Writers approach reading differently from other people. They dissect the writing, eager to understand how the author has created an enthralling plot, a cast of sympathetic and believable characters and a strong sense of atmosphere.
By atmosphere, I’m not talking about ghostly happenings or unexplained creepiness, though these also have their place. I’m talking about creating a mood to draw your readers in, build expectations and provide important information about your characters. By using sensory detail to bring scenes alive your readers will see the world through the eyes of the characters. Encouraged to experience the story at first hand, they will inhabit this imaginary world, be part of the characters’ lives, sharing their pleasures and disappointments.
There are several ways to convey a sense of atmosphere and make sure your readers feel they are right there alongside the characters, experiencing the story for themselves:
The passage of time can be used to create tension, reflect impatience or melancholy, or generate excitement depending on the speed with which it passes. Minutes can drag, months flash by, years grind to a halt. The seasons follow a natural rhythm, giving you markers you can use to your advantage – the lengthening days of spring, the darkness of winter afternoons, the warmth of summer rain.
The time of day can have a direct impact on the story and make a difference to the atmosphere. A scene set in daylight might be innocent but the same set of circumstances can seem very different if they take place at night.
Setting plays a big part in creating an atmosphere. Where you set your story or even individual scenes will help build the atmosphere, so choose a place that fits the mood you want to convey. A crowded elevator might evoke claustrophobia; a log cabin on the edge of a lake could conjure up a sense of loneliness.
The elements can reflect mood, but moods can also be dependent on the weather. Warm spring weather could convey happiness and a feeling of renewal but a threatening storm could build tension as the storm clouds roll in. An unexpected rainstorm might ruin some arrangements; it might provide a relief from a dreaded appointment, or an escape route from a duty. Snow could cut your characters off from civilisation, allowing you to explore and develop their personalities as they struggle without the usual amenities.
Sight and sound are often used to bring stories to life, but don’t forget the other three senses: taste, smell and touch. Smell, in particular, can evoke the past, a loved one, a hated place. The scent of hops and the tang of woodsmoke can conjure up the interior of an old inn, but add the feel of the sticky carpet underfoot and the odour of old beer, and you have a different establishment entirely.
Point of View
Telling a story in the first person can be very useful in creating an atmosphere as it gives you the opportunity to involve the reader directly. By letting them experience everything first hand, alongside the character, they can really share the pleasure, terror or whatever state you have conjured up for them.
You can’t create atmosphere without description, but it’s easy to get carried away. Big chunks of unrelieved text will put readers off and they’ll skip to the next interesting bit, so you should use description sparingly. A smattering of well-chosen, appropriate adjectives can create a visual setting and a dramatic sense of place. How your characters react to their surroundings is what creates the atmosphere; this is what you should be showing and not telling.
You want your readers to be involved in your story, to walk beside your characters as they live their fictional lives. Use these suggestions to help convey atmosphere in your story and keep your readers enthralled from start to the finish.