There’s no denying the importance of atmosphere, particularly in the opening chapters of a story. At the start of a novel, we really need to focus on drawing the reader in and setting the tone. But how can you establish atmosphere and stir up an emotional response your story will sustain? How can you cast a dark mood, a creepy mood, or even a lighthearted atmosphere without your use of literary devices being all too blatant?
In this article, Emylia Hall thinks about the best ways to create atmosphere in creative writing, whether you’re writing a novel or short story. If you want to avoid resorting to clichéd phrases like the infamous dark and stormy night or using hyperbolic mood words, read on for our guide to establishing atmosphere!
Establish atmosphere to trigger a memorable emotional response
In one of our online writing classes, suspense writer Kate Hamer explains that a childhood favourite of hers was Treasure Island. She remembered the arrival of Blind Pew being deeply affecting. You can see why:
So things passed until, the day after the funeral, and about three o’clock of a bitter, foggy, frosty afternoon, I was standing at the door for a moment, full of sad thoughts about my father, when I saw someone drawing slowly near along the road. He was plainly blind, for he tapped before him with a stick and wore a great green shade over his eyes and nose; and he was hunched, as if with age or weakness, and wore a huge old tattered sea-cloak with a hood that made him appear positively deformed.
— Robert Louis Stevenson, Treasure Island
When Jim Hawkins goes on to recall ‘I never saw in my life a more dreadful-looking figure’, we’re right there with him. The understated grief, the sea fog shrouding the village, the arrival of this strange man, all combine to create the story’s mood in that moment: unease and portent.
Distinct atmospheres stay with us
I read in bed every night, and at intervals throughout the day I’ll think of the book. It’s always the atmosphere of the novel that rises first in my consciousness; a sense of the world I’ll be stepping back into.
In literature, atmosphere must call to me. Otherwise, there’s a very good chance that I won’t be hooked on the story – it will feel two-dimensional. Years on, plot details or character names from novels and short stories might be lost to time, but I’ll always remember the mood; that specific atmosphere the author created.
Maya Angelou said ‘People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel’ – and it’s true of novels too. It’s a beautiful way to think about how setting leaves a lasting impact on your readers.
Atmospheres stir up immersive internal feelings
It’s much through atmosphere that we become immersed in stories, enjoying a sensory experience that goes beyond language.
So how does this work on the level of literary technique? A novel feels atmospheric when the setting and the narrative are deeply involved with one another; when characters and plot are physically embedded in their surroundings, and a near-tangible mood lifts from the pages and wraps itself around the reader. That’s why writers work so hard to create atmosphere.
Examples of atmosphere in literature
Take Wuthering Heights, a literary work I read and loved as a teenager, and a famous example of how a story’s mood can underpin its fame. For me – I’d guess for anyone – it’s impossible to think of that book without bringing to mind the wild, bleak moors, and the irrepressible forces of nature – both external and internal.
Imagine transposing the events of Brontë’s novel to a different location altogether; how altered the tone would be, if Heathcliff and Cathy roamed urban streets together, their drama playing out by railway sidings and in back alleys. Would Heathcliff be half the romantic hero that he’s held up to be (discuss), without the dark atmosphere and the backdrop of harsh beauty?
Or Joanne Harris’s Chocolat – a book I devoured, transported to a world of ancient cobbled streets, sweet smells, and temptations. I can’t picture Vianne Rocher in any other setting except the one that Harris so expertly gave us. Writing this now, I can practically smell burnt sugar, taste cocoa, feel the wind whipping through the alleyways of Lansquenet.
Knowing what we respond to as readers is instructive when it comes to our own writing and the literary devices we turn to in order to create the prevailing atmosphere of our novel or short story.
Consider the opening of the second chapter of Tim Winton’s Breath. Instead of writing ‘I grew up in a house that was a long way from the sea but sometimes you could still hear the waves at night’, we’re treated to this:
I grew up in a weatherboard house in a mill town and like everyone else there I learnt to swim in the river. The sea was miles away but during big autumn swells a salty vapour drifted up the valley at the height of the treetops, and at night I lay awake as distant waves pummelled the shore. The earth beneath us seemed to hum. I used to get out of bed and lie on the karri floorboards and feel the rumble in my skull. There was a soothing monotony in the sound. It sang in every joist of the house, in my very bones, and during winter storms it began to sound more like artillery than mere water.
