“It was one January morning, very early—a pinching, frosty morning—the cove all grey with hoar-frost, the ripple lapping softly on the stones, the sun still low and only touching the hilltops and shining far to seaward.” ~Stevenson, Robert Louis. “Chapter II Black Dog Appears and Disappears.” Treasure Island.
Just like that the scene is set. The bitter cold, the ghostly coloration of the landscape and dim light described here in Stevenson’s classic tale of adventure have set an emotional tenor of uneasiness and foreboding that will spark with dark fire once it strikes against the devious characterization of Black Dog shortly after in the chapter.
This is a literary technique where writer’s use emotional symbolism often drawn from nature (i.e. light and shadow, the weather, etc.) to impart emotional connotations to the scene(s) that follow. Sometimes called setting the mood, it is important to consider what the scene is doing for the emotional setting as well as the physical setting. Remember, when describing the physical details of the plot you can simultaneously build the mood of the scene.
Let’s take a broad example and say you have a story that takes place by the sea in sunny California but your main character has just been fired from his job. This sort of scene could take the plot anywhere, especially dependent upon who our main character is. How do they react to the news? What do they think to do first? In this scenario my character is relieved that the job he hates is over. He takes the news as a clean break, a fresh lease on life. If this is my character then this is a sample of how I might set the scene:
Harvey slammed the door of his car defiantly with his foot as he strode with loose legs toward the beach. The sun was crawling across the sky like a lazy bottle rocket and the warm sands glittered in its light. The cascading foam caressed the shoreline like a spray of champagne as he walked out into the surf. He raised his arms above his head and shouted at the top of his lungs, “I just got fired!“
Now here’s the same brief scene with a different description of the scenery. See how it changes the character and how we perceive him and his emotions.
Harvey slammed the door of his car defiantly with his foot as he strode with loose legs toward the beach. The sun was blazing holes in the sky like a kid with a magnifying glass and the sand burned hot under his feet. The sea spray burst up from the shore with each passing wave, murmuring with the voices that wore down rocks into sand as he walked out into the surf. He raised his arms above his head and shouted at the top of his lungs, “I just got fired!“
Notice how the physical action that Harvey performs is the same in each version but the emotions that we interpret from him have changed?
Writing Exercise: Take a scene from a project you’re working on and take it out of context. Using only the scenery descriptions, change the emotions your character is feeling. Feel free to share your experiment with me, I’d love to see what you did with it!