One thing many writers struggle with is creating the right atmosphere for their book, story, poem etc.
Nobody wants to read a book that is supposed to be a romantic comedy but reads like an instruction manual, or a scare fest. Nor is it ideal to have a peaceful atmosphere throughout a crime drama or horror story.
In films and television, atmosphere can be hugely affected by lighting choices, music, sound effects, and the skill of the actors. On the page we have only the words to work with. It’s hard!
Some people seem to be able to terrify their readers with a single sentence. Others can whisk us off to an island paradise with a few skilful strokes of their pen.
So how do they do it?
The good news is that it’s not always a natural talent.
Sure, there are people out there who can effortlessly create the exact effect they want seemingly from birth, but the rest of us? We had to learn how to do it.
The really good news is that if I can learn to do it then you can too. Some of my early pieces did read like the aforementioned instruction manuals. They don’t anymore. I hope!
A great way to learn how to create an atmosphere in writing is to talk to a high school English teacher about word choices. Brilliant! Say hello to your new English teacher—me.
I spend countless hours teaching my students to pick precise words to accurately convey their meaning. They also learn to identify words that other writers have used to create atmosphere in the set texts.
The English language is one of the most rich and diverse in the world. There are so many synonyms available that it’s a breeze to find exactly the right one for your purpose.
Consider the sentence below:
Dave went up the stairs.
This sentence creates no atmosphere. We cannot tell a thing about Dave, his state of mind, or the scene he is in.
We can fix this by choosing a stronger verb for our purposes. It’s a simple step that can have a big impact.
Consider the following sentences:
- Dave crept up the stairs.
- Dave fled up the stairs.
- Dave skipped up the stairs.
- Dave stomped up the stairs.
In each of these sentences we have a better idea of how Dave is feeling, and what kind of scene we are witnessing than we did in the first sentence.
If asked to do so we could pick in which of these four sentences Dave is angry, happy, or scared, and in which he is trying not to wake his baby daughter.
However, one word does not in itself create an atmosphere.
In English classes we talk about such things as lexical sets (a group of synonyms) and semantic fields (when multiple words in a passage convey a similar meaning to build an overall impression). These are fancy ways of saying that we need to repeatedly choose words that are appropriate for the atmosphere we want.
Consider the following two paragraphs both describing the same place. What atmosphere is created by the word choices in each case?
The beach was chaos. Screaming children charged about all over the place, stampeding through the picnics of innocent beach goers. Out of control dogs splattered all and sundry with a vile mix of drool, seawater and sand; whilst seagulls dive bombed anyone foolish enough to keep food in their hand more than a second or two.
The beach was vibrant with activity. I could hear the joyful shouts of children mixed with the barking of excited dogs coming from the water’s edge. Overhead the seagulls danced and squawked, awaiting their chance to commandeer any stray item of food amidst the hustle and bustle.
Each of these paragraphs describes the same scene, and yet the impression we get of the beach in each case is different.
Much like at a party, the disposition of your characters, and their attitude to a situation, will affect the way a scene is perceived. This will inform your word choices and hence determine the atmosphere of a piece of work.
TOP TIP: If you need to create, or enhance, the atmosphere in a scene, create a list of words and phrases that you associate with the kind of atmosphere you want. Then create a list of words and phrases that would create the opposite effect. Refer to those lists to improve your word choices.
Creating atmosphere through character
We experience in real life the difference the people at an event can make to its atmosphere. Some people have a talent for buoying the spirits of all around them, while others are certain to kill any positive vibe.
So how do we use this to help us create an atmosphere in stories?
Firstly we use dialogue. And this comes back to those all-important word choices.
The way a character talks, the phrasing they use, the words they pick, the words they drop; these are all fantastic for creating an atmosphere.
If you’re using first person narration you can use this to maximum effect. If you’ve done your characterisation well the reader is so transported inside that person’s head that they are able to feel that character’s emotions along with them.
So what defines a character’s contribution to atmosphere?
Again TV and film has the edge on this because they can use such visual cues as body language, facial expression and even clothing to help.
Writers have to have the tools to express all this with words alone.
How can we create a character that lightens the atmosphere when they appear in a scene of your book? Likewise how do we draw a character that casts a shadow over proceedings?
It’s easier than you might think.
A few well-chosen descriptive details and your character is alive on the page.
If they are a scowling teenager with black eye make-up and a razor sharp tongue, they’ll probably put a dampener on the atmosphere. A jolly sort of fellow with a lopsided smile is likely to make everything feel more whimsical and light hearted.
Of course we wouldn’t want to draw these sorts of caricatures for our main characters—but they do work well for peripheral characters injecting particular scenes with a particular atmosphere.
If you want to make a train journey more uncomfortable for your main character then putting them next to eight foot tall Mr Universe, with his manspreading and bulging everywhere, will work a treat. His contribution to the physical discomfort will only exacerbate whatever else is making your character out of sorts that day.
TOP TIP: think about people you know when you’re deciding which characters are needed in a scene to create your atmosphere. Think about their mannerisms, physical features, body language, tone of voice and the energy they give out.
How does Uncle Mike always manage to turn even the liveliest party into a complete snooze fest?
