Alchemy of Place: How to Create Tension through Your Story’s Setting and Atmosphere
Morning: writing at my sunny desk. Task: revise a stubborn scene. Advice from recent feedback: bring more tension and emotion into it.
Sunshine in our New England autumn today is no help. In my fictional scene, it’s chilly rain in the northern mountains of New York state. While I sit comfortably in my chair, laptop in front of me, spicy tea and good music and sweet air at hand, my poor beleaguered character has just crashed her small plane–on purpose. She’s bleeding, shaken, and starving. Around her is a circle of dark, forbidding mountains, misted by the rain.
Our settings couldn’t be more disparate. Yet I’m trying to conjure emotion in hers and capture the desperation of this person who only exists in my imagination.
I know such desperation. I’ve never crashed a plane, but I know the survival instinct that my character rides on at this moment of the story. And I also know how setting ratchets it up. Using setting as alchemy to create such tension is a skill I’ve worked on for years.
Alchemy simply means a combination of certain elements, put together to create something magical, something beyond their individual power. In writing, I’ve found three alchemy ingredients, which I teach in my Zoom workshop, Strange Alchemy (October 9 is the next one). The three are setting, action, and the character’s physical state. Even working with two of them, such as setting and character, can bring considerable energy to the writing. Using all three together definitely creates magic.
When I talk of magic, I mean the magic that all good literature offers–where we readers lose ourselves for a few hours in a different world. And it lingers even after the story ends.
The Alchemy of PlaceYour story setting is an ingredient in the alchemy triad but setting details are often either ignored by most writers–“too slow for me,” one of my students once said–or used too much. I don’t know which is harder on the reader: the dump of setting details in the beginning of each chapter or the start of each scene, as if “setting the stage,” or the belief that no place markers are needed–that action or character is all that counts.
Setting is most effective when married with character or action, as I said earlier. So your setting details count the most if they are inserted where character changes occur.
Just adding a few senses to a moment when a character is challenged can bring everything up a notch towards alchemy. Especially smell and sound. These access the reader’s own memories of place, make your job almost effortless. Look at stories by George Saunders, Judy Blundell, or Flannery O’Connor to prove this out.
Place is the backdrop used by professional writers to depict emotion. Whatever the character notices–or doesn’t notice–tells the reader about their emotional stage: their distractions, their memories, their angst. It’s too good a tool to ignore.
The Alchemy of a Character’s Physical StatePair place details with the character’s external self–not what they are thinking or feeling, which could be unreliable, but how they present themselves in the world, consciously or unconsciously–and you get even more magic. A twitch, a certain favorite piece of clothing, a way of moving their hands, an itchy ear, all reveal emotion when combined with the atmosphere they occur in.
In Judy Blundell’s award-winning young-adult novel, What I Saw and How I Lied, she introduces the two main characters in the first page via certain physical details that completely show their future trajectories in the book: the mother who smokes in the dark and whose lipstick-covered lips catch on the cigarette paper with every drag–a tiny but revealing sound heard by her not-sleeping daughter; the young girl who carries Baby Ruths in her bike basket to the foggy beach each morning to eat breakfast alone there.
I make a list this morning of my downed pilot’s physical state–what is she wearing, what is moving or held still in her body as she waits, what aches and itches, what she does with her hands.
I’ve already got the rain, the darkness, the chill in setting. Combined with the physical elements of character, I’ve taken the first step towards alchemy.
The Alchemy of ActionPlace and physical attributes are only useful, though, if they are juxtaposed with action. Dennis Lahane, author of Mystic River and other works, talked about this in an interview I read many years ago: If a character is in the same room for more than one page, get them out of there. Stillness is a pause, a valuable pause, but it doesn’t move the writing forward.
So instead of my downed pilot being able to sit and starve silently, reflecting on the wilderness around her, she must be doing something within a page. Action is the final element of alchemy. It’s only by seeing a person in action that we really know them.
Put together, these three create magic.
When I begin a scene, I often will work on each element separately, to make sure I’ve covered it, then combine them in paragraph or chapter in good proportion to each other. Action usually takes the most space, then the physical state of the character, then the setting. Each is crucial to alchemy, but they work in a hierarchy.
Knowing how to make this magic can make the difference between a ho-hum story and one the reader never forgets.
Mary’s PEN-award-nominated novel, Qualities of Light, now available in second edition. Click here to order. Kindle version, click here.
To learn from the best teacher is a gift that can’t be ignored. I have clicked on Mary’s novel as it is a must red if I am serious about improving my writing.
Until next time, happy reading,