselves in a story. It is developed by other aspects of the narrative: setting, theme, ambiance, and phrasing.

Emotion is a constant force in our lives. On the page, it must be truthful and based in reality or it becomes maudlin.

The same goes for atmosphere and mood–they must feel real; solid. The atmosphere/mood dynamic of any narrative is there to make the emotional experience of the story specific. The atmosphere of a setting is not a substitute for emotions you can’t figure out how to write. However, creating the right atmosphere leads to shaping the characters’ overall mood, and the right mood can help you articulate the specific emotions.

What do you want to convey? Let’s talk about one of the all-time masterpieces of atmosphere and mood: Wuthering Heights, the 1847 gothic novel by Emily Brontë.

Theme is the universal, fundamental ideas that are explored in a work. Theme is also an underlying aspect of mood. In Wuthering Heights, the two main themes are

  • The many aspects of love: obsession, hate, selfishness, and revenge. These are shown in the course of exploring the destructive power of obsession and fixated, unchanging love.
  • Social class, gender inequality, security and insecurity in a society where money and breeding matter.

World-building comes into it. Environmental symbols are subliminal landmarks that shape the reader’s mood. They give us hints about what we should feel.  In Wuthering Heights, the landscape is comprised primarily of moors. The depiction of these desolate places is wild and starkly beautiful; wide expanses high in elevation but also boggy, as they are made of peat.

Setting the story there immediately implies infertility and death. Moorland cannot be cultivated, and the desert-like lack of landmarks makes it easy to lose your way. In some places, the land is so waterlogged a person can drown. Becoming lost and drowning is a possibility that is raised several times over the course of the story. Thus, the moors symbolize the threat posed by untamed nature.

Houses are also symbolic in the piece: most of the action in the novel occurs at Wuthering Heights (the manor from which the novel takes its name) or Thrushcross Grange. Also, much of it happens on the vast stretch of moorland that lies between the two houses. All three locations are distant from neighboring towns, most especially from “the stir of society” (London) which emphasizes the loneliness of the setting.

Each house is symbolic of its inhabitants. Those who reside at Wuthering Heights tend to be strong, wild, and passionate—untamed like the moorlands. Conversely, the characters living at Thrushcross Grange are passive, civilized, and calm.

That underlying threat of danger in the environment affects the mood and emotions of the characters as well as affecting the overall atmosphere of the novel.

The mood/atmosphere of Wuthering Heights is dark and gothic.

Words are our tools, and they are also our Jedi mind trick–properly wielded, words put the reader into the story where they live it, becoming the characters.

In this quote from A Tale of Two Cities (1859) by Charles Dickens, we see how he uses words to convey a dark, ominous mood:

“There was a steaming mist in all the hollows, and it had roamed in its forlornness up the hill, like an evil spirit, seeking rest and finding none. A clammy and intensely cold mist, it made its slow way through the air in ripples that visibly followed and overspread one another, as the waves of an unwholesome sea might do.”

A gloomy setting creates an ominous atmosphere, which affects both how we perceive the characters and how they perceive themselves.

In Chapter Two of The Great Gatsby, (1925) F. Scott Fitzgerald’s opening paragraph runs like this:

About halfway between West Egg and New York the motor-road hastily joins the railroad and runs beside it for a quarter of a mile, so as to shrink away from a certain desolate area of land. This is a valley of ashes—a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and finally, with a transcendent effort, of men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air. Occasionally a line of grey cars crawls along an invisible track, gives out a ghastly creak and comes to rest, and immediately the ash-grey men swarm up with leaden spades and stir up an impenetrable cloud which screens their obscure operations from your sight.  

This sets the tone for what follows. In reading these passages, we know that the way we present the setting impacts the mood. Also, the overall emotional life of the characters contributes to the mood of the piece. If they are tense, worried, then the narrative takes on an ambiance of tension.

Use your Jedi mind tricks. Set that interpersonal stress in the right environment, as Brontë, Dickens, and Fitzgerald did, and write a story that will compel the reader to keep turning the page.


