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.