How does Brenda at the office always seem to manage to make everyone smile?
Why do you feel relaxed at Alex’s house but nervous and on edge at Dave’s house?
Why do you always feel totally safe when Grandad is in the room?
If you can put your finger on the answers to these questions then you’ll be well on your way to being able to write characters who contribute to a convincing atmosphere.
Reactions and overreactions
Of course it’s not just the temperament of your characters that can create an atmosphere. How they react to things can also contribute. Being able to write convincing emotional reactions to certain situations is a valuable skill.
For a scene to appear to be genuinely scary your characters must react in a way that convinces the reader they are scared.
You MUST NOT write ‘He felt scared/angry/sad/depressed.’ Ever. Just don’t do it.
In one story I wrote I wanted to show that a character was angry and trying not to show it so I wrote that she pressed her tongue hard against the roof of her mouth. Simple yet effective.
In order to be able to do this we must spend some time studying other humans. To an extent we can draw on our own experiences—we all have emotions after all—but that will only get us so far.
Every human reacts differently to situations. It’s important to have characters react in equally different (yet plausible) ways. If you don’t have differing reactions to things then you only have one character in your book.
So study people. Watch them in different situations. Try to work out what emotions they’re feeling.
What are the physical signs of that emotion?
What verbal tics commonly occur in people experiencing certain emotions?
What is their tone of voice like?
How does their facial expression change?
TOP TIP: If your scene feels a bit flat go back and look at how your characters are behaving. Do they really seem to be scared/happy/carefree etc? Or do they seem a bit bored? Think about how you could more accurately show their feelings and reactions to a scene.
Using sensory details
In the real world our senses tell us what’s going on and help us to decide how we should feel about a situation. All eight of them. (Yes that’s right—eight. You thought there were only five didn’t you? I’ll get to those three you didn’t know about in a moment.)
In the world of words on pages and screen we have to have our senses engaged somehow to fully appreciate the atmosphere of a scene.
Many writers make the mistake of relying too heavily on visual details. They think if they can get the reader to picture something as if it were a painting they will have succeeded.
Unfortunately this doesn’t work. We don’t want the reader to feel as if they’re looking at a painting—we want them to feel as though they’re standing next to our characters, experiencing the scene with them.
I’ll repeat that because it’s important. A painting is NOT good enough. Readers should feel as if they have been transported into the world you have created.
The senses you didn’t realise you knew about
So what were those three ‘extra’ senses? And why are they important? Well they’re some of your most valuable tools in building atmosphere. You’ve always known they were there, but you probably didn’t realise they were senses. And maybe didn’t have words to describe them.
Proprioception is the sense of knowing which way up you are, where you are in relation to the ground and where all your parts are in relation to each other.
Playing with a character’s sense of proprioception can create confusion, fear, uncertainty, you name the negative emotion proprioception can help you convey it. It does a good job on some of the positive ones too.
Balance is obvious. Sink someone’s sense of balance and you put the whole world into a spin. Conversely if you enhance their sense of balance—like an athlete that feels through an event as though they couldn’t miss a step—you get a euphoric atmosphere.
Interoception is arguably the most important of the three. This is the sense that tells you how your body is feeling. It’s pain, nausea, an aching bladder, hunger, thirst, butterflies in your stomach, trapped wind. It’s that sense of claustrophobia when someone huge stands right behind you.
Interoception is vitally important for atmosphere. Physical reactions to emotions can be strong. Physical reactions to external stimuli like smells can be equally strong.
We all know that feeling like someone poured a bucket of ice inside our chest when we realise we’ve done something horribly, horribly wrong. Your readers do too. If you can accurately describe that feeling you’re half way to that atmosphere of panic and desperation you want.
Bodily functions can aid in creating light hearted and even comedic atmospheres too, if treated with a little finesse. The discomfort of someone who is absolutely desperate to fart when stuck in a room with the vicar can be a cracking way to add a little levity.
Practical Applications of the Senses for Atmosphere
So how do we use all five senses to build an atmosphere that without twenty pages of description giving every tiny detail?
Mostly by picking and choosing the details that best suit the impression you want to create.
Certain smells, tastes, physical sensations and sounds will conjure up memories and emotions that visual input alone can’t access.
Whenever I smell that ‘new car smell’ and eat a cheese and mayonnaise sandwich I am utterly transported back to a childhood trip to Disney World. Seeing pictures of the theme parks doesn’t have anything like the same effect.
We also need to remember the overwhelming things we experience in certain situations. The burning at the tips of our ears when it’s so cold we’ve reached the point where our only ambition in life is to be warm again; the prickling on the back of our necks when something frightens us; the distortion of the senses in the dark, or underwater, and so many more I couldn’t possibly list them in a lifetime.
Consider the following:
From somewhere above came the shriek of a wild hawk. The wind tore my hair from under my hood and lashed it across my face, obscuring my vision. My stomach pitched and whirled as the stones beneath me shifted, pitching me forwards into a slow, unstoppable tumble down the hillside. I came to an abrupt stop in a pool of foul-stinking water. The nausea took hold. Sharp stones scraped my hands and knees as I retched, shivering and sobbing, with water, vomit, and mud dripping from my hair.
