These lessons, by one of our most consistent FaithWriters' Challenge Champions, should not be missed. So we're making a permanent home for them here.
The word “atmosphere,” applied to literature, isn’t particularly easy to define. As I was researching this lesson, I found one website that defined “atmosphere” almost entirely in terms of the characters’ thoughts and narrative, another one that equated “atmosphere” with “mood,” and still another that used descriptions of the setting as examples of “atmosphere.” None of those were exactly what I was thinking of, so I’ll write a definition of my own for the purposes of this lesson:
The atmosphere in a work of fiction is the prevailing mood that develops in the reader as a combination of the setting, the characters’ narratives, and the writer’s word choices. Think of it as an adjective that might go in this blank: This story (or novel, or even poem) has a _______________ feel.
Why is the atmosphere of a story important? Well, as writers, we want our readers to “get it,” to feel whatever it is that our story is trying to make them feel. But if there’s a dissonance between the atmosphere of the story and the emotion(s) that it is intended to produce, then there’s something amiss with the writing. I’ve read many challenge pieces that had lighthearted messages, but used dull or weighty words. More commonly, I’ve read pieces that intended to portray something serious, but the words lacked substance and the atmosphere was too light.
Here’s an example of how atmosphere can be significant: I’ve written two paragraphs below. Both feature the same setting (a large house, contemporary time period) and the same character (a well-to-do new mother), even the same situation. Read the paragraphs, then we’ll talk about atmosphere.
Kimberly placed the infant in its crib and walked downstairs to the kitchen, trailing a languid hand along the mahogany banister. She selected a teacup and stared at it for a moment, irritated that Carlita was not there to prepare the tea. She could hear a faint humming in a distant room; Carlita was probably vacuuming. Setting the cup on the marble countertop, Kimberly ran a hand over her rounded belly, shuddering in disgust. She glanced at the stairway leading to the nursery and made a small, impatient sound. Two weeks already; the baby weight should be gone.
Kimberly laid little Mason in his cradle and took off for the kitchen, stopping after several steps. Was Mason crying? She hustled back and peered into his room, listening. A few little peeps only; Mason was still asleep. Kimberly hurried now. The kitchen was too far away. Once there, she threw open the cupboards, looking for anything quick and filling. She could hear Carlita vacuuming in the library, and her heart thumped: I can’t hear him. I should have grabbed the monitor. In the bread drawer, she found some rolls, their doughy softness reminding her with a smile of her post-Mason belly.
For your homework, I’ll be asking you some questions about these paragraphs. For now, I’ll just suggest that you compare them and take some mental notes.
Back to my definition, which had three parts: setting, character’s narratives, and word choices. Let’s take each of those in a bit more detail.
Setting—The setting of a story includes both place and time. When you’re creating an atmosphere, you want to describe both of those with words that convey the correct mood. This is not to say that you must open with a descriptive, adjective-heavy paragraph, but certainly there will be opportunities to use well-chosen words to convey mystery, romance, chaos, amusement. Use the thesaurus feature of your word processor, or an online thesaurus, or even an actual thesaurus to find just the right word. Mark Twain said, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—’tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.” So if you’re looking for a word that means dark, you’ll want to pick the one that best creates the atmosphere you’re looking for. Was that room shadowy, velvety, dim, or gray?
Characters’ Narratives—For this part of atmosphere, you can use your characters’ words, their thoughts, and their actions, in addition to their descriptions. Again, choose your words and phrases purposefully. Did that character snicker, giggle, guffaw, or titter? As with the setting, you do not need to write lengthy descriptive sentences about your characters—rather, you should thoughtfully choose words that suggest your desired atmosphere.
Word choices—When I’m editing, one of the most frequent comments I make in the margins of the MSs is “awkward word choice.” The writer has meant one thing, but has chosen a word that has an entirely different connotation, contrary to the intended atmosphere. If this is something that is tricky for you, you might want to find a website or a book that helps to build vocabulary skills.
