In our first lesson on “The Slant,” you learned how, in a description, loaded words can be chosen and details selected to create an impression of the subject that’s either positive or negative. Just for fun (Really! This is fun!) we’re going to expand on that concept.
If you go to any movies this summer–and some people think that’s mainly what summer is for–try giving some thought to the movie-makers’ art. They have only two senses to work with, sight and sound, but they work those to the hilt. Movies are an emotional free-for-all. The best ones will make you think as well as feel, but of the rest, those that aren’t going for your funnybone are headed straight for your emotions. But how? How does the Hollywood machine pull your strings?
Some tricks are easy to spot, such as the “scare chords” on the soundtrack that make you jump. Would that dark warehouse be as spooky without the music? How does lighting make a set look happy or tragic? What effect does the soft focus or the slo-mo produce? Do the camera angles put you right into the action, or make you feel a little detached? Are you aware of these things, or is the effect more subtle–something you have to think about? If you have the opportunity to see the same blockbuster twice, use some of your attention that second time to ask yourself these questions.
But (last question) what does all this have to do with writing tips? The written word allows a reader to experience through all five senses, within his or her imagination. Nothing will give you a better sense of the power of language than writing with a slant in mind. In the previous lesson on “slanting,” you were invited to write a description of your room using a positive or negative atmosphere. Let’s try going beyond mere good or bad to work in some emotions.
In my guest bedroom hangs an oil panting of a country road winding out of the woods. The foreground is dark, the background is light, as if we were hiking under the trees. Nothing remarkable. But suppose I wanted to create a sense of dread:
The air hangs heavy around me and flies drone in my ears. Shadows mottle the dirt road as I press on, my feet dragging. A smell of damp rotted leaves rises with every step. A hawk screeches overhead, a cry of triumph as it dives for some poor creature soon to feel its razor-sharp talons.
Creepy, huh? But suppose, after my harrowing adventure in the forest, I take the same route following day:
Mockingbirds twitter in the branches overhead as a fresh wind stirs the leaves, making shadows dance on the warm road. Clusters of Indian paintbrush playfully swipe my jeans as I pass by, and my steps quicken as the edge of the forest nears. A burst of sunlight blesses the ground like a pool of clear, clean water. I could almost jump in, shouting with glee.
(By the way, notice I didn’t have to say “I feel scared” in the first paragraph or “I feel relieved” in the second. Those emotions should have been clear enough.)
YOU TRY IT: Find a landscape picture in your house (or in a magazine or art book if your family doesn’t go in for landscapes) and write a description with a particular emotional charge. Decide what feelings you’re going to describe before you start–contentment? anticipation? horror? foreboding? outrageous happiness?
Now we’ll “slant” the exercise a little more. Here’s the first paragraph of a classic children’s story:
Once upon a time there were four little Rabbits, and their names were Flopsy, Mopsy, Cotton-tail, and Peter. They lived with their Mother in a sand-bank, underneath the root of a very big fir-tree.
If I were rewriting this tale as a mystery or crime story, I might start it like this:
Flopsy, Mopsy, Cotton-tail and Peter. Cute bunnies with a terrible secret. At the moment they were munching watery dandelion porridge in the twisted roots that formed their shelter under the gloomy old fir-tree. With anxious eyes they watched their mother button her coat. Why wouldn’t she tell them where she was going?
On the other hand, if I were aiming at a sense of slapstick comedy, the opening paragraph might read like this:
“MAAAAAAMAAAA!” wailed Cotton-tail. “Peter dumped his bowl of dandelion porridge on my head!”
“What?” Mother Rabbit looked up from the stove, distracted as usual. “I don’t even see Peter.”
“Hi-YAH! The voice ambushed them from above, followed by the wild hare of the family, swinging like Tarzan from a root of the funky old fir tree they called home.
YOU TRY IT:
Choose a story from your long-ago childhood and rewrite the opening paragraph to reflect the mood of a ghost story, a romance, a fantasy or a swashbuckling adventure. You may have to invent some dialogue and action, the way I did, but that’s part of the fun.