Creating Atmosphere

When writing noir, or any variation of it (in my case, young adult noir), the atmosphere of the book is as important as characters, plot, and setting. In fact, when done correctly, the atmosphere, gloomy and bleak, should affect characters, plot, and setting. The noir movement, most easily recognizable as a film genre of the early twentieth century, uses certain sensory elements to trigger in the audience’s mind that this story is not a straightforward story of good and evil, but rather a complex, at times convoluted, tale of the twisted and intersected lives of gray characters living in a black and white world.

Shadows in the NightIn cinema, it is easy to give the audience visual and auditory clues that what they’re watching is noir. Shoot the film in black and white, set the movie in a gritty city, and utilize heavy rain and an ominous score for heightened drama. The rules change when your medium is literature. What is seen in a noir film must be detailed in a noir book. For my current project, In the Land of Girls, I’ve chosen to set the story in Seattle because it is big enough that it fulfills the city requirement of noir settings, but it isn’t the conventional choice for noir stories. Noir stories have historically been set in New York or Chicago, heavily populated urban settings that have bloody histories of crime, corruption, and violence. When the genre is subverted, the setting generally moves to sunny locations like L.A., where the characters’ dirty deeds can’t be hidden behind foul weather. I thought Seattle would be an interesting new city to use for a setting because it is known for its rainy, dreary weather, and because my characters attend a prestigious private school, most of the key players can be the daughters of people who made their money in Seattle’s technology boom. From the opening scene to the story’s conclusion, Seattle’s cloudy weather and perpetual drizzle lends itself perfectly to the noir genre.

The noir plot must involve multiple players, plenty of secrets, and plot twists that keep you guessing until the story’s conclusion. For me, this was by far the hardest part of starting this project. I’ve never created as complex a plot as I have for this one, and I’m still working through some of the plot twists. The catalyst for the story is the death of the most popular and nicest girl at school. In noir, some kind of criminal act usually jumpstarts the plot. In my story, what appears to be an accidental overdose of prescription medication, is quickly questioned by my protagonist as a suicide, or worse, as foul play. As my protagonist digs through the student body’s dirty secrets and discovers the underbelly of her seemingly perfect school, she finds that everyone has an ulterior motive of revenge, and that the girl-bonds of adolescence can be easily fractured by this desire for revenge.

Most noir stories come with a set roster of characters: the imperfect hero, the femme fatale, the sidekick/ally, and some kind of antagonist. Generally in noir, the anti-hero/hero is male, which is why I immediately wanted to have a teenage female anti-hero. I love subverting these stereotypes. My protagonist is seventeen, the new girl at school, and obsessed with solving the mystery of her dead friend. Her sidekick is her closest friend in school, a tough girl who plays on the roller derby team with her and who has been a student in the private school long enough to know a few secrets herself. My femme fatale character reveals herself slowly. It’s important in noir that all the cards aren’t laid on the table at once, so the femme fatale’s seduction and subsequent destruction have to be developed slowly and carefully. Writing an antagonist in a rich, all-girls school is one of the more fun parts of creating this noir world. The classic “rich bitch” is taken to a heightened level, but as is fitting to the genre, her secrets prove she is more complex than the simple label of “mean girl.”

When characters, plot, and setting are written correctly, they equal the perfect noir atmosphere. The dark, the tragic, the bleak, are all important when setting the mood for noir. Nobody goes into noir expecting a happy ending. If you want a happy ending, read romance instead.

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