Atmosphere, by definition, is the pervading tone or mood of a place, situation, or work of art, and it includes so many different things when it comes to storytelling. Setting, character development, plot movement, reader senses—you see where I’m going with this. We use atmosphere as a motivator or a catalyst, as a way to build tension or set the stage for scene shifts. Some authors even use atmosphere as the seed that builds their entire book. If you were to sit down with your favorite horror author they’d probably have a lot to say about the use of atmosphere in their novels. That’s why most of us think of atmospheric dread when we try to dissect what atmosphere means to us as creators. But what about atmospheric tension? Or atmospheric magic? What about atmospheric romance? These are all things that exist and can be used in tandem with plot and setting development to move your story forward.
How, though? Atmosphere is such a big thing, right? But if you break it into three different sections, you can focus on how you’re using it to influence certain aspects of your book. My favorite three are: Character, Pacing, and Setting.
What does your character want? What are they chasing or running from? And how do you want your reader to experience their conflict? Injecting emotion into the world around your character can and will influence how you write them. Make sure your character is in the right place at the right time. Use the setting, which is also influenced by the overall tone you’ve set with your atmosphere, to build tension. This doesn’t always mean a sudden weather change (but it can!) and it doesn’t always mean there’s unexplained noises floating around your protagonist (again, it can!). However, it does mean you should choose your words wisely. How you describe a forest at night can mean something to one person, and something entirely different to someone else. How a person reacts to what’s going on around them during a conversation at a bakery can change the way your reader perceives them. Are they distracted? Give them distractions! But remember that those distractions will set the mood for the scene. Does your character notice an argument? Or do they see someone trip on the sidewalk? Giving them a reason to internally and subtly react to the atmosphere around them can and will give your reader a deeper connection with your character.
How fast or slow do you want your story to unravel? And which scenes should be faster or slower than others? Let’s use a fight scene as an example. When you’re fleshing out a scene where your character/characters are engaging in a fight, how do you want that fight to feel? Should it be fast paced? Do you want to focus on the emotional blowback? Do you want a healthy balance of both? Engaging with atmosphere can help you move your characters through a scene at the speed you want. Going back to what I mentioned for Character, give your protagonist something to:
- Focus on
- React to
These can be three completely different things. How you use them will determine the speed of your scene. What is your character focusing on? Is it an enemy? If so, are they locked in on that enemy with nerves of steel? What would they notice if they were? And how would they react to what’s going on around them—is it a large battle (fast!) or is this a personal one-on-one fight (slow it down!). Make sure you’re linking the focal point of the scene to the tone you’ve set, and try to make the background noise your character notices something that will expand your scene (make it feel big!) or narrow the reader’s attention to a specific feeling (revenge! fear! anguish!). Your character’s reactions are the most vital use of atmosphere. It allows you to flesh out how they’re feeling in regards to the situation at hand and what’s going on around them.
Have you ever heard someone say the setting felt like a character? I have. I’ve said it many times myself and I’ve been lucky enough to have readers give my books the same compliment. But… what does it even mean? How can a setting—a place, a building, a city, a beach—feel like a character? Atmosphere. I’ve heard from several writers that a descriptive voice can help a setting come to life, but truthfully, I think it depends on how you use your descriptive voice. Building a setting isn’t always about visibility. Sometimes, most of the time, your setting has its own agenda. Think about it this way: If you’re building a scene in a dense forest, how do you want your characters and the reader to react? What words would you use to describe your setting? To build the tension and atmosphere around a certain scene? Are your trees oozing sap or are they dripping sap? Those two words will get two very different reactions. How would you describe the lighting? How does your setting make your character feel and why, exactly, does it make them feel that way? Using different descriptors and scene framing to draw out certain emotions will work to build a believable atmosphere that works in your favor.
Taylor Brooke Barton (they/she) writes Queer books filled with magic and attitude. After an exciting career in Special Effects Makeup, she moved to Oregon and settled in the mountains with her plants and one-toothed cat. Her New Adult catalog (FORTITUDE SMASHED, OMEN OPERATION, SHADOWS YOU LEFT) is available anywhere books are sold. Look for her Young Adult debut THE NINTH LIFE coming from Inkyard Press in fall 2020. Twitter & Instagram @taysalion.
New Adult as Taylor Brooke: https://www.taylorbrookewrites.org/new-adult/
Young Adult as Taylor B. Barton: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/45992870-the-ninth-life