In addition to what I’ve said above about choosing words wisely, I’d add this: in my opinion, adjectives and adverbs are overused. I would never say that you should get rid of all of them—but there are many cases in which a particularly apt noun or verb works better than an adjective/noun or adverb/verb combination. Finally, even the types of sentences you use can add to the atmosphere you’re creating. Short, quick sentences may suggest something action-packed (running away, perhaps?). Long, complex sentences might suggest something more leisurely.
In summary: decide what atmosphere you want to create in your readers’ heads. Choose settings, characters, and words that are appropriate for that atmosphere.
1. With the three points of this lesson in mind, tell what you observe about the two paragraphs I gave as examples within this lesson. How did I convey different atmospheres in two very similar situations?
2. If you’re feeling really brave, write a paragraph of your own, with a desired atmosphere in mind. No more than 150 words, please, but I’ll gladly discuss your paragraph with you.
3. Make a comment or ask a question about anything in this lesson. I love it when participants add something that I've overlooked, as happens quite frequently. Don't be shy; I don't mind at all.
Next week, I’ll cover the third criterion on the judges’ rating sheet: How well crafted was this entry--overall crafting of the writing, including grammar and predictability? And I’m thinking that I might run a little contest, to try to get some more participants. If you’re on Facebook and you’d rather see these lessons there, “like” Faithwriters Writing Lessons.
Homework Assignment #1:
From the first paragraph I get the feeling that Kimberly does not really want her baby. She seems more concerned about her own comfort and about losing her baby weight than about the welfare of her baby. The baby is not identified by name or gender---suggesting that Kimberly feels detached from him. I also get the feeling that she might be a difficult person to work for--she appears to expect Carlita to be in two places at once.
"trailing a languid hand" Implies that she is more self involved than involved with her baby
"irritated" Conveys her attitude towards Carlita
"shuddering in disgust" and "small impatient sound" Convey her attitude towards her baby weight.
In the second paragraph Kimberly comes across as being very concerned for her baby---overanxious even. She seems very much involved with her baby---he is identified as a boy and she thinks of him by name four times. Kimberly seems almost proud of her baby weight. However she is so involved in her baby that she seems not to be concerned about healthful eating for herself. Her attitude towards Carlita seems neutral; I don't detect any criticism of her as I did in the first paragraph.
"little Mason" and "Was Mason crying?" convey her involvement with her son
"hustled back" and "hurried now" "her heart thumped" and "grabbed the monitor" Convey her worries about Mason's safety.
"anything quick and filling" and "found some rolls" Convey her lack of attention to her diet.
"doughy softness" and "with a smile" and "post-Mason belly" Convey her pride in her son and in having given birth to him.
Thanks, Cinnamon Bear! As always, people see things in my writing that I didn't intentionally put there, and that's always fun to read.
Now--care to take it a step further and write a paragraph of your own, depicting an atmosphere of your choice?
Okay, I'll give it a try.
It's February 1938. A first year student nurse has just completed her six months probationary period and is about to learn whether or not she will be accepted as a full fledged student nurse:
[How agonizing to sit through chemistry class. The gray dreary day threatened snow, serving to further dampen Violet’s flagging spirits. Her mouth felt like sandpaper. She had eaten nothing all day, yet her insides churned.
At four o’clock most of the girls raced back to the nurses' residence. Feeling loath to brave the crunch, she took her time meandering along the recently shoveled walkways. The trees with their ghostly bare black branches silhouetted against the white sky, seemed to portend impending doom.
Far too soon she was at the entrance of the residence. Once in the mailroom she reached into her box and with trembling fingers, took out the stiff, expensive envelope.
Avoiding eye contact with the other students, she hurried down the hall.
She made her way up the two flights of stairs, entered her room, and closed the door.]
I started guessing at the rest of the book's plot just from reading the samples.
In the first sample the atmosphere seemed stiff, snobbish, cold. I saw Kimberly as a woman born into wealth and raised with the expectation that the world was hers to command. She had a baby only because her aging husband wanted an heir for their fortune. The atmosphere sets up a likely conflict for a book... she grows to hate the child because he will obviously get a huge part of the fortune that she feels should be hers. Carlita, though, becomes like a mother to the child, teaching moral and ethical values that Kimberly never learned. The child is in danger of a terribly abusive upbringing. I look forward to the book.
