Atmosphere

This time of year, you can’t avoid the Christmas movies on the Hallmark Channel.  No matter how hard you try.  Trust me.

At first glance, the success of these movies and their popularity with viewers is puzzling.  They’re running a few basic plots that are done over and over again with minor changes in the characters and locations.  The plots are so predictable that you can come in on the middle of one and walk away before it ends, never missing a beat.

This has become a running joke with my husband.  He can come in at the beginning of a movie, ask me what’s going on, and get a full run down from me of how the entire thing is going to play out.

What should be obvious by now is that I’ve gotten sucked into watching quite a few of these.  Why?  I mean, I don’t even celebrate Christmas anymore.  Is Hallmark slipping in subliminal Christmas messages?

I think it’s pretty simple.  As with their mystery series, Hallmark has mastered the art of atmosphere.  Each movie features little towns decked out in impossibly lavish Christmas decorations.  The homes are cozy and festive.  Snow is abundant and pristine–no muddy slush at Hallmark.  Even the characters are dressed in greens and reds.  In the end, wrongs are righted, true love triumphs over misunderstandings and selfish ambition, and the true spirit of Christmas is realized by all.

It’s genius.

The holidays are a stressful and often sad time of year for many people; but 24/7 during the season, you can sit down with a cup of tea or cocoa and enjoy an innocent tale in an ideal town with a guaranteed happy ending.   As a children’s book author, I recognize the need for that sense of warmth and safety in my picture books.  Kids need that more than ever to overcome the effects of social media and the 24/7 news cycle.

But the lesson can apply to any genre.  Where is your story taking place? What does that dark room in an empty house feel like?  What kind of couch does your detective stretch out on at the end of the day, and what is she drinking?  Can your reader feel the story?  How are you engaging their senses?  Can you do it without being too heavy-handed?

Trite, formulaic stortelling is something we all  want to avoid, but we can learn something from those who are successful in spite of being trite and formulaic.  We can learn how to immerse our readers in our story’s world and how to keep them coming back for more.

Hot cocoa, anyone?