By this point, most everyone is familiar with The Night Circus and the Caraval series, both of which hit the book market in a big way. What's the one thing these two have in common? What lends them that addicting, nostalgic quality?
That, friends, would be the magical atmosphere that is carnivalcore—and Jordan & Kori teamed up to show you how to incorporate this aesthetic into your writing!
The secret to pulling this aesthetic off is striking the right balance between curious and cautious, delightful and dangerous, mystery and mayhem. Let's take a look at a few ways you can add carnivalcore vibes to your work!
The Night Circus is one of the most poplar books with this aesthetic, and for good reason. Even those who didn't particularly like the storyline or romance talk about their love for the immersive, magical atmosphere (psst, Kori recently reviewed this book!).
The story focuses on those who created and maintain the circus, including two magicians pitted against each other in a battle of cunning, strength, and will—but it's the atmospheric descriptions that draw readers into the world and make them want to return to it time and again despite how little focus there is on plot.
The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. Within the black-and-white striped canvas tents is an utterly unique experience full of breathtaking amazements. It is called Le Cirque des Rêves, and it is only open at night.
The Caraval books are successful partly because the main characters and readers alike have a hard time knowing who or what to trust. In the story, participants are told multiple times before the start of the week-long carnival-esque event to "remember, it's all just a game," and to "not get swept away" as they follow a string of riddle-like clues to win the game––as well as a rare and valuable prize.
This topsy-turvy uncertainty is precisely what pulls readers through the mazelike atmosphere (again, in spite of the lack of a concrete plot). Secrets, mystery, and a setting that can turn on a dime engage the reader's senses until the very end.
Welcome, welcome to Caraval! The grandest show on land or by sea. Inside you’ll experience more wonders than most people see in a lifetime. You can sip magic from a cup and buy dreams in a bottle. But before you fully enter into our world, you must remember it’s all a game.
Looking for a classic or something less magical and more chilling? In Something Wicked This Way Comes, two boys learn that wishes come with a cost as they uncover the sinister secrets of Cooger & Dark's Pandemonium Shadow Show.
Death doesn't exist. It never did, it never will. But we've drawn so many pictures of it, so many years, trying to pin it down, comprehend it, we've got to thinking of it as an entity, strangely alive and greedy. All it is, however, is a stopped watch, a loss, an end, a darkness. Nothing.
While this 13-episode season centers on the "freak show" aspect, it has other elements of carnivalcore and is absolutely chilling. The contrast between the traveling show's "freaks" and "normal" attendees questions who the real monsters are. If you're looking for carnivalcore that incorporates horror elements, this is the place to go.
While tents and stripes are easy visuals to render, if you want a little help adding to the atmosphere or thinking outside the box, Pinterest aesthetic and mood boards are invaluable. Find one you like or create your own!
Music is one of the ultimate ways to aid the flow of inspiration. There are tons of carnival-inspired playlists out there, but we recommend the playlist we recently made for our Spotify account.
SETTING THE TONE
While the attractions play a big part in the aesthetic, there are other ways to build your atmosphere.
The nature of these shows is to travel around; they're only in one place before moving on after a short period of time. This causes participants to rush to them and wring as much out of their limited time as possible; it adds to the mystery; and it makes for increasingly high, time-sensitive stakes.
Sunsets / Nighttime
While plenty of carnivals and circuses operate during the day, they feel much more magical at night with all the lights shining from tents and carts. Nightscapes grant a sense of mystery, freedom, and wonder that perfectly complements the transience of a temporary carnival.
Engaging the Senses
Popcorn, caramel apples, funnel cakes, cotton candy . . . some foods are simply synonymous with carnivals and will leave your characters (and readers) hungry for more. Add a dash of magic to these traditional fares for extra intrigue (does something happen when a character bites into that candy apple?) and don't forget to describe the smells along with the sights and chaotic sounds that make up your [darkly] fantastical carnival.
PLAYING WITH TROPES
Acts and Attractions
There are countless acts and attractions that can add so much atmosphere to your story. Having one or more scenes with a show keeps the readers engaged by pulling them into the fun and excitement. Or you can play with character tropes to help push the plot along. Try one of the following or get crazy and combine several!
Show-runner: The person(s) in charge of the circus/carnival are generally important to its story and goings-on, and oftentimes they're seriously suspicious and/or antagonistic.
Creatures: Animal acts or a menagerie. Bonus points if it's a collection of mystical creatures or unusual beings.
Freak Show: This could be combined with the "creatures" aspect or be completely different; a contortionist show or a display of unusual anatomy or other eccentricities.
Illusions: Magicians/illusionists, mirror houses, etc. Anything that warps reality and lends a feeling of confusion and mystery.
Fortune Telling: Add a character who can read palms, tarot cards, tea leaves, a crystal ball, bones, runes, you name it! They can play a major part in the story by helping the protagonist or antagonist, whether they like what the diviner sees or not.
Games and Prizes: What's a carnival without games for people to try their luck at? Especially if it's an unconventional and/or dangerous game or competition with a valuable prize to be won.
Blade or Pyro Tricks
Fireworks Displays: Fireworks are magical in any setting or celebration and can be used as a convenient distraction when the characters need one.
Puppet/Marionette shows: Not only are these fun for audiences, but they can be used to explain your world's background or a story that will impact your characters. Plus, haunted puppets are terrifying, let's be honest.
Storytellers: Perhaps there's a magical element to their performance *wink, wink*.
You can add that ineffable quality "intrigue" to your carnival story any way you choose, but some tropes to play around with include:
A Murder: Has someone been killed at the carnival? A guest? One of the players?
Trap Doors and Hidden Passages: These can hide any number of secrets and act as a handy way for your characters to get around unseen.
Enchanted Mirrors: Much like Alice stepping through the looking glass, enchanted mirrors are the secret passages of the magic world.
Captivity and Escape: One of the ways dark carnivals enhance that claustrophobic, eerie atmosphere is by adding an element of restraint. Do all of the players actually want to be there? Do the attendees? Are there any suspicious mind control acts?
Forbidden Romance: Ah, yes, this one again! Books like Stardust, The Night Circus, and Caraval have all tapped into the question of what happens when a romance between rivals or a performer and attendee is supposed to be temporary.
Special Events: Is there a masquerade at midnight? A limited-time special act? A competition? Whatever the case, special events add a definitive plot thread to help guide your characters through the chaos.