This week was Quills & Quibbles Writers Group at Harrison County Public Library. Aside from reading and critiquing each other’s work, each month we typically have a “Style Segment” which focuses on some specific aspect of the writer’s craft. This month, we had a spirited discussion on building atmosphere in fiction. It was too good a topic, and too good a conversation, to keep to just the people who were in attendance.
And we had a great group in attendance, including Marian Allen, Michael Williams, and Carol Preflatish–all published authors. So let’s do a quick recap, while all this good stuff is still fresh in my mind. As much as I’d love to attribute all the ideas to their appropriate sources, I’ll be honest–I didn’t take detailed notes, my memory isn’t terrific, and a bunch of us went to Point Blank Brewery for beers after, which didn’t help my retention any.
If anybody wants to claim their particular contributions, feel free in the comments.
So what is atmosphere? A set of emotional and imaginative associations with a place or situation. Atmosphere isn’t setting, or theme, or genre. It’s a stylistic aspect which creates a particular mood for the reader.
How do you create atmosphere? First, you have to decide what kind of atmosphere you want to create. Or alternatively, you could let atmosphere emerge from the characters, depending on whether you’re more of a plotter or a pantser.
Whether you decide on an atmosphere or let your characters guide you, character voice and perspective can be used to create atmosphere. The character acts as a lens through which the reader views the setting. Their voice, emotional state, personal background and associations color the setting, helping to create atmosphere.
Another tool for creating atmosphere is word choice in narrative passages, when you’re not filtering through a particular character. Some words have the same essential meaning, but convey very different moods, time periods, societal classes or connotations. The narrative voice can help to set the atmosphere, just like a character voice can.
What is the relationship between atmosphere and genre? Noir, horror, romance and suspense aren’t atmospheres, they’re genres with their own specific, prescribed atmosphere. Atmosphere happens at the scene level. Genre happens at the book level.
What is the relationship between atmosphere and plot? Atmosphere can sometimes be used as a form of narrative misdirection, to cover weak areas in plot. The reader becomes so absorbed in the emotional flavor of the writing, that it compensates for a plot which is either too predictable or too unbelievable if taken at face value.
Well-executed atmosphere can aid with suspension of disbelief, creating a mindset for the reader that “it’s that kind of story, where that could happen” even if some aspects of the plot don’t make logical sense. Examples of atmosphere bolstering, or almost replacing, plot include The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern or many of the films of M. Night Shymalan.
Some writers are known for their mastery of atmosphere, and their ability to create a distinct and powerful mood in their work. Salem’s Lot by Stephen King and Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury were noted as excellent examples.
While some genres or books may have a lighthearted or comedic atmosphere, it still requires connecting emotionally to the reader and making the setting or situation seem real, authentic and present.
It was a lively, thought-provoking conversation. I’m sure I’ve left out as much as I’ve captured, but that’s what happens when you set aside your notes and indulge in a Monster Ale before writing everything down.
Aside from learning about creating atmosphere, Quills & Quibbles always provides encouragement and inspiration for me. If you haven’t found a good writers group, I highly recommend it. It may take a few tries to find a group you click with, but it’s well worth it.
Any great adventure, including your writing journey, is best attempted in the company of like-minded companions.