Credits and Attributions:

Quotes from:

A Tale of Two Cities (1859) by Charles Dickens PD|100, originally published by Chapman & Hall.

The Great Gatsby, (1925) F. Scott Fitzgerald PD|75, originally published by Charles Scribner’s Sons.

Images:

Worked to Death, H. A. Brendekilde. Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:H. A. Brendekilde – Udslidt (1889).jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:H._A._Brendekilde_-_Udslidt_(1889).jpg&oldid=355191092 (accessed July 16, 2019).

Moorland Landscape with Rainstorm by George Lambert. Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:George Lambert – Moorland Landscape with Rainstorm (1751).jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository,https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:George_Lambert_-_Moorland_Landscape_with_Rainstorm_(1751).jpg&oldid=234912081 (accessed July 16, 2019).

Ellen Berry McClung, by Lloyd Branson. Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Berry-ellen-mcclung-by-branson.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Berry-ellen-mcclung-by-branson.jpg&oldid=324386360 (accessed July 16, 2019).

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The 2nd Draft—Part 2, The Last 5 Hurdles

CC_No_06_A_Tale_of_Two_CitiesIn your first draft, the rough draft, you have the basic story down. Once it is finished, and you have let it rest in a dark closet, out of sight and out of mind for a month or more, only then will you pull it out and feel fired up about it once again.

This is where we’ll mend those plot-holes and narrative gaffes that we couldn’t see when we were in the throes of the writing frenzy.

The previous post covered items one through five, and can be found here: Part 1, The First 5 Speedbumps.

So now, we continue working on the second draft of our manuscript, with roadblocks six through ten:

  1. Too Much Description (my own particular bugaboo–I love words)

Take this quote from the ‘A Tale of Two Cities,’ the classic novel by Charles Dickens:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way–in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”

Though it is beautiful writing, and in my opinion, perfect–it would never fly today. In prose as in clothing, fashions come and go, even in fiction. Readers once liked flowery description and even demanded them. People took the time to read a story, and were in love with words. And while some readers, like me, still love this style of poetic description, most readers aren’t so patient. It is sad, but modern editors and publishers don’t want to see this sort of work in their submissions pile.

One of the things that is drummed into us in our writing forums and groups, is that modern readers have no attention span and want action from the first page, the first paragraph. They want it from the first word and they don’t want pretty and descriptive prose unless they are into literature as opposed to modern action-adventure style novels. Therefore, go easy on the descriptions. Use them sparingly as if you were seasoning a good meal. A little bit goes a long way if you are writing modern genre fiction.

The wrong way to slip  in a lengthy description is to use a phrase like: “He felt his eyes roll over his host’s attire”  and then follow it with a paragraph describing the host.

That unfortunately phrased line is from an indie book that I am trying with all my heart to read right now in order to review it, but I’m not sure I can finish it, if this is what I have to look forward to. The thing is, I write goofy stuff like that in my first drafts, too. I try to eliminate them in the second, because if I don’t catch them first, my editors will beat me with them! So for the sake of my bruised ego, I try to slip descriptions in less obvious ways, with no clumsy lead in that announces a lengthy exposition is forthcoming.

Descriptions must be part of the background, so the reader doesn’t notice them, and the second draft is where you weed out narrative boo-boos.

Easter_Bunny_Postcard_19077. Head Hopping (Oh yeah–guilty as charged!)

I love that term! It makes me think of the Easter Bunny! However, head hopping creates confusion. One important rule of good novel technique is to restrict each scene to one character’s point of view (POV). This strategy puts the reader in the character’s skin for a more immersive experience.

For me, writing love scenes is particularly tricky. First you are in her head making sure you have all that down, and then you are in his head, and –oh, the agony of whiplash!

Few things are more distracting for the reader than being in Adam’s head for the first paragraph and then being suddenly yanked into Eve’s head two paragraphs later.

In our first draft when we are just getting the story down we are all guilty of this, and so it is very important when we are working on the second draft that we are mindful of whose head we are supposed to be in, and we must make sure we stay there.

