Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Using Setting to Create Tension

Like most women my age with hipster tendencies, when the TV show New Girl launched, I was hooked. Not only was Zooey D. adorable, Schmitt the epitome of "that guy" who seemed to be at every party (side note: the opening episode characterization of him via "douchebag jar": brilliant), but when episode 12 came ("The Landlord"), it gave me one of my favorite writing lessons to date.

If you wish to re-live my epiphany for $1.99 & 22 minutes of your life, I encourage you to watch it here before continuing to read on so you get the full shock-value of the build-up (Warning: it is centered around prime-time-level morally-offensive dating/sexual discussion)

Synopsis: The show opens with Jess and Nick debating whether or not people are good or bad. Jess spends the rest of the show attempting to prove to Nick that men are good by befriending their onerous landlord. Nick is certain that the landlord is only kinder because he wants to sleep with Jess, and pushes the situation deeper and deeper, ultimately ending up heading to a threesome with the landlord (landlord's idea) because Jess refuses to admit that she was wrong, and Nick won't end the landlord's advances until she does. Ultimately Jess concedes just as the landlord bails out when another roommate cluelessly walks on set, and the landlord refuses "a foursome."

Writing Lesson:  The funniest part of the entire episode to me: lunges. When Nick and Jess were avoiding heading into the room, in the background the reader can see the landlord doing lunges. I died laughing. Close second funniest moments: the landlord dancing around pretending to play the flute to Rusted Root in the background, and Jess's awkward hands shooting out dancing in the background while the landlord puts the moves on Nick. 

When I was trying to describe what was so funny about this episode to a friend, I kept coming back to these scenes, and I noticed that they were all in the BACKGROUND. I realized that by providing understated slapstick comedy juxtaposed against awkwardness, it heightened both the emotions. Tension was pulled between the foreground and the background. 

Since then, I've been playing with what's happening in the foreground and what's happening in the background of my setting in order to add depth, complexity, and/or humor in my writing. Or, at least that's the goal, but I like that I have this goal now. Sometimes I want to add both terror and hope so I can use foreground and background to hit both notes mirroring my character's mood, or I want to foreshadow desire, but create complacency in the now so I can use one for each. And sometimes I want to just create a richness of humor so there we go... Lunges. Lunges, people. Lunges!

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