— Tim Winton, Breath
In these few lines, we get the extremes of the natural world, the power of water, and Bruce Pike’s visceral connection to it: his desire to not just inhabit the experience but have it inhabit him (‘the rumble in my skull’). You see here how sometimes, atmosphere refers to the way a narrator’s attitude can envelop us as much as the setting itself.
This speaks to the heart of Breath. Winton’s artistry means we get to lie on the karri floorboards (karri is a eucalyptus tree native to southwestern Australia) alongside ‘Pikelet’, and we’re as immersed in the song and thrash of this moment as he is. Note the efficiency of the prose: not one word wasted. Winton is a writer who is lyrical but controlled.
Atmosphere as a literary device is about conveying mood through well-chosen details. We see Pikelet as someone who’s drawn to water that ‘pummels’, that sounds like ‘artillery’, whose sounds gets inside his skull and his bones. It’s an act of foreshadowing too; at this early stage we understand that he’s not going to be content to admire waves from a distance.
The Lemon Grove
In Helen Walsh’s The Lemon Grove, we’re transported to summer in Mallorca, where a British woman on holiday with her family finds herself taking liberties she’d never permit herself at home – an illicit attraction towards her teenage stepdaughter’s boyfriend.
Nothing moves. The darkness deepens. Jen shivers, intoxicated by the magic of the hour. The road is no longer visible. The first stars stud the sky. A wind rises, and, borne on it, familiar sounds of industry from the restaurants in the village above, the clang of cutlery being laid out, ready for another busy evening. She rubs her belly where it is starting to gnaw. It’s a good kind of hunger, she thinks, the kind she seldom experiences back home; a keen hunger that comes from swimming in the sea and walking under the sun.
— Helen Walsh, The Lemon Grove
A few lines later, Jen sparks up a cigarette she finds in a kitchen drawer. ‘The kick of it,’ Walsh writes, ‘dirty and bitter, fired her up, made her light-headed.’
Walsh uses simple short sentences to good effect. We’re not distracted by reams of prose – we’re simply there with Jen experiencing what she experiences, and we can travel with her through multiple moods.
Just like Winton, Walsh foreshadows. Jen is different, here in this place; she’s hungry, and she’s not afraid to find appeal in the ‘dirty’.
As the story unfolds we feel the heat of the place, the portentous ‘she can sense the rain before it falls’, and the ensuing family disaster. The narrative, the setting, and the weather work together to create a taut, sultry experience for the reader plunged into the intricacies of desire and tension.
I’ve only read The Lemon Grove once, but it evokes in me a certain atmosphere. I remember the feeling of rising heat and a storm about to break.
Creating atmosphere in literature
While as a reader I love to be immersed in the atmosphere of a story, as a writer I know the graft that goes into generating that effect. For we’re not just building the blocks of a narrative, we’re tasked with creating something that’s less tangible. Something that, if we get it right, our readers won’t forget.
Again, sensory detail is crucial for me. When I’m writing, I use music to connect me to the atmosphere I want to create. Just as a lover might dim the lights and slip on a record, I light a scented candle and go to iTunes to try and move things in the right direction. I find that different music helps me delve into certain atmospheres.
For The Sea Between Us it was the album An Awesome Wave by Alt-J which conjured vast landscapes and the swell of the sea.
For my current work-in-progress I’m listening to a lot of Mazzy Star; the vibe is languid but there’s an unsettling undercurrent that makes me want to look over my shoulder. That sense of unease is just right.
The feeling we want to create is often right at the heart of the idea for the story, but it takes a consciousness on the part of the writer to draw it out and craft it into something distinctive and memorable.
Ask yourself: what’s the atmosphere you want for your story? Once it starts to come alive in your work you’ll feel it for yourself – just as your readers will feel it – and your writing sessions will become all the more transporting.
Discover our online creative writing courses with lessons on choosing your setting and creating atmosphere in fiction. Start today!