Atmosphere: what is it really? It sounds ethereal, hard to describe and even harder to define in your own writing.
Atmosphere is another word for mood; it’s the feeling a writer wants their readers to experience, like suspense or foreboding, longing or joy. Individual scenes can have a particular mood, while the overall novel has another mood those scenes contribute to. For example, I might write a psychological thriller that has an overall atmosphere of paranoia and suspense, but an individual scene could have the dial turned up to absolute horror, or there could be a scene of reprieve that has an atmosphere of calm–though it won’t last.
So, how do we achieve this? I used to think atmospheric writing was either something you had or you didn’t. But the truth is nothing in writing works that way. Writing is a craft, and we can all learn and hone new skills and level up our writing. So here are some tools you can use to create atmosphere in your writing:
“It was a dark and stormy night.” This is a classic, often-joked about for it’s heavy-handedness, example of setting a mood. A scene set at night is likely to have a different mood than one set during the day. A scene at the beach is more likely to be joyful or peaceful than one set in an old, abandoned mansion. Even the season can elicit mood–think fun summer romance versus bleak winter thriller.
However, you can also use setting conversely to mood, too. Imagine a suspenseful thriller that takes place during summer; instead of fun and bright, the heat is suffocating, the non-stop sunlight is scorching, cicadas are hissing in the trees, getting louder every day, and there’s a drought, too, so the land is dry and cracked and dying. Now that beach scene is no longer peaceful; all your characters have gathered there on the hottest day of the year, hoping for some relief. The sand is burning hot, there are mosquitos everywhere, the tide is too strong for swimming and the crashing waves are not soothing but frustrating–they are marking the slow passage of time, a ticking clock, a tapping foot.
Contrastingly, imagine a winter romance. Snow blankets the ground, glittering like diamonds in the moonlight, and inside the small, log cabin, a crackling fire provides warmth and comfort. Not to mention the love interest in a knit sweater making hot cocoa in the kitchen with extra marshmallows. Even setting the scene at night (moonlight) can evoke feelings of peace and wonder, rather than fear and isolation. The key of course, is not just the setting–it’s the details and the language used to describe them, our next two tools.
We already know the details you choose can establish character and voice. A scientist will notice different things than say, an artist. The same is true for creating atmosphere. In the above summer example, I mentioned heat, cicadas, and a drought; at the beach, sand and mosquitos. If I was going for a lighter mood, instead of sand and mosquitos, I could mention the clear sky and stripped umbrellas and a cooler full of ice and dewy bottles of water. Now, you can infer it’s hot and sunny–there are no clouds, our characters brought umbrellas and a cooler, and the bottles are dewy because of condensation. But instead of feeling overwhelmed and irritated, hopefully, you feel calm and light.
For the winter scene, instead of a cabin, there’s a tent. The moonlight is the only source of light because the fire wouldn’t catch, and our character’s companion is wearing a parka leaving the MC with a thin, itchy blanket, picking mold off a piece of stale bread. The mood has changed from cozy to cold and uncomfortable and dark.
Be tactile. Use all five senses. I failed to use it, but smell can definitely create a mood: the bright scene of sunscreen versus the stench of the ocean on the wind. Warm chocolate versus old, moldy bread. Try to put yourself in the scene, in the mood you want the reader to feel–what do you notice? Write it down.
In addition to details, the language you use around them helps create mood. Hissing cicadas elicits one feeling while humming cicadas elicits another. Snow glittering like diamonds versus refracting the light like broken glass. An itchy blanket versus a soft one. Even if all the details are the same, the way you describe them changes the mood. It might be helpful to come up with a list of descriptive mood words before working on a book or scene. The words might have a certain connotation, like shadow versus light, or there could be something to the actual sound. Skitter sounds creepy, like something a spider, or monster, might do.
So, for a creepy mood: creak, rattle, skitter, shadow, claw. For a light, happy mood: squeak, rustle, scamper, shade, hand.
Here’s the same setting, but two different sets of language:
The forest was dark and full of shadows. Wind rattled the trees, making the branches creak. Without leaves, they seemed to curl in the air like claws. Nearby, something skittered over the ground.
