Writing

Establishing and Transitioning Atmosphere

This post is 3 in the series: Setting Your Story's Direction
In previous posts in this series, I discussed setting and meeting expectations for your story’s characters and plot threads. Now I’ll be discussing one last component: what I like to call a story’s worldview.

What Is Your Story’s Worldview?

The worldview of your story provides a persistent mood such as mysterious, tragic, whimsical, or playful. It also tells your audience whether they’re reading a gritty noir, a children’s adventure, or some hard science speculation. In turn, they will expect you to work within those conventions.

A worldview is created by the sum of your choices in many areas:

  • Wordcraft: If you describe every place as either dank or dreary, you’re creating an atmosphere of gloom. Alternatively, you could inject puns into your dialogue, creating a silly and playful effect.
  • Plot: Are problems world-ending or trivial? Does the protagonist meet characters who are helpful or harmful to their journey? The answers to these questions set expectations for how the story will proceed.
  • World: Is the story set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland or the dream realm? Is magic cast with human sacrifice or by doing the hokey pokey? Once you describe your setting, your audience will expect it to stay that way.

Setting Expectations for Worldview

By the end of the first chapter in a novel, reader expectations for worldview have been established. That space must contain hints for everything they need to know.

If important characters die in your story – or you want readers to think they could – use a death in your opening to alert them. How you depict this death is critical. If your story opens with “The King died, and the kingdom mourned him,” then you are telling your readers that deaths will be vague and remote, rather than truly upsetting. On the other hand, your opening could show your protagonist failing to save a little sister who is infected with the plague. This would communicate not only that deaths could appear but also that they’ll be upsetting and unfair.

On the flip side, your ending might be ecstatic for the entire kingdom. If your beginning is too dark, a perfect ending might feel cheap. In this case, use your beginning to show how the kingdom is happy and perfect before the evil sorcerer or other menace appears. Then readers will expect a restoration to paradise by the time you finish.

There is nothing wrong with a worldview that contains contradictions; in fact, it will make your story more interesting. However, its contradictory nature should be established right away. If your first three chapters are about the wonders of the fairy realm, then you reveal that all the fairies eat at Burger Queen, your readers won’t be pleased. But if you open with a bunch of fairies sitting on the Burger Queen roof, eating hamburgers, and throwing their wrappings into the parking lot, they’ll probably be intrigued.

The hints at the beginning of your work don’t have to reflect what will happen later, but they need to present a similar outlook. To set expectations for events that are unfair, show readers that your world isn’t fair. If wild and unbelievable things could happen, present rumors about the wild and unbelievable. Be mindful about the messages you send to your audience.

Carefully communicating your worldview doesn’t mean you can’t change it during the story. But how you change it and what direction you take it in can make or break your work.

When You Can Go Forward but Not Back

Some types of worldview lend themselves well to conflict or just set higher expectations for your work. Because a story needs to become more engrossing as it progresses, you can increase these aspects during your story, but you should not decrease them for more than a couple scenes.

It can become darker but not lighter

While “dark” is a rough grouping of many aspects, all of them either increase conflict or emotional intensity. In particular, the highest levels of threat and explicitness should be reserved for your climax. Gloom and tragedy are slightly more flexible. You can put their peak before your climax so long as the conflict increases rapidly afterward. Your protagonist might hold a dying mentor before the final battle with their killer. Or they might stumble out of the endless woods to enter a forbidding castle. Grit and creepiness can be traded out for one another, but they shouldn’t go away unless replaced with other dark elements.

You can make your story lighter in the epilogue. If you do it before then, problems could feel trivial, and your resolution might feel cheap.

It can become more complex but not simpler

A story with more nuance and many moving pieces requires clever orchestration. Readers will wait patiently for the meaning behind any subtle hints to arrive, and they’ll expect the parts to click neatly together. If you whittle the story down to a single duel between the hero and the big bad, your end will feel anti-climatic. Your audience expected something more elaborate.

The complexity rule is also why you can move from black and white morality to gray morality but not back. Gray morality calls for more complex motivations for the characters and harder choices for the heroes. If you make two feuding factions good and evil after they both looked neutral, you are not providing the moral dilemma your audience expected.

It can become more subversive but not more conventional

Conventions are predictable, and many readers are just fine with that. But if you give them a subversive twist early in your work, they will expect more to come. If your old mentor suddenly jumps out of his death bed, don’t undo your change by making him die later. If your damsel casually frees herself, don’t put her in an enchanted sleep that only her true love can wake her from. That is, unless her true love is a half-eaten sandwich. If you start following conventions during your climax, you’ll disappoint your readers.

Generally Incompatible: Silly and Serious

The two hardest aspects to integrate are silliness and seriousness. They determine the emotional approach your readers take to the story. Silliness tells your audience to treat your story like it’s just a piece of entertainment. Bugs Bunny or Wile E Coyote cartoons are very silly. Common silly elements include:

  • Solutions that are cute but implausible.
  • Lowbrow humor like fart jokes or slapstick comedy.
  • Trivial problems that are treated as if they were critical.

Seriousness signals the opposite – that readers should relate to the story as though it were real. This is required for an emotionally powerful story. That would mark seriousness a one-way street toward the climax, except that if silliness appears anywhere in the story, it will destroy the serious tone.

This is a problem that afflicts the later Harry Potter books. In the beginning of the series, readers are expected to dismiss all the hazards at Hogwarts as harmless fun. Later, they need to interpret similar risks like splinching as serious problems. Luckily, Rowling has a full seven books to make her transition. Even so, the series would have been more powerful without the silly aspects of the world. If you have a similar story, consider sticking with the silly tone and making your ending fun and light instead.

Methods of Transitioning Worldview

With a shock

A sudden change in worldview is a trick you can use for a specific effect.

