17 December 2011

Scrooge and the Art of Worldbuilding


“You know what I like best about the Alastair Sim A Christmas Carol?” Greg asked.

I made a non-committal grunt. As far as I knew, there wasn’t anything my husband didn’t like about the 1951 version of the world’s most famous ghost story.

“They shot it like a horror movie.”

Dang. I never thought about it, but he was right. The 1951 A Christmas Carol doesn’t look like any of the “historical movies” or cinematic recreations of the 19th century preceding it. The framing of its scenes, its expressionistic use of shadows (in particular, check out the shot of Mrs. Dilber and the Undertaker at the top of the stairs as Jacob Marley lies dying) and the score take their inspiration from the great Universal horror movies of the 1930s and point the way to the Hammer films of succeeding decades. It’s a totally different world from the bright, sparkly MGM Dickens extravaganzas. Which is as it should be. Scrooge’s reformation absolutely, positively depends on his being scared spitless.

Contrast that with another beloved holiday fantasy, Miracle on 34th Street. Both films are shot in black and white, but the lighting, the set decoration and the feel of the two films are worlds apart.  Susan and Doris Walker inhabit rooms (and stores) with wide windows and warm light, reflecting their tidy, safe world. Kris Kringle may or may not be the real Santa Claus, but either way, the only risk they face is to their hearts.

The point is worldbuilding isn’t always about codifying a magic system or exercises in social biology. It’s also a matter of the details—the score and set design, if you will. The way you describe the world of your novel or short story determines how your readers will perceive it. For example, if you want to tell a dark urban fantasy, a city setting is a given. But so is darkness, whether in the form of night scenes or the shadows of a condemned warehouse. The sounds your characters hear should be dark and ominous. The smells (and tastes if they come into it) should be unnerving, too. In contrast, a comic fantasy should register as lighter in every sense.

In addition, you can use changes in your characters’ environment to signal changes in their condition or emotional state in the same way Scrooge’s dark night of the soul gives way to a brilliant snow-covered Christmas morning and the flattering, diffuse light of his nephew Fred’s Christmas party. Even his office looks brighter when he returns.

My old literature teachers dismissed this as a variation of “pathetic fallacy”—the notion that natural forces or inanimate objects shared human emotions and intent. But their criticism misses the point. Integrating setting with the other elements of a story reinforces the story’s impact and creates a more consistent, satisfying experience. Maybe, if you’re really lucky, you’ll create a little magic, too. ‘Tis the season, after all.

Wishing you and yours the very best of the holidays, and a happy, healthy and prosperous New Year.

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Illustration of Marley's ghost by John Leech from the original 1843 edition of A Christmas Carol.

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