I thought today I’d take a quick look at how setting description can transcend to convey atmosphere through the deft manipulation of the five senses.
First off, what is Atmosphere?
Atmosphere is the mood created through the deliberate description of setting. Depending on the emotion you wish to evoke in your reader during a scene, the description can be slanted to reinforce what you want to project.
Let’s say your scene involves a character exploring an abandoned school for clues of criminal activity to solve a mystery. The description you show regarding the school should affect what emotion your audience feels as they read.
If you’re trying to create an atmosphere for tension and fear, showing your character draw a line in the dust over a heart with MB + TW Forever carved on one of the desks or noting how the chalk and erasers lined up at the board look like they’re waiting to be picked up isn’t the way to achieve it. Instead your reader will feel melancholy and sadness that this school once so full of potential has now become obsolete.
But what if the encounter happened at night? Watery moonlight would filter through the smeared windows, blurring the edges of the desks. Shadows would sprawl out from the corners and curl through the room, and the stillness would be broken by ominous creaking. The protest of an abandoned building, or perhaps something else?
This type of description is closer to creating the right atmosphere for tension and fear.
Tips on creating atmosphere
1) Never forget the sense of hearing
Sounds trigger memories, so if you choose a sound to describe your setting that has obvious context (like a creaky old building) the reader will immediately recognize it and internalize it into a personal sensory image.
2) Use visual clues to lead the reader toward what is coming
Think The Sixth Sense here. (Spoiler Alert!) There were many clues that pointed to the fact that Dr. Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) was actually dead (the color red being present only when the dead were featured; how all of his clothing were combinations of what he wore the day he was shot; how no one spoke to him or seemed to notice his presence but the boy Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment) etc). Each of these were clues leading to the truth and the ultimate revelation of his death. Similarly in writing, what you choose to describe in the setting should also harmonize with what the scene is about, and lead the reader toward recognition and empathy of the characters’ emotions.
3) Lighting is important
We need to look no further than the film industry to know how lighting can create atmosphere. How many love stories take place in well-lit rooms, on a sun-drenched beach or a warm, sunny park? Alternatively, how many horror films take place on dark and stormy nights when the power mysteriously goes out, leaving everyone fumbling in the darkness?
A simple shadow falling across a person’s face can change the way they look dramatically, and the same can be done in your scene. Make the lighting work for you.
4) The sense of smell is evocative
A path in the forest reeking of mouldering leaves and rotting dead fall creates a different mental picture than one filled with the scent of sweet wildflowers and sharp pine needles.
5) Chose each word with intent
The language choices you make will greatly affect atmosphere. Pick words that deliberately convey the meaning you’re going for. Strong verbs, nouns and modifiers mean you can say more using less words.
The mood and atmosphere you create should enhance what your characters are experiencing in any given scene, drawing the reader more tightly into the story. Vivid, tactile description plant the reader into the setting and leave them sympathetic to the plight of your characters.
What do you take into consideration when creating a mood or atmosphere? If you’d like a bit more help in this area, check into our new Setting Thesaurus books. They may just change the game for you when it comes to mastering description.
In this 2 volume set, we explore 225 different locations in Urban and Rural environments, supplying the sights, smells, tastes, textures, and sounds for each. Each entry also explores possible people and conflict options tied to that setting, so you can amp up the intensity for each scene, and choose the perfect place for your action to unfold so it heightens your protagonist’s emotions. If you’d like to see a few examples, try these hidden entries: Antiques Shop, House Party, Police Car & Ancient Ruins.
Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling.
Stephanie Carroll says
Great post on enhancing atmosphere in your fiction. Love The Emotion Thesaurus! Use it all the time. Can’t wait to check out the new setting editions!
ANGELA ACKERMAN says
So very glad you found this post helpful, Stephanie! Good luck with your WIP! 🙂
Glad to be of service!
Creative A says
Nice. I really like the examples you use; they sort of put the stuff I think into a form I can see. I really cements the concept for me.
Christy–Thanks! I was a bit unsure about including the 6th sense, because there is a lot of controversy regarding it. I’ve read that some editors are turned off by intuitive connections to description, feeling it’s a ‘cop out’ for telling info that you can’t show through the other 5 senses.
Personally, I think the sixth sense can be used affectively, as long as it’s done right (with atmostphere and other observable details backing up the intuitive slant) and is used sparingly.
C.R. Evers says
Can your blog get any more informative? Wow! This is great info to remember.
I love how you used the sixth sense and an example!
Death to Cliches! I too try to not go with the first thing that pops in my head. I may have an instant image of what to do to get the effect I’m going for, but the strong language always takes me time to get just right.
Thanks. I personally think you should have written this post, because you write atmosphere so well.
WW–Smells are sooo important. It is one of the senses that we instantly recognize, yet we often forget to include.
I’m so glad you’re finding this useful!
You have uncovered my secret weakness…I can be verbose. I think this is one reason why I have to take care in writing and keep my descriptions short and tight. I often skim when I read description or narrative that goes on too long in books, and so I’m ultra-aware that I need to take care not to do the same thing to my readers as well.
If these are your ‘quick’ looks, I can only imagine your long ones! Man, I feel like a broken record saying how awesome you guys are, but it’s your fault for being so awesome. 😉
What do you take into consideration when creating a mood or atmosphere?
For me, personally–“Do it in as few words as possible.” I’m that type of writer, so. It’s always at the front of my head.
Mary Witzl says
This is all so useful. It’s like getting a mini-degree in literature just by blogging.
In all honesty, I’m just picking these things up as I go along. One of the first comments another writer made on my work when I first joined a proper writing group was that I didn’t put in enough smells. In fact, I think about smells all the time and don’t know why I was so stingy with them in my writing. Sensations — sound, smell, touch — all add so much to writing. Initially, my writing was filled with visual references, but few other senses.
I loved your description of the abandoned school.
great post. I have to remind myself to use the sense of SMELL when creating atmosphere. I try to use the characters to convey as much as I can.
As usual…nicely done!
Great post, Angela. You covered it already, but what I usually focus on is the emotion I want to convey–either what the character’s feeling or what I want the reader to feel.
PJ Hoover says
Man, I love your blog.
I also try to avoid cliches in description (and characters for that matter). Use the five senses, but I try to not go with the first thing that pops in my mind, instead forcing myself to think deeper for a second or a third.
Thanks for the great post!