Lesson No. 1: Setting as Chiaroscuro: McCarthy’s The Road and Moody’s Garden State

In the above film based on Rick Moody’s Garden State, we experience an ironic movement and setting that serves to further build the dramatic tension within the scene. The lovers are saying goodbye, for now, and sitting between two escalators—one going up and the other going down. They are sitting closest to the up escalator. The protagonist leaves his lover on the steps so he can catch the up escalator. His lover remains seated, a few steps up from the bottom, so that the protagonist walk down from her and then move up and past her on the escalator. Even as he moves upward, the ascension, he feels the pull of his lover below him and they watch each other as they grow farther apart.

The scene might have been written and shot with the lovers standing at the bottom of the escalator, which is a common scene we see in movies. However, in this scene, the setting and placement of the characters within the setting provides an additional comment, deeper layers, about the essence of this ending scene, and therefore, the overall resonance of the work. There is a cyclical nature in his movement from his lover. He descends then circles around and moves past her, again, then beyond, the ultimate ascension. The metal and mechanized nature of the backdrop creating further conflict with the softness of the lovers saying goodbye. And as he ascends, to what we assume is a heightened realization of self and purpose, we sit for a moment with his lover as she is still between the escalators, in a sort of limbo. What is she thinking? Is she continuing to lie to herself?

We are both saddened by the separation of the lovers, as we’ve grown empathy for them throughout the narrative, and yet, we feel a cathartic ascension with the protagonist. He must move on and up. This is the resonance with which we are left. To progress, we must sometimes shed the things and the people we love most; otherwise, we will sit in limbo, between the escalators.

There are so many ways to “read” this scene. Moody has left a great deal of iconic details in minimalist fashion so that we can read the scene individually and create a personal resonance. It is easy to place ourselves in the shoes of the lovers because we’ve all experienced escalators, love, heartbreak, a need to move on and a driving force to return to our lover even as she sits in limbo. The setting of this scene is essential to both mirroring and challenging the characters’ movements and intentions. The dramatic tension not only originates in the characters and dialogue, now, it is rooted also within the setting itself.


Reading for Setting

Place and Atmosphere” (Excerpt)
from Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft
by Janet Burroway, Elizabeth Stuckey-French and Ned Stuckey-French


[dropcap]Your[/dropcap] fiction must have an atmosphere because without it your characters will be unable to breathe.

Part of the atmosphere of a scene or story is its setting, including the locale, period, weather, and time of day. Part of the atmosphere is its tone, an attitude taken by the narrative voice that can be described in terms of a quality—sinister, facetious formal, solemn, wry. The two facets of atmosphere, setting and tone, are often inextricably mixed in the ultimate effect. A sinister atmosphere might be achieved partly by syntax, rhythm, and word couhice, partly by darkness, dampness, and a desolate landscape, as is shown in the first line of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher: 

During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country; and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher.


♦ Notice in the above Poe excerpt how the alliteration—dull, dark and soundless day—create a tone of almost mourning, as if dongs hitting a mourning bell. The tone is immediately melancholy and envelops the characterization, setting, movement. Poe was known for what he often called a “singularly” experience in his works. He often takes the reader on a singularly emotional experience, darkness that turns darker the further we step into his narratives. In the above scene from Moody’s Garden State and also in the next excerpt from McCarthy’s The Road, look for elements of irony within the setting. How does the setting, movement and characterizations juxtapose and “compete” with each other in order to increase dramatic tension within the scene.


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The Road (Excerpt)
by Cormac McCarthy


♦ In the following excerpt, notice how the novel opens with something of the same melancholy and dark tone as Poe’s Usher. The aesthetic offers a sort of fairy tail-ish, fable-like feel. There is a child within this dark dreamscape and this provides an ironic tension—innocence versus darkness and the creature with dead eyes and skeletal structure.


[dropcap]When[/dropcap] he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him. Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before. Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world. His hand rose and fell softly with each precious breath. He pushed away the plastic tarpaulin and raised himself in the stinking robes and blankets and looked toward the east for any light but there was none. In the dream from which he’d wakened he had wandered in a cave where the child led him by the hand. Their light playing over the wet flowstone walls. Like pilgrims in a fable swallowed up and lost among the inward parts of some granitic beast. Deep stone flues where the water dripped and sang. Tolling in the silence the minutes of the earth and the hours and the days of it and the years without cease. Until they stood in a great stone room where lay a black and ancient lake. And on the far shore a creature that raised its dripping mouth from the rimstone pool and stared into the light with eyes dead white and sightless as the eggs of spiders. It swung its head low over the water as if to take the scent of what it could not see. Crouching there pale and naked and translucent, its alabaster bones cast up in shadow on the rocks behind it. Its bowels, its beating heart. The brain that pulsed in a dull glass bell. It swung its head from side to side and then gave out a low moan and turned and lurched away and loped soundlessly into the dark….

Setting Exercise

Choose a single setting within your novel. It can be an opening or closing, uplifting or dark. Then complete the following:

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