The other paragraph pointed to a totally different book. Kimberly is hyper with good cause. She was raised in poverty but married into wealth because of her beauty and charm. She knows she is out of place in her station as a billionaire's wife and she has become overly fearful of falling short of his expectations. Although she truly loves him she knows the love is not mutual. She feels that the only real love that has come to her was from the birth of Mason. He was her entire world now. If she can show her husband that she is a good mother then perhaps he will not grow tired of her. Even if he did cast her aside for a younger, more refined woman she knew one thing for sure... Mason was HER son, not some other woman's. She would fight the world to keep him.
I know this was more than the atmosphere assignment called for but a well written piece lights the fuse on imagination to the point that, even if the book didn't follow what I saw, it would keep lighting the fuses all along the venture.
That is what I see as the importance of atmosphere... it is a fuse lighter.
Yes, Jan. Tension is just the mood I hoped to create. With a few more words I could show that Violet's tension is significantly greater than that of her fellow students. The reader would then be left to speculate why Violet, more than any of her classmates, fears failure.
Jay David, what a marvelous, creative mind you have--you imagined entire novels, based just on one paragraph!
Your metaphor of the fuse lighter is excellent--thanks so much.
Care to write one of your own--maybe try for an atmosphere different from your usual style?
Here is my attempt at writing for atmosphere.
Carson looked nervously around the courtroom, hoping beyond hope that he would see in somebody's eyes a glimmer of sympathy. He saw only contempt; they had judged him before the trial had even begun. The truth will set you free, he thought. If they believe the truth. He looked at a young girl on the front row of spectators but she quickly buried her head in her father's side, determined not to look into the eyes of such an "evil" man. Carson swallowed hard. She had been such a grand helper for him in his work as children's pastor. How could she think he was evil? Rumors; gossip; lies. He looked around the room again. Lord, he thought, only You know that I am innocent. Only You can show this courtroom the truth. He decided to stop looking around, determined only to look at his handcuffed wrists until the trial was over.
This is the third paragraph in the opening of The Mystic Realms of Shadow Fox. It details the night journey home of a monk named Brother Anthony of the Cross.
My path would be along the edge of the wide Angels’ Meadow that stretched between the River Road and the split-rail fences of the Abbey Farm. It was called the Angels’ Meadow by the first monks who pioneered this place. The legend had that in the moonlight those monks caught sight of angels coming down to dance in the moonlit meadow, and then, in the dawn, those angels would leave behind rings of white flowers, as if the meadow itself were reluctant to let the angels return home. Those early monks called the flowers Angel Lace, and the meadow they called, Angels’ Meadow. On this night of my tardy return to the Cloister, the only dancers in the meadow that I could see were the fireflies playing in the misty fog. And the fireflies were many on that night, that night when my world began to drift into other realms.
The setting of the first is cold wealth as described by the mahogony banister and marble counter, and also the hum of the vacuum in a distant room (indicating a vast mansion.)
In the second piece, the setting is a home.
The first paragraph shows that Kimberly is weary “trailing a languid hand,” selfish “irritated that Carlita wasn't there to prepare the tea,” and resentful about the baby weight.
In the second, Kimberly is anxious and joyful.
It was very interesting to look for the differences in the words you chose in each paragraph to set the mood. The first word in each pair is from the first paragraph.
I'll post a paragraph tomorrow. Thanks for another great lesson!
My FaithWriters profile: RachelM FW member profile
Jay David--Sorry that it took me a while to get back to this. I've had a little situation here at home, but all is now well, and I'm back. My favorite bit was in the last sentence, where Carson decided to stare at his handcuffed wrists--an excellent detail for showing Carson's emotions.
You might include a few more details of his surroundings or the people in the courtroom, to heighten the contempt and tension--someone with a sneer on his face, cold air blowing from one of the vents.
Thanks for being willing to post this here for a mini-critique!
Jim, this is lovely! Your last sentence has a poetic rhythm to it, and words like "moonlit" and "misty fog" and "drift" set a quiet and mysterious atmosphere. Beautifully done.
Rachel, I'm giving you a virtual gold star for your detailed comparison of the two paragraphs. Well done!
I look forward to reading your paragraph.
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