Example

Little Jadyn looked out his window one morning and saw a beautiful unicorn. Jadyn ran outside, and the unicorn knelt so he could ride on her glimmering white back. Together they galloped over the rainbow to a land in the clouds. The unicorn brought Jadyn into a domed building made from crystals, and together they sat in front of a long bar. A fairy bartender offered a cigarette to the unicorn and lit it for her. Blowing smoke, the unicorn said to Jadyn, “You look like you could use a drink. How about a whiskey sour?”

Readers are given no time to adjust to the gritty turn in this fanciful piece. Instead, it just seems ridiculous – which is the point. It’s a subversive and absurd form of humor. Stories like The World’s End and the Buffy season four episode Fear, Itself use this technique to great effect. But the grittiness in my unicorn example isn’t genuine. If you want your world to feel serious, you’ll have to transition more carefully.

With foreshadowing

If you want readers to take a quick plunge into a vastly different worldview, you can preserve a serious tone by adding foreshadowing. Your foreshadowing should appear near the beginning of the story, when expectations are still being formed. After you’ve shown both worldviews to the audience, you can take your story back and forth between them without further hassle.

This technique is employed successfully by movies such as The Matrix and Pan’s Labyrinth. In The Matrix, strange messages tell Neo that something is wrong with the world. Then he chooses to go “down the rabbit hole” before he wakes up in the “real world.” In Pan’s Labyrinth, an early appearance by a fairy and some shots of mystical ruins prepares the audience to meet the fawn and watch Ofelia enter the Labyrinth. Both movies switch worlds as suits the rising conflict and intensity of the stories.

With a gradual transition

Other stories make a permanent transition in worldview just by going slow enough. You don’t have to do it evenly; instead you can use a series of small jolts to surprise your audience. But the more you surprise them, the more you’ll need to prepare them with foreshadowing.

Madoka Magica is a great example of this technique. The series is a deconstruction of the magical girl genre of anime, so when it begins, it appears to be a regular magical girl story. Then it adds to the worldview piece by piece, and each new addition makes it more creepy and tragic. By the end, viewers have learned that nothing was what it seemed.

Harry Potter also uses a slow transition, with a jump at the end of book four, and a significantly darker tone in book five. Unfortunately, book five is probably also when the largest number of people stopped reading.

Common Problems

Not foreshadowing changes

Many writers are caught making sweeping changes without foreshadowing, and it rarely goes well. For an example, let’s look at the 2001 film A.I. Artificial Intelligence. It’s a story about a boy-like robot who has been programmed to love his owner/mother unconditionally and forever, only to be tossed aside. He goes on a search to find her again. After 90% of the story unfolds in a relatively short time span, it suddenly jumps thousands of years into the future, when the earth is populated by a race of alien-like robots that didn’t previously exist. While the plot threads and themes of the story remain the same, this sudden change feels bizarre.

Viewers needed to know that the film’s worldview included time jumping. A time jump near the beginning would do the trick. The story could open thousands of years before the boy robot is created, and then jump forward to the main setting. Better yet, the far future sequence could make an appearance at the beginning – creating a framing device for the rest of the story. In the opening scene, the futuristic robots would find the boy robot from thousands of years before. Then when the boy’s tale is told, the audience will expect a jump back to the future at some point.

Changing mood too dramatically

Many stories come with a built-in reason for a sharp shift in worldview (for instance, entering a character’s dream). Without that, there is a limit to how much you can shift from beginning to end without entering ridiculous territory.

For instance, the novel Blue Moon Rising by Simon R. Green opens with a prince who is sent to slay a dragon. It turns out the dragon is a very nice individual who collects butterflies, so the prince just takes him home instead. This sounds like the beginning of a light and subversive fairytale, but instead the book takes a dramatic turn toward gloomy part way through. The prince’s castle is besieged by an endless horde of demons. His dragon friend falls into a troubled sleep, and his intended, thinking he’s dead, hooks up with his hated brother. The story completely abandons the humorous aspects it started with, leaving readers mystified as to what kind of book they’re reading.

Besides having two parts that don’t feel like they fit, stories like these are tough to match to an audience. To enjoy the whole story, readers have to appreciate both worldviews.


While no writer will ever finish learning how to set and satisfy reader expectations, just knowing what characters, plot threads, and worldviews your stories rely on will take you most of the way there. And once you master narratives that are expected yet satisfying, you’ll be close to crafting ones that are unexpected but delightfully so.

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Comments

  1. SunlessNick

    A *really* good example of shock-changing worldview is the Kara Gillian series by Diana Rowland. Spoilers follow of course…

    The first four books in the series are about a detective in a semi-small town semi-rural county, who also happens to summon demons. The plots are mysteries laced with supernatural forces that Kara solves via normal and mundane investigation, and complicated by her growing relationship with a being from the demons world. The sense of place and people is meticulously drawn. A few things happen that subvert usual expectations, just to seed that it can happen (an asshole detective brownnoses his way into becoming a sergeant, but the new responsibility changes him and he becomes a way better person and policeman).

    Then in book four, Kara becomes aware that something from the demon world is trying to summon *her* (not something we usually see), and at the end of the book, finally succeeds. Book five is set in the demon world. Both Kara and the reader are completely disoriented, cut off from all the detailed setting we know. And Rowland chooses then to upend everything we know, reveal that some characters’ strange backstories are part of a long-running cold war, turn a series of mysteries into a budding war saga, and threaten colossal disasters to come. All this comes at once, but by throwing the character and reader into the demon world, Rowland created an atmosphere that suited – every change is extreme enough to make the other extreme changes belong.

    (It helps that the demon world is also fantasically drawn).

    From book six onwards, the series then becomes a fusion of the two worldviews.

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