When we say “atmosphere” in the context of writing we don’t mean the layer of air that surrounds the planet, but the layer of feeling that surrounds your characters. I like Dee White’s definition of “atmosphere,” in this context, from her post “Story Atmosphere—Tuesday Writing Tip”:
It’s all those things that come together to make the reader feel a certain way about the characters and what’s happening to them.
Atmosphere makes a story compelling and hard to put down. It adds another dimension for the reader. It gives them a feeling of being part of the scene.
And this is no small thing. It’s what separates—or at least it’s a big part of the things that separate—evocative fiction from informative journalism. It’s where an accurate recitation of facts gives way to an immersive experience. In his “Notes on Writing Weird Fiction,” H.P. Lovecraft attaches enormous importance to the question of atmosphere, stating that:
Atmosphere, not action, is the great desideratum* of weird fiction. Indeed, all that a wonder story can ever be is a vivid picture of a certain type of human mood. The moment it tries to be anything else it becomes cheap, puerile, and unconvincing. Prime emphasis should be given to subtle suggestion—imperceptible hints and touches of selective associative detail which express shadings of moods and build up a vague illusion of the strange reality of the unreal. Avoid bald catalogues of incredible happenings which can have no substance or meaning apart from a sustaining cloud of colour and symbolism.
In other words: show, don’t tell.
For me, the question of whether or not an author is establishing the proper atmosphere comes down to what he or she chooses to describe in that moment to “set the scene” in a way that’s the most detail-light and emotion-heavy. A few relevant details: not everything.
Don’t forget that reading is also a creative act. Allow your readers some space for themselves in there. Trust them to fill in a mental image, to act as set decorator to your production designer. You set the tone, the color pallet, the atmosphere; they put the family photos on the mantel, push an easy chair up against the wall, and decide if the coffee table is oak or maple. Try to drill down to what quickly but viscerally communicates not just the facts about the place but the feeling of being there.
The great Raymond Chandler started his short story “Red Wind” by establishing not just the setting, but how it makes our first person narrator, Philip Marlowe, feel:
There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.
Beats the shit out of “It was windy,” doesn’t it? This is not about meteorology, it’s about people, and right away we get the feeling it’s not going to be about happy people doing happy things. Oh, and it’s probably California, but that matters least of all.
In Joe M. McDermott’s soon-to-be-released science fiction novel The Fortress at the End of Time he cements the feeling of life on a space station by focusing not on the details of the place itself—the architecture and interior design—but the way the space fails to match with the idiom:
She gestured to the door ahead, nondescript and unmarked. “You will learn the way around soon. Here is the admiral’s office. Good day, Ensign.”
Day, she had said, as if there were such a thing here. We were not meant for starships and stations. Even the ghosts of language long for the summer sun.
Okay then, so how do you actually apply this to your own writing? How do you focus your thinking away from reporting to your readers on details and onto immersing them in atmosphere? Kirsty Logan offered some very good advice in her article “Five Things: Creating an Atmosphere in Your Writing”:
If you write to music, make sure it fits the tone of your story. Perhaps pin some relevant pictures to your desk, or change your desktop background to an image that creates the right feel. If it’s possible to choose your physical surroundings—for example, to walk on a deserted beach as you write about isolation, or wander in a museum as you write a historical story—then do take a day or even your lunch hour to do this. You’ll only be able to create a strong atmosphere for your reader if you can feel it yourself.
It isn’t always possible to have control of our listening or viewing material when we have to consider the choices of our family, friends or workmates, but even small things can help.
I have done all of these things, especially picking just the right TV show or movie to play in the background while I’m writing. I’ve written jungle pulp stories with Tarzan movies playing in the background, horror with horror movies on, and so on. And music—for sure. I often work, as I am just now as I’m writing this, with my iTunes library on shuffle. But if the “wrong” song comes on I skip it. If I’m writing fiction, it’s never on shuffle.
However you engineer it, the point is to create and/or maintain narrative or dramatic tension—some feeling that things are happening, might happen, will happen, hopefully won’t happen . . . all reasons to keep reading.
* Only Lovecraft would pull out this rare jewel of a word, meaning “something that is needed or wanted,” in an article about making your writing more approachable!