Rich, powerful stories evoke a depth of feeling. Superficial plots fall flat, and readers can struggle to connect emotionally to the story that a writer is telling. One way to give storylines depth and complexity is to ensure that they unfold against a backdrop that actively reinforces the tone of the central events.
When I write about the West, whether it’s a work of fiction or an article digging into real-life events past or present, I find that the landscape that surrounds the story almost always lends itself beautifully to helping craft the precise tenor that I’d like readers to experience. Below are four elements of the natural world that are simple to weave into your writing to add depth and craft overall tone.
Take a moment and reflect on the variety of ways that water exists and appears in the natural world, and how each have a different feeling. Imagine a crystal clear mountain stream, dancing swiftly around rocks on its way downhill, its sound echoing softly through the trees. How does that imagery compare to a murky, stagnant pond, opaque with grimy scum?
What does a rapid river evoke? Power? Energy? Tension? And how about a tiny spring, bubbling up among bits of gravel and tiny mint-shaded leaves? Hope? Freshness?
Water – as an element with great potential for motion, temperature or degrees of clarity – lends itself as an easy metaphor, and an elegant way to imbue a scene on the page with the emotional energy that you’re working to create.
The plant life that surrounds a story can be likewise helpful in creating depth of mood. Again, take time to consider how different kinds of vegetation evoke feelings. Consider a tall stand of pale, trembling aspens, with vivid leaves dancing in a soft breeze. How does this differ from a sparse plain, populated with gnarled sagebrush and tufts of crisp, wind-dried grass?
Vegetation isn’t limited to large-scale landscape uses, either. It’s useful in descriptions of urban settings, and even indoor spaces. How does a character with a decorative cactus on their desk seem different than one with an orchid? Or opulent vases overflowing with fresh cut lilies?
Yes, a sad person staring ruefully out a rain-streaked window is cliche. But it is entirely possible to utilize weather as a tone-crafting background tool in a way that is much more subtle and sophisticated.
Think instead how something like falling snow could be utilized to create a unique tone for a scene. Is it reinforcing the warmth and coziness of a peaceful indoor space? Or is it more menacing and sinister? A slowly-mounting intensity of cold and darkness? A thunderstorm can easily represent tension or conflict, but it can also bring long-awaited rain and restore life to dry streambeds.
Weather phenomenons – in the expanse of the American West, especially – can range from subtle to dramatic, and can add elegant nuance to the overall backdrop of a plot.
On a similar scale as weather, the overall landscape that surrounds a storyline has the potential to create an evocative and compelling context. Features can represent thematic elements within your story; mountains can be metaphors for challenges, canyons symbols of insurmountable differences between characters. But – like weather – landscape features have the potential for much more dynamic and subtle use as well.
How do human-shaped landscapes create a tone that’s different from wild ones? Do the straight lines of a cornfield evoke a sense of order? Or do they represent a loss of the whimsical and softer edges of the untamed world? How is the character and personality of a town different if it’s on a steep slope as opposed to tucked into a lush river valley?
Obviously, these are far from the only landscape elements that are useful in crafting tone in both fiction and nonfiction. But they’re an easy place to start, and can provide a starting point for writing exercises. Select a natural scene – imaginary or real – and describe it. What elements do you identify that can represent themes or evoke a reader’s emotional connection to the page? If you’re up for a challenge, do it a second time and aim for a different tone and feeling! Can you make the same forest feel peaceful and then sinister? Or the same meandering stream represent hope and then sadness and regret?
Developing your ability to weave carefully-selected and well-described background elements into your storytelling – whether fact or fiction – is guaranteed to make your writing richer and more engaging to readers!