If people are saying they ‘couldn’t get into’ your writing, or that your characters felt a bit lifeless, then it might be that atmosphere or mood that is lacking in your work. Building mood and atmosphere grabs a reader and draws them in, making them feel as if they are ‘inside the story’, experiencing it physically. There is a subtle difference between these two terms:
has come to mean the ambience, aura or feeling of a scene. It is the literary device which allows the action in writing to also have emotions which intrigue, excite, seduce, unsettle, disturb or beguile. Often atmosphere will add to the enjoyment of a read without the reader quite being able to work out why – they are 'internalising' it. An atmosphere can be established very quickly, but it can also change throughout, depending on the scene, plot or development of character.Mood
is subtly different from atmosphere but can further lift the atmosphere you’re creating. It
is the ‘something in the air’ that helps ‘light and shade’ to be added to writing, working like a perfume, subconsciously sensed – the ‘je ne sais quoi
of a good read, when a reader’s spine is tingled, or their heart wrenched, almost without them knowing it. Mood is usually dictated by the feelings of the protagonist or narrator.
There are some very simple ways of getting atmosphere and mood into your writing. The first is to use the senses.
Smell – describe smells, both lovely and sickening, to add to atmosphere and ‘take’ the reader into the story
Sound – not just ‘grand’ sounds like an on-coming train or ‘obvious’ sounds like birdsong in countryside, but ‘lesser’ sounds; the crunch of gravel underfoot, the way a character constantly sniffs, the sudden, atmospheric howling of a dog in the twilight distance.
Taste. Don’t forget taste whenever something is placed in the narrator’s mouth. That might not take place often in your story, so also consider the other tastes that could heighten atmosphere, such as the taste of strong chemicals in the air, or the ‘taste’ of rain. Also use ‘interior’ tastes, such as the taste of the waking mouth or the taste of bile. And don’t forget the taste of a kiss!
Touch. This might seem the hardest to use well, but it's hugely important in adding mood and atmosphere. Surprisingly, touch takes place all the time. A breeze on the face, fabric on skin, the touch of another’s hand, the pressure of a wall against your back or cold flooring under your feet.
I believe there is a sixth sense…the sensations felt inside a person…their mood and perceptions. What does it feel
like for the character to be in that setting or location? Is the dirty kitchen frustrating or irritating John, or does he ignore it completely? If so, why? When the two children enter the cave how do they percive it…why is it scaring or exciting to them?
The Pathetic Fallacy can entice the reader right into the mood of the narrator or other characters. Used sparingly by the skilled writer, the Pathetic Fallacy
can be very effective. This term relates to the technique of attributing human characteristics, sensations, and emotions, to things that are inanimate, such as nature. The weather is used a lot within this technique. It can link extremely well with the symbolism you might want to pull into a story. For instance, when a writer wants to build up an emotion in their character, they will place them in an appropriate setting – the angry character standing below a lowering sky with bruised clouds tearing above them, or the despairing character battling against a desperate, lashing storm. Rain is always falling at funerals – lightening slashes a tree as a gothic horror begins – fog descends as the protagonist becomes wandering and confused, as in King Lear
, or lost in a long, fruitless quest, as in Bleak House.
But this is a device that is notoriously cliched and often wrongly applied by novice writers, leading to something called 'empathic universe', which creates a melodramatic effect. You can tell if someone has overdone their melodrama, the mood overpowers the characters and even the story, getting in the way of allowing the reader to empathize with the protagonist. Be particularly warned if you are writing romantic fiction – remind yourself of the comic effect in Wallace and Gromit
as Wallace’s bread was shown rinsing in his oven as his passion bloomed for Piella Backwell. If you use this technique to make people laugh, just be sure they are laughing with you and not at your writing.
I haven't forgotten the sense of sight – describing how things appear is essential, even it if is over-used. New writers often believe 'describing' is something you really shouldn't do too much if you want to move your story on, and, indeed, today’s readers are not keen on long chunks of description…that died out with the crinoline! So the way to add atmospheric detail, especially in crime writing, is to slide it in surreptitiously as the action, interior monologue and dialogue continues to move the story on. Opening out the possiblilities by painting the atmosphere until it drips with meaning is quite the opposite of providing chunks of description.
By looking closely at the most interesting parts of the whole – whether it’s an artifact, a character, a landscape or an interior – the atmosphere can be enhanced.
Even more amazingly, adding detail to scenes that have a high drama content actually increases the tension. Creating detailed description stretches story out while offering the writer a chance to use good language skills to create a vivid atmosphere.
So this is the strange truth…the more detail you chose to include, the less boring the writing becomes…moving into close-up is absorbing and paints the imagery of the story.
Here’s a moment from the first skeleton draft version of my crime novel In the Moors;
I was drawing closer to the bogs. Far away into the west, an ancient clump of willows sprouted out of the bog. I raised my collar against the wind. As I marched towards them, I saw the faint outline of police tape on thin metal poles. This was a scary place to be at night.
Take your time’ is one of my favourite phrases. I offer this advice my students, and so I guess I should take it myself. In that first draft, I was pummelling along, looking neither to the left nor to the right. My character, Sabbie Dare is walking into a dangerous situation. I can’t stop the action – it's going at full pelt. But there are ways of holding it up while maintaining the dramatic atmosphere. I must take as much time as I dare to allow Sabbie to describe what she observes and confront her own thoughts, by which she can build the mood of the scene…
When I lifted my chin away from my footsteps, I could see I was drawing closer to the long-abandoned areas, murky water held together with sedges and bulrushes. These bogs went on forever, impossible to tell one blackened hellhole from the next. I had no idea how to find the location I wanted.
I turned a full circle, skimming the horizon. Far away into the west, an ancient clump of willows sprouted out of the bog. The trunks were glossy black against the reddening sunset. Each branch, thick as a Sumo wrestler’s leg, skimmed the water’s surface before turning upwards to the sky. The patterns they formed brought symbols to my mind – cages and gallows and rune signs. My skin goosed up along my arms.
I pulled my jacket close about me and raised the collar against the wind. As I marched towards them, I saw the faint outline of police tape on thin metal poles, inadequately closing off the area.
The sun was slipping below the horizon like a thief in an alley. I had hoped I wouldn’t need my torch, but now it drilled a swirling vortex into the space ahead, illuminating the path with its paltry light. The slurry surface of the abandoned bogs gave me the clearest indication of where the path lay. I leaned forward as I walked to get the maximum light from the beam. The wind was whipping up, now darkness was falling. My cheeks and nose felt numb. When I looked up again to check my progress, the willows had gone.
I stared in horror. I wasn’t used to such dark magic. The grey horizon was hiding their silhouette. A gurgle of panic, like quickly swallowed porridge, rose in my gullet. The trees were somewhere ahead of me, but I hadn’t thought to take any sort of marking of where they lay – which of the many paths I needed.
My boot slid off a clump of slimy leaves. It filled with bog-water. I clutched at the air, struggling to keep my balance and the torch fell from my grasp. I watched in dismay as it sank beneath the oily sheen. My eyes stung with tears. Instantly the wind chilled them into ice.
This was a dreadful place to be at night.
In this fuller version, I slowed the action by writing into the gaps
which I left out in my rush to get the first words onto the page. I added hints of the sounds that are around her, and of the smell of the moors, with words such as murky, slimy and oily.
Touch sensations work exceedingly well to draw a reader into an image, for instance, how Sabbie is effected by the freezing conditions. I tried to be unpredictable, especially in my choice of and simile. I allowed the falling darkness to imprint its mood on her emotions. I ‘seeded in’ description by using symbolic imagery which might add to the mood. Rather than abstract nouns such as ‘Sabbie was scared’ I used 'show'...A gurgle of panic...My eyes stung with tears...
And I've tried to draw out the experience by making things harder for Sabbie, placing obstacles in her way and allowing the loss of her torch into the bog to feel like the very last straw.
Sometimes, finding the one perfect detail is all you need. Think about the ‘core’ of each scene. For example, your scene is an inner city waste land. Don’t try to describe all of it, your reader’s eyes will glaze over. Instead, focus your imagery on, for instance, one blighted buddleia, seemingly imbedded in nothing more than rocks and dust, where no butterfly has ever ventured.
Your first draft is going to be rushed (and possibly messy) – you are trying to get down your thoughts. You might need to go back later to include atmosphere and mood. When you do, you’ll find these will also enhance your ‘writer’s voice’, and help you further understand what is behind your story.