Last week we looked at creating suspense and expectation.
This week we’ll look at atmosphere and how it works in relation to suspense in order to keep the reader on the edge of their seats.
Firstly, atmosphere often refers to the mood and feeling that is created within the story. Sometimes it is subtle, sometimes it’s obvious. But relaying it successfully depends entirely how well the writer conveys it. If done well, the writer will have created an emotional response from the reader.
Without a reader’s emotional connection with characters, the ability to capture atmosphere will be lost.
But what actually creates atmosphere?
Several elements help the writer create a sense of atmosphere – description and imagery, senses and the setting. Used separately they are interesting elements, but used together they have the power to drag the reader right into the heart of the story.
Description and Imagery
Description helps the reader understand what is happening within the story; it gives them more than just a flat landscape to walk through. They rely on descriptions to imagine the characters and the places and the action. Even small, descriptive details help create atmosphere.
But description is nothing without powerful imagery to enhance it.
Imagery refers to the sensory details given by the writer – it is the catalyst to creating mood and emotions, and ultimately, a sense of atmosphere.
For instance, a dark house in the middle of the forest already creates a sense of mood. The clever use of description enhances that mood – things like shadows, low cloud, the intense darkness, moisture in the air, earthy, musty scents. For example:
Rust tinted clouds gathered across the forest, full with rain. Behind the grimy windows of the old farmhouse, the shadows of the past skulked without purpose, forever silenced, except for the wind rasping through the its empty hallways...
The description in this example, inlaid with imagery, creates a sense of foreboding and unease. These feelings and emotions, and the imagery, creates atmosphere because it is manipulating how the reader will feel.
If it was written with different description and imagery, it would create an entirely different atmosphere, for example:
Marshmallow clouds drifted across an azure sky, and reflected the sunlight across wide open fields. Behind the pristine windows of the farmhouse, children chased each other from room to room, filling the air with voices of delight.
You can see how the mood is different and the atmosphere is one of light and playfulness. The right choice of words creates evokes entirely different feelings for the reader.
You don’t have to over describe, but think carefully how your descriptions build upon and maintain the atmosphere.
In addition to description, writers use the senses to enrich the description and overall mood, which they do not just through description, but more importantly, through their characters, because this creates a sense of immediacy.
What can the character see? What can they smell? Can they taste anything on their tongue – the salty hint of sea air maybe? What can they hear? A soft breeze on a summer’s day, or the low growl of a storm?
What if they reached out and touched something? What would that something feel like? Is it soft and wonderful or is it vile and sticky?
These elements can help the reader imagine these senses, and again the choice of words and the anticipation creates atmosphere.
In my previous example I used an old abandoned farmhouse surrounded by a forest. This is the setting. By the virtue of it being abandoned to shadows, it already creates atmosphere and the reader will immediately pick up on the eeriness and the seclusion and the trepidation.
The setting that you create can evoke something warm and fuzzy, or it can be creepy and scary. It could be something nice taking place in the daytime, or it might be something terrible about to happen during night time.
Weather conditions can form part of your setting, so you could have a scene with the sun and the heat, or you might want a thunderstorm and the coolness of the rain. Each one conjures different connotations.
Whatever you create, they all form part of the overall atmosphere and has to create a strong response with the reader.
Consider the imagery certain words can create, think about the emotional responses you could generate with the right choice of words, whether they are positive reactions or negative ones.
When you mix together the right description, the right imagery, the setting, and you involve the senses, you can create atmosphere, mood, tension, anticipation, trepidation…the list is endless. And all these keep your reader on the edge of their seats.
Next week: The difference between exposition and narrative.