Head hopping turns a book into a tennis match. In each story, there are times when we write from different character’s point of view, but it’s important to remember to shift that POV only at the beginning of a new scene or chapter, and here in the second draft is where we make sure that is done properly.

This is a particularly difficult thing for me, because I want to write EVERY character’s POV all the time!

In the “The Mists of Avalon” Marion Zimmer Bradley handles that POV switch perfectly. One chapter is told from Morgaine’s point of view in the first person as the narrator, and in the next chapter  the author tells the story using the third person omniscient voice.

 

hook-movie-poster-1991-10101960168. A Slow Beginning (I’m sorry! I’ll never do it again!)

We are always told that good novels, even those not considered suspense, should begin with a clear dramatic hook, a story problem big enough to entangle the main character and promise struggle from the opening pages to the ending’s resolution.

Sometimes beginning writers spend too many opening pages or chapters showing normal life and wait too long to start the story. In some ways this is how info dumps happen.

My very first novel that I started writing in 1993 began with an info dump that went on for the entire first chapter. I had no understanding of the importance of beginning with an intriguing, active first page, and sustaining the rhythm of conflict-resolution-conflict throughout the novel.  This was a bad habit I carried though many of my novels until I was fortunate enough to fall in with a good writing group. Dramatic hooks are good and need to be plentiful, particularly at the ends of scenes and chapters.

 

Ulysses9. Long Speeches

Sometimes beginning novelists have characters speak in lo-o-o-o-o-ng stretches, seemingly without pausing for a breath. James Joyce in his novel,  Ulysses, enters the head of Molly, in the final chapter spewing an internal dialogue that runs on for more than 24,000 words with only ONE punctuation mark. The final paragraph of the book goes like this:

“…I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes. “

I don’t know about you, but I couldn’t take too much of Ulysses in college no matter how often our young, rather arrogant professor assured us that a thorough understanding of this book would educate our literary palates.

We are constantly admonished that it is crucial to keep paragraphs short and eliminate long character speeches, in order to keep the attention of your readers. Many gurus who are hosting writing seminars these days seem to have a poor opinion of our readers, implying they have limited intellects. I disagree wholeheartedly–I believe modern readers are extremely savvy and intellectual, but they are pressed for time and we have created an entertainment culture that delivers instant gratification, and now readers expect it too.

There is a rhythm to storytelling—each scene leads to a new struggle for the protagonist, to  either an accomplishment or loss of some kind, and then to new goals, always building toward the completion of the core challenge facing the characters.

Some writing coaches have likened this technique to how a skater moves across the ice. Push—glide. Push—glide.

 


10. A Novel Lacking Overall Direction

Successful novels must present several important ingredients:

  1. A beginning with a bang, some major action or conflict
  2. Characters readers care about, people who immediately strike a chord with the reader.
  3. A big problem that needs fixing, and only your hero can do this.
  4. A conflict-riddled struggle that nearly defeats your hero.
  5. The successful conclusion to the conflict that  winds everything up, even if it is supposed to be the first book in a series.
  6. An ending that leaves the reader glad they read the novel, and wondering what happened afterward.

you've been warnedBeginning novelists often fail to do the necessary pre-planning to make these ingredients work together. They think they can just plunk into the chair and start writing—and a wonderful novel will magically appear. Some seasoned authors may write this way, as James Patterson seems able to do,  but most of us can’t, and it shows clearly when the reader downloads the book.

Good, strong, characters must have incremental goals that complement the story, and the story must move along with conflict, drama, action, and emotion.

Once we have completed the second draft, we set the manuscript aside for several more months and work on something else. Then, after once again gaining a bit of perspective on it, we begin the process of rewriting and formatting it for submission to an editor. We use these same guidelines when we make our final revisions before sending it off to our prospective editor, because despite our best efforts, we have missed a lot of rather obvious bloopers, and I’m not just talking about typos.

You will find that when the editor has her hands on your precious manuscript, that is when the real work begins.

 

 

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