In this paragraph I have used very little visual detail, and have instead employed sound, smell, touch, proprioception, balance and interoception. (There’s those three extra senses cropping up!) This works because when we’re tumbling down a hillside we probably can’t actually see too much because it’s all happening much too fast.
I could have written the paragraph quite differently, focusing on visual detail, and not achieved the same effect.
For a moment I couldn’t see as my hair was in front of my face. I looked down and saw the stone I had stepped on begin to move. The world spun and flashed green, then grey, then green again as I tumbled down the hill. I landed in a pool of muddy brown water, and vomited. I had mud, water and puke dripping from my hair.
You can probably picture the scene reasonably clearly here. Someone is rolling down a hill and landing in a small pond. It’s not a difficult concept to imagine. But does the second one tell you how she feels? Does it contribute to effective building of an atmosphere for the book as a whole?
TOP TIP: Engage all your senses. Think hard about associations. Use the onomatopoeia your English teacher used to drone on about. The more of your reader’s senses you can engage (and don’t forget to count eight not five) the more effectively you will transport them to the scene.
There’s no denying that where you are can have an effect on the atmosphere you sense around you. Your own living room is likely to be comfortable and cosy, while a dark alleyway in a dodgy neighbourhood will be much scarier.
It is no accident that so many horror stories take place in isolated, lonely places, or at night. Nor is it a coincidence that there are so many coffee shop and wine bar scenes in romantic comedy books.
These places have a particular atmosphere by default. If you want to create that atmosphere in a scene then using one of them is not a bad idea.
Isn’t that lazy? I hear you ask.
When we are writing a story we are aiming to create the most authentic emotional experience possible for the reader. Using places they will automatically associate with a certain type of atmosphere isn’t lazy, it’s smart.
Setting a scene in a coffee shop is the ‘creating a cosy, relaxed atmosphere’ equivalent of using ‘said’ as a dialogue tag. The reader barely notices it, but it relays the important information.
What is important is that you don’t make it seem forced or cliched. Everybody goes to coffee shops; they’re commonplace. It would almost be strange to have a book about human beings that doesn’t involve a trip to one at some point.
Some settings are cliched. Using a graveyard to create a horror scene is going to seem jaded if you aren’t careful, just as using the peacefulness of the ocean can seem to be hackneyed.
That doesn’t mean you can’t use those settings, but you need to be clever about it to surprise the reader. Don’t just drop them into a graveyard because you need them to be frightened. The graveyard must be pivotal to the story as well. E.E. Holmes wrote a great scene in her series, The Gateway Trackers (I forget which book), that uses a graveyard without being predictable and cliched.
We can mentally dress our scenes just as the props department would dress a movie scene. Pick out the things that make a scene inviting, scary, exciting or whatever else you would like the reader to experience, and describe those things.
Mentioning the polished silverware arranged in military lines gives a house a very different atmosphere to talking about the jumble of assorted puzzles piled haphazardly on a low shelf.
These two details may very well be in the same room, but by picking out one and not the other we create different impressions of that room. Which would you choose to make a scene appear formal and uncomfortable?
Using a few well-placed literary devices can also help with turning the setting into an integral part of the atmosphere.
Personification can be used to great effect with setting. Assigning the place a character as friendly, hostile, aggressive, welcoming etc and describing in it in those human terms creates a strong atmosphere.
Consider the following:
The trees reached icy fingers towards me, and frost-whitened thorns grasped at my skin and plucked at my clothes.
What atmosphere is invoked here? Do you feel as though the character walking through the woods is at ease? Is this a forest you would like to visit?
Compare it to this:
The trees whispered encouragingly as a playful breeze ruffled their branches. A falling leaf caressed my cheek and settled in a patch of sunlight just ahead. Was the forest showing me the way?
The two places are essentially the same, but the atmosphere beneath the canopy is very different because the personification used gives the trees opposing characters.
TOP TIP: Your setting can be as important as your word choices and characters in creating an atmosphere. Choose wisely both where to set your story, and how to describe that setting. Avoid cliches but remember some settings are well-used for a reason!
Creating atmosphere is one of the most elusive skills for a writer, and many writers struggle to create any atmosphere other than the few they are comfortable with. You should now have the tools to improve your ability to create atmosphere you want.
There is no substitute for practice. Try placing a few cards with different atmospheres written on them into a hat and drawing one out at random. Spend twenty minutes crafting a scene which requires that atmosphere.
Look critically at whether your word choices are appropriate, your characters are behaving in the way they need to, and whether your setting is working for you or against. Check that you’ve used the right sensations.
If you’re brave enough, ask a friend to read it and see if they can tell what atmosphere you’re aiming for. If you’re not brave enough—and ask them anyway!
Atmosphere can make or break a piece, so make sure you have the tools to get it right.
For a master class on atmospheric writing read The Beach by Alex Garland.
To appreciate how characters can create an atmosphere read Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice.
To understand how word choices and setting can aid in atmosphere read The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart.
To see how it’s done in a YA book try The Thirteen Treasures Trilogy By Michelle Harrison.