How to Build Atmosphere in Creative Writing
Think of the setting of your favorite book. If you had to describe that space in two words, what would they be? If you thought of something like spooky woods, charged stadium, or quiet room, you were thinking not only of the physical setting, but the emotional one – the atmosphere. When you craft a strong atmosphere within your scenes, you have an emotional effect on your readers. Emotions are memorable. Strong emotions are unforgettable; that’s why you need atmosphere.
Where do you feel the most comfortable? Where was the last place you worried about your safety? The atmosphere of a place like a home or theater is the way that space feels. Similarly, in creative writing, atmosphere is the way the space of your story feels. When you build an atmosphere, you build an emotion within your reader to keep them engaged and reading. Here’s an example of atmosphere from Sarah Henning’s novel Sea Witch Rising:
The sharpest of things keeps its edge even in the dullest of settings.
And so my coral knife shines through the shadows I call home. Rendered ghost white with magic, the serrated blade is sharp enough to cleave a single hair in two.
Beautiful. Deadly. Perfect.
I only hope it’s enough for when they arrive (1).
What do you feel after reading this excerpt? Likely, you feel foreboding or danger and worry for the character. These emotions are partially due to the atmosphere, to the fact that this story opens in a place filled with shadows and a deadly knife. The setting and object are working together to build the atmosphere.
Atmosphere and mood in creative writing are very similar. In fact, the terms overlap. Both refer to the emotion of a scene. Both influence the other. The difference is atmosphere is more about the emotion of the setting, the space of the scene, and mood is more about the emotion of the overall scene. You can’t have one without the other, and the terms are often used interchangeably. Which term you use isn’t nearly as important as making sure your scene leaves an emotion lingering with your reader.
Build Atmosphere through Description
Your description of your setting and objects plays the biggest role in creating your piece’s atmosphere. In Sea Witch Rising the description of the knife is key to the reader’s understanding of the scene. Because the knife is super sharp, readers know there is danger coming and that the character intends to face it. Because the knife is coral, readers can guess the character is near the ocean, likely under the water given the title. Because the knife is also described as beautiful and the character hopes it’s enough, readers know the character wielding the knife isn’t necessarily evil or the villain and is likely the person readers should root for.
When describing the objects of your writing – especially the ones impacting your plot or characters – think about the emotion you want your readers to feel when presented with that object. Then use emotionally charged words and phrases to describe it; that way you can describe the object and build your atmosphere at the same time.
The same thing goes for describing the setting. What is the emotion of the space? If you want to create a comfortable atmosphere, you might describe the architecture of a theater as soft curves inviting you to stay for a while. If the theater is threatening, you might describe the chilly air and how the echo of your footsteps sound like the moan of a spirit.
Description builds your atmosphere. This is why it isn’t enough to state your characters are in a jungle or on a train. You have to describe that space, so your reader understands what it’s like to be there.
Use the 5 Senses to Show Atmosphere
The way people experience a space is through their senses. How a space feels physically impacts how it feels emotionally. To show your reader your story’s atmosphere, you need to describe it with all five senses, so they can vicariously experience what it’s like to be there. Here’s an example from The Covered Deep by Brandy Vallance:
As Bianca looked out from the prayer room, the sea changed from brightest sapphire to a deep unfathomable ink. Slowly, the room acquiesced to gaslight – a soft flicker here, an amber shadow there. . . . The music swelled, and then the organist lightened his touch – taming the notes, slowing them – bringing tones that were both beautiful and holy. The waves rolled, and the ship gently with it, rocked in the cradle of the deep (129).
This setting in Vallance’s novel has a peaceful atmosphere. Readers can picture the fading sunset on ocean waters. They can hear church organ music and feel the gentle rock of the ship. If Vallance had stopped with the description of the sunset, a significant portion of the atmosphere would be lost. A human’s primary sense is usually sight, but emotion can often be tied more tightly to the other senses.
When describing your setting, ask yourself how it feels to physically be there. What does it look like? What pieces of the space do you focus on? What sounds are present? What smells or tastes? Pay special attention to touch. How comfortable a person feels in a space is often tied to touch sensations like temperature and movement. Once you have all five senses worked out, pick the most impactful ones to include in your description. Choose the senses that pact the biggest emotional punch for that space.
An Editor’s Advice for Choosing Your Atmosphere
When building your story’s atmosphere, consider your genre and ideal reader. Genres are made of more than tropes or themes. Setting and atmosphere also play a role, especially in sub-genres. While some readers read for characters or plot, others read for emotion. Someone who loves cozy mysteries isn’t likely to be as interested in a mystery-thriller because that reader is looking for a more pleasant atmosphere with their mystery.
Also think about where that setting falls within your overall story. If your character is experiencing their lowest point, a happy atmosphere might not be the best choice. However, if your character is super grumpy, it might be humorous to put them in a bright, happy atmosphere. You either want to align the feeling of the space with the feelings of your characters and plot, or you want to intentionally put them at odds.
Emotional impact is vital to the success of your story. As the saying goes, people might forget what you do or say, but they’ll never forget how you made them feel. The same goes for readers, so make them feel something. Use the five senses and setting and object descriptions to build your atmosphere and Ignite Your Ink.
How do you build atmosphere into your pieces? Share your process in the comments below. For more advice on infusing your writing with emotion and a free Guide to Building Strong Settings, subscribe to Ignite Your Ink.
Caitlin Berve is the owner of Ignited Ink Writing, where she edits novels, creates video tutorials for software companies, and writes. Using her MFA, she teaches creative writing at conferences, colleges, and Colorado writers organizations. Caitlin seeks to fill the world with the kind of writing that lingers with readers, find magic in modern times, and pet all the fluffy and scaly animals she can.