People may not remember what you did, or what you said, but they will always remember how you made them feel – and the same can be true of novels. Readers may not recall the plot details, or even some of the characters, but they rarely forget how a book made them feel. Part of our emotional response comes from plot and character of course, but writers shouldn’t underestimate the importance of atmosphere. Stories with a strong mood and setting are often the ones that linger in our mind long after the final page has been turned.
So how do you create atmosphere in a story? Here are a few tips to try:
Choose your setting carefully
The setting you choose will have a big influence on atmosphere. Think about the weather and climate of a place, as well as the scenery. I set my ghost story in the Lofoten Islands in winter, when there’s only a few hours of light each day. The near-permanent darkness and remote location – an isolated cabin in the snow, helps to create a sense of claustrophobia.
Don’t just choose a place because you know it well. Challenge yourself to come up with five alternative settings: what sort of mood does each one evoke? How does that resonate with the character arcs and the type of story you’re writing? Setting is more than just backdrop. It can also convey meaning and carry theme.
Try switching the setting of a scene to see how it changes its mood. If you’re writing about a marriage breakdown, take your unhappy couple out of the kitchen. Maybe they’re arguing in the street and find themselves caught up in a crowd of demonstrators. How would people chanting and waving placards and the smell of sweaty bodies change the dynamic?
Or maybe your couple are walking along the edge of a cliff. The lonely cry of a seagull, the harsh spit of the wind, a bent and broken tree… a barren landscape will make a very different statement about the state of their marriage.
Put yourself there
When you’ve chosen a setting, close your eyes and imagine yourself there. What can you see, hear, smell, taste and feel? Make sure to use all of your senses.
Once you’ve written a description, read it aloud – have you used words that are striking or bland? ‘The woman walked down the corridor,’ is different to, ‘the woman’s stilettos click-clacked on the hard tiled floor.’ Stilettos, click-clack and hard all have a sense of harshness – giving a different feel to the scene and the woman’s character.
Use imagery to signal mood
You don’t have to set a scene in a dark alleyway to create a sense of tension. Picking out a visual detail to contrast with the main setting can be a short-cut to how a character is feeling, as well as a way to build atmosphere.
Perhaps your couple are walking down the road in the sunshine. He wants to start a family, but she’s focused on her career. When she tells him she’s taking a promotion, his mood changes instantly. Take a moment to consider how he’s really feeling. Abandoned, disappointed, broken…. and then find a subtle way to convey that.
He might glance down and notice a child’s discarded shoe in the gutter, or perhaps he sees a broken umbrella, its metal spokes like a broken spine. Seeing it reminds him of when they first got together and kissed in the rain.
Readers like to do some work and draw their own conclusions. They will remember the happy umbrella scene from chapter one – you don’t have to remind them. Conveying mood through subtle imagery is more satisfying than being told, ‘his shoulders slumped with disappointment,’ or describing dark clouds on the horizon. If you can reveal a character’s state of mind while also conveying atmosphere, it will add richness to your writing.
It can help to read books and watch movies in the same genre as you’re writing. Not to steal plot points or characters details, but to immerse yourself in their atmosphere.
When I’m working on a creepy scene, I will write surrounded by flickering candles and with a horror soundtrack playing. I also have a pin board in my office with inspirational images, as well as Pinterest boards [See my board for The Twisted Tree here], where I collect images that I find particularly evocative.
The more vivid a setting and mood feels for you, the easier it will be to convey to the reader.
(c) Rachel Burge
About The Twisted Tree: