Atmosphere in Writing

Writing a story is akin to an abstract painting in a number of ways. You are, indeed, directly telling others what is happening…but you are also communicating how it feels to be there.

Take a look at this lovely Monet.

It is a depiction of a seaside cliff, yes, but it also tells you how it feels to there. The sun, the wind, and the smell of the sea are there, somehow. It’s not a picture merely regurgitating what the artist sees- it is telling you of an experience.

Storytelling should do likewise. We call it atmosphere and it is mercilessly hard to define but you notice right away when a book doesn’t have it.

A book without atmosphere is like listening to someone you don’t really know tell you a story you don’t care about over lunch on Friday at work. It has no flavor, no feel. It’s just words.

An example, upon that cliff of Monet’s:

I stood upon the cliff and stared at the blue sea and the ships. Even in the sunshine, it was cold because of the ocean wind. I was tired of waiting and my patience was short.

I heard the footsteps and turned to see him coming up the old trail.

That was remarkably…Hemingway…anyway, my personal opinions on the writing quality of the literary cannon aside, you’ll notice it is very flat. It is what happened. The emotional beats are more tell than show and frankly they don’t tell much. You know what’s happening and why, but it doesn’t draw you in. It’s just words.

A more atmospheric version:

I stood upon the cliff, watching the blue sea and the distant ships. The salty wind was biting even in the afternoon sun. I shifted my weight from foot to foot, twitchy with impatience.

The stunning vista didn’t really register as it should, that day. I hate waiting.

Lucky me, as just then I heard the crunch of footsteps. I turned and saw him finally making his way up the rugged trail.

Higher word count and more adjectives and more than that. Something is clearly up and there’s quite a bit of tension. There’s a more punchy feel of the physical place, but also a clear understanding not just of the narrator’s emotional state but also hints of his character. Not only is he impatient, he’s also inclined to physically express emotions (which says more about him than just that) and he’s on the sarcastic side. He values the beauty of the world, though it cannot override his emotions. You can see how these elements help build up the idea of who your characters are, preventing them from being flat and making them more real.

Atmosphere is not “it was foggy out”, it’s the feeling of being in the fog. Ominous? Delightful? Weird? Serene? That would depend on the emotional state you want to communicate, which would of course depend on the situation.

The fog heralding the arrival of Cthulhu will feel different, in writing, than the fog rolling into a seaside vacation town. Of course, that could be a ruse…Cthulhu might be coming to the seaside vacation town, or the point-of-view character could be over-imaginative and foolishly tried to go to sleep by reading horror stories and it’s just quaintly foggy. The point is that there’s an emotional element to a situation and bringing that in makes a scene more interesting and engaging.

A word of warning: Impressionism isn’t like bad modern art. There’s still a cliff in that Monet picture. It’s not just a mess of feelings. Rare is the writer who can just emote and be engaging. Tell a story that is interesting even in its outlined form. Good writing balances everything, like good art and good food.

Atmosphere is a good way to manage your “and time passed” sections, i.e. waiting or travel. These are difficult and dull to write. They aren’t what you want to be doing. But they’re necessary for both plot and pacing. Spice them up with atmosphere and it will help build the world and characters you’re writing to seem more real to readers.

Published by kathrynzurmehly

I am, among many other things, an Army vet and a freelance writer.

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