Hills and valleys, cliffs, mountains — altitude in story is highly symbolic. When creating a story, remember to vary the altitude as much as you’d vary any other setting.
Something weird happens when humans position ourselves in high places. High place phenomenon is that weird urge you get to jump off a bridge.
I don’t get that, exactly. I get a strange variation on that. I remember standing on a bridge one time holding a tennis ball. I wondered how hard it would be to get the tennis ball back if I dropped it. So I dropped it, entirely without meaning to. Sure enough, it was no easy job getting the tennis ball back.
In London I never liked standing at the front of the queue to get on a rush hour underground train. I always felt like I’d be pushed by the people behind me into the oncoming train and fall onto the tracks. Sometimes I wondered what it would be like to push someone in front of me. But don’t worry, I never tried it. And I stay right away from trains these days.
Because there’s always the tennis ball.
HILLS AND VALLEYS
A cottage atop a hill can symbolise extreme happiness.
From the porch of her new house Miss Rumphius watched the sun come up; she watched it cross the heavens and sparkle on the water; and she saw it set in glory in the evening. She started a little garden among the rocks that surrounded her house, and she planted flower seeds in the stony ground. Miss Rumphius was almost perfectly happy. “But there is still one more thing I have to do,” she said. “I have to do something to make the world more beautiful.” But what? “The world already is pretty nice,” she thought, looking out over the ocean.
— Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney
Wolf Hollow is an interesting storyworld because it is an apparent utopia. ‘Hollow’ is a poetic sounding name (as the creators of Stars Hollow surely recognise). While dips in the landscape generally indicate evil (basements are scary, valleys attract mysterious fog and harbour secrets), ‘hollows’ are metaphorically similar to islands, sheltered from the evils of the outside world. That’s why ‘Hollow’ is such a great choice for this book — it is in many ways a utopian setting (sheltered from the World War going on elsewhere) but also a terrible place, with its inhabitants dangerously bigoted.
Hills and valleys have a logic of their own. Why did Jack and Jill go up the hill? Sure, sure, a pail of water, probably orders from a parent. But wasn’t the real reason so Jack could break his crown and Jill come tumbling after That’s what it usually is in literature. Who’s up and who’s down? Just what do up and down mean?
First, think about what there is down low or up high. Low: swamps, crowds, fog, darkness, fields, heat, unpleasantness, people, life, death.High: snow, ice, purity, thin air, clear views, isolation, life, death. Some of these, you will notice, appear on both lists, and you can make either environment work for you.
— Thomas C. Foster, How To Read Literature Like A Professor
In storybook illustrations, it’s very common to find a house on a hill. A house on a hill is a safe house — from here you won’t be susceptible to flooding, and you can see enemies approaching. A house on a hill might also be close to the sea, but protected from it by the slight altitude.
Mountains are somewhat cliched as ‘the land of greatness’ in stories but they are still used a whole heap and the symbolism still works.
[The mountain] is where the strong go to prove themselves—usually through seclusion, meditation, a lack of comfort, and direct confrontation with nature in the extreme. The mountaintop is the world of the natural philosopher, the great thinker who must understand the forces of nature so he can live with them and sometimes control them.
Structurally, the mountain, the high place, is most associated with the reveal.
In the 1997 film Contact, for instance, the Jody Foster character sits on a high piece of land when she has her self-revelations.
Revelations in stories are moments of discovery, and they are the keys to turning the plot and kicking it to a “higher,” more intense level. Again, the mountain setting makes a one-to-one connection between space and person, in this case, height and insight.
This one-to-one connection of space to person is found in the negative expression of the mountain as well. It is often depicted as the site of hierarchy, privilege, and tyranny, typically of an aristocrat who lords it over the common people down below.
The mountain is usually set in opposition to the plain. The mountain and the plain are the only two major natural settings that visually stand in contrast to one another, so storytellers often use the comparative method to highlight the essential and opposing qualities of each.
— John Truby, Anatomy of Story
- The Moses story (the ur-mountain-story in the Christian world)
- Greek myths about gods on Mt Olympus
- Brokeback Mountain
- Cold Mountain
- The Shining
- The Bears On Hemlock Mountain
The association between cliffs and peril is so strong that occasionally cliffs can be misused in drama, for instance in The River Wild.
And what about the sequences in which Strathairn cuts crosscountry, climbing mountains, fording rivers, walking faster than the river flows? Impossible, but he does it. At one point, in a scene so ludicrous I wanted to laugh aloud, he even starts a fire to send smoke signals to his wife. At another point, he clings to the side of a cliff, while we ask ourselves what earthly reason he had for climbing it. And he works wonders with his handy Swiss Army knife.
In the illustration from Beauty and the Beast below, the family has lost its fortune at sea and has had to move to a small cottage and live as peasants. They live precariously in this community, not fully accepted (except for Beauty, of course, whose beauty privilege makes up for a lot).
Cliffs are also high in altitude but they have a quite different symbolism from mountains. Cliffs are precarious.
See the Hayao Miyazaki film Ponyo for an excellent example of cliff symbolism, in which the precarious cliff is a symbol for the precarious balance of nature.
Fire and cliffs make for a wonderfully camp symbolic admixture in this Three Investigators mystery story.
For a short story collection which makes full use of altitude, set in the vertiginous landscape of Wyoming, see one of Annie Proulx’s Wyoming collections (e.g. Close Range). Proulx makes use of mixed topography and everything you find in that:
- high desert landscapes
- buttes (an isolated hill with steep sides and a flat top (similar to but narrower than a mesa)
- eroded outcroppings (known in North America as hoodoos)
When reading Proulx’s stories, one of the most important concepts to grasp is her ‘geographical determinism.’ This refers to the way in which the landscape has the upper hand in a game against the insignificant humans who live there, but temporarily. We know the characters are going to have tragic endings; we read the stories to find out how much of a fight they put up, and to know the exact nature of their downfall.