Comfortable with the Strange

Last week I finished up a series examining the way we combine plot, descriptions, and dialogue to create a directed, focused storyline. Throughout the entire series I chose to ground all of the short pieces in a very familiar setting, a wedding reception held in a backyard. Even though most readers will not know people or events exactly like the ones described in the stories, it still provides a comfortable atmosphere that many of us can connect to through personal memories. Using such a familiar backdrop is useful because it allows the reader to become more relaxed, it allows them to focus their attention more on the drama and emotions, and it helps them to personally connect to the story. Which is all well and good if that’s what you want your readers’ experience to be. But sometimes, you want them to be riveted, you want them to be scrutinizing the scenery, and you want them to feel like a fish out of water.

There is an analog to this in visual storytelling as well. Consider these two famous works.

Now, in American Gothic, how much time do you really spend scrutinizing the background, especially the sky? The only remarkable thing about it is how plain it is, and your eyes instantly dismiss it so that you can instead read the expressions on these characters faces, which is where the bulk of the story is being told. In Starry Night the experience is entirely different. It may take a few moments to even acknowledge this strange, dark figure in the foreground, because the very first instinct is to try and figure out what on earth (or above earth, as the case may be) is going on in that sky! Here the background is the story being told. Now neither of these painting is the one right way to express artistic ideas, and neither is the realistic story greater or less than the fantastic, it all depends on what you’re trying to do, deep meaning and vibrant narrative can emerge from each.

In the more fantastic stories we treat the setting not as an unassuming backdrop, but as one of our primary characters. One example that comes readily to mind is in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, particularly the Fellowship of the Ring. Settings, strange and unfamiliar, are first-class citizens here, and the reader is frequently invited to put aside worrying about the epic quest, and to instead wander aimlessly through the beautiful and surreal backdrops. Consider the hobbits’ encounter with Old Man Willow and Tom Bombadil. Ultimately these passages may not seem to progress the main plot forward, but they do succeed in progressing the reader deeper into the mythos and complexities of this surreal land. It makes the world interesting, and by pausing occasionally to let us snuff the magic in the air we want all the more for our adventurers to succeed in their quest, that these ancient beauties might not be destroyed. It is the same when we halt to hear an epic poem composed by Bilbo in Rivendell, or when we fathom an entire civilization of dwarves living their lives in an underground city, until the claustrophobic horrors of unearthed dread consumed them all. It isn’t just that J. R. R. Tolkien uses expressive, rich, detailed language–though he certainly does–but that he is describing a world that is actually expressive, rich, and detailed in its nature.

There are other stories that push still further into the surreal, and even do so in the simplest of children’s books. For this look no further than the collection of Dr. Seuss’s tales. The entire styling is alien and bizarre, and from their architecture to their naming conventions it is clear the rules of these worlds operate entirely on their own level. I particularly like Horton Hears a Who, where we are treated to not just one, but two interesting and diverse worlds, each with their own vastly different species, structures, hierarchies, and beliefs; yet they are still inseparably connected to one another. And the fact that one of these worlds exists on a speck of dust makes us wonder how many other self-contained dust-worlds are floating by Horton, spending their existences never knowing of one another, though separated by mere inches of atmosphere. Yet for all its intricacies and nonsensical designs, this backdrop doesn’t leave us confused and uncomfortable, rather it endears us to the world, just as it did in the Fellowship of the Ring. As also with the Fellowship of the Ring, this curious world becomes threatened, albeit by boiling beezlenut oil instead of ravaging orcs, and we find ourselves anxious again that the crisis be averted. For here the setting is just as colorful and quirky a character in the tale as any other, and the thought of losing it is unacceptable.

I believe part of the reason why we enjoy these sojourns into the unknown is because of how they stimulate the imagination. Most of these stories don’t define their world entirely, they remain unbounded. This gives us the freedom to imagine that the world goes on and on outside of the pages we can see, and there never is an end to it all. Again, this occurs in other art forms as well, such as how a slow-fading outro on a song can create the illusion that the band never finishes playing, they just continue jamming on into the night after we have left. Most paintings will have lines and shapes that seem to continue past their own borders as well, teasing that if you just pulled the frame around on your wall you might get a different view entirely.

To an extent, readers are willing to let go of perfect understanding in order that they may experience novelty, though exactly to what degree depends on the individual. On Thursday I will present a short piece that is grounded in rules and realities that are not our own, and I will permit many elements to be strange and unexplained in the service of creating a backdrop that is a living character. Check back then to see how it turns out!


  1. Interesting article. I tend to not do intricate backgrounds because I enjoy allowing the reader to build it in their minds with just a little help from me. I guess that preference shows in my taste of reading though too. I really didn’t like LOTR or The Hobbit, no matter how much I tried.

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