A lot of writing a new project shifts between setting, character development, plot twists (most of which change) and a shit ton of rewriting and editing. Period. That’s writing in a nutshell, but how much thought do we put into the setting as a vital part of the story? How often does that involve intertwining nature? Now how about when writing horror? Nature can set a very warming or terrifying place, building suspense at every turn. It should not be ignored, but explored with all of the possibilities within. Just open up your eyes.
About a month ago, I rented the film The Forest (2016). It had a lot of potential but overall there were too many issues with the plot and execution to give it anything above a C-. Not the worst horror film and the idea of it is great and the entire story is built around nature, both in setting and as the actual protagonist. Not much of a red herring or other plot devices and there is too much I would change to point out (unless you ask; I’ve got a list!), but the setting itself is unique and not used often or heard of much. I didn’t even know about Aokigahara Forest, AKA Suicide Forest, which is located at the bottom of Mt. Fuji, Japan.
The forest is both depressing and bizarre and sets an unusual setting, as the location itself is real with a very dark history of suicides. Yet the story uses the setting to their advantage. Recently I finished Wayward Pines (book 1) and finished watching Twin Peaks (which oddly crossed each other–long story). For Blake Crouch’s books, the entire plot is built around this town surrounded by the vastness of nature while Twin Peaks is also focused in a small town surrounded by nature and the evil within it. There is something isolating about stories in nature settings, the way characters interact with themselves or others in the presence of woods and nothing more. Put in the climate, how the character behaves in day or night in these spaces. It’s unique. For The Forest, there’s the cultural addition to deal with–the forest is the suicide forest, everyone knows that. Don’t go in there! For Ethan Burke, the protagonist of Wayward Pines, leaving the community to go out into the forest and beyond is forbidden and, as he was warned by a young child during his hunt, if he couldn’t understand why he needed to stay, he was going to die.
Sure, you can only find so many ways to explain the tree brush, rolling hills, rushing rivers and powdery white clouds until you begin to realize your work is just a homage to your favorite nature spots. But that’s all of the beginning. The woods for Wayward Pines represents nature fighting back (well, and evolution, but if you haven’t read the books, I won’t give it away). For The Forest it’s a little more sinister being the vessel of destruction while in Twin Peaks nature is very subtle but brings people to the small town when horrific crimes and supernatural events occur.
Using nature as a setting can hold more value or meaning if its intertwined, not just happening to be about Character A who lives in the woods. A setting, like a character, has traits. So what is the state of the nature in this universe? In the Harry Potter universe, The Forbidden Forest is surely different from Sherwood Forest in Robin Hood, as the landscape beyond The Wall in Game of Thrones also differs, so why would the nature you build in your story simply be nothing more?
Perhaps it’s time to get those hiking shoes and find out. The best practice is out there, not behind your screen.