The forest was ten degrees cooler, providing some much needed shade. The trees rustled in the wind, leafy branches like hands reaching for the sky. Nearby, a creature scampered over the ground, squeaking hello.
This isn’t the best writing, but you get the idea. The setting is transformed by the language, evoking two very different moods.
Similar to the language used, the rhythm of said language can affect mood. Short, staccato sentences can make readers feel anxious, or exhilarated. Longer sentences, with more punctuation and descriptive language, can have a calming lull, or, if it’s extra long without many commas or punctuation breaks it can make the reader feel overwhelmed and breathless and anxious.
Juxtaposing short and long sentences can be effective, too. Imagine a long description of a room, the color of the walls, the placement of the furniture, the bottles of perfume on the vanity and the mirror smudged with fingerprints, the curtains billowing in the breeze from the open window. I didn’t leave that window open.
The sudden short sentence packs a punch. Your heart drops. And now those fingerprints on the mirror, a seemingly minor detail, amp up the creep factor. The detail is the same, but your feelings have changed.
Tone and mood are two different things. Tone refers to how the narrator is feeling while mood, as we know, is the reader’s feelings. Tone can augment the mood–a fearful character can add to a scene where the mood is suspenseful. But you can also play tone against mood.
A character who is frustrated could contribute to a comedic mood. Think Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s On First”: they use a misunderstanding with confused and then increasingly frustrated characters to create a hilarious sketch. Another good example of this is Andy Weir’s THE MARTIAN. The main character is stuck on Mars, alone, and he’s pissed and depressed at times, but the overall mood of that book is fairly humorous.
It works the other way, too: the character’s feelings can be positive while the reader’s are not. Say a character is happy and content, thinking they’ve found their perfect match, but the reader has started to suspect said match might be a killer.
Lucy enjoys a glass of wine and banters with Diane, who is chopping tomatoes with a large, sharp knife. The cutting board runs red. Classical music plays in the living room, a piece Lucy recognizes from Verdi’s Macbeth. Lucy notices how deftly Diane chops, how comfortable her hand seems around the handle of the knife. The doorbell rings. Before Lucy can move, Diane says, “Don’t answer it.” The knife is still in her hand. “We’re having a nice night. Let’s not let anyone ruin it.” Lucy smiles. She loves how Diane only ever wants to be with her. “You’re right,” she says and grabs the remote to turn up the music, drowning out the doorbell.
Now Lucy is feeling happy in love, at ease, but how do you feel? Hopefully, I used some of the tools we’ve discussed to make you feel the opposite; details like a knife, the color red, and music from an opera where the main character murders a bunch of people, and descriptors like sharp and drowning, as well as sudden short sentences. The anxiety you feel should be further heightened by Lucy’s content. Can’t she see what’s going on? Why isn’t she afraid? So now you’re afraid for her.
Genre isn’t a tool, so much as a factor when it comes to atmosphere. A thriller will likely have an atmosphere of suspense while a contemporary romance might have a comedic, or joyful atmosphere. Definitely think about your genre when you are thinking about mood, but don’t feel constrained by it. You could write a comedic thriller, or a joyful ghost story, or a suspenseful romance. People hear “wedding” and think of a celebration of love, but it could be cool to instead write a novel about a wedding where the mood is horror. What about a story of assassins where the mood is romantic and fun?
Now, a caveat: atmosphere isn’t something I think you should aim for on a first draft. Maybe your powers are greater than mine, but thinking about setting and details and language and tone all at once when I’m trying to get the story out for the first time is…paralyzing. For most of us, atmosphere is something we add in revision. You might even think you want one mood, only to discover after finishing the first draft, a different mood would be better. It’s good to be thinking about the atmosphere when you start, but don’t get bogged down trying to nail it from the jump.
If you’ve gotten this far, I hope this post will help you create the atmosphere you want in your work-in-progress. While atmosphere isn’t a requirement, I think it’s one of the best ways to satisfy your readers. We read to feel things, to be utterly absorbed in a story, and atmospheric writing is essential in accomplishing that goal.