By Melodie Campbell
I was tickled when the big city library sought me out to do a workshop for aspiring writers on Building Atmosphere.
“Sure!” I said. “Are you paying me?” I said. (Although not necessarily in that order.)
They were, thankfully. And then the anxiety set in. (Cue the strident violins.)
Was I the best person to talk about this topic? My novels are primarily comedies. I usually aim for the funny bone, not the jugular. But then I recalled: most of my published short fiction is dark noir. And in short fiction, regardless of genres, you have to set the mood quickly.
Like many writers, I go from Comedy to Romance to Thriller to darkest Noir, happily skipping from genre to genre. In fact, because of this ‘writing around,’ I have been called a Literary Slut.
Literary Sluts like me (and there are many – you may be one yourself) set the mood cues quickly and dig in for the writing. Let’s look at how we do it.
Let’s start at the Beginning: What is Fiction?
The type of mood you wish to create begins with the type (or subgenre) of story you want to tell. So bear with me as we revisit the basics here:
In FICTION, we are telling a STORY.
A story has a beginning, a middle and an end.
Short stories, novellas and novels all have this in common:
A Protagonist <your main character>
A problem or goal
Obstacles (this forms your conflict)
A resolution to the problem or goal (meaning an ending that will satisfy the reader)
Put another way:
First comes character…
Your character WANTS something. Real bad.
There are OBSTACLES to her getting what she wants.
THAT CREATES YOUR PLOT
Just as PLOT determines genre, genre will point you to the atmosphere you want to create in your stories.
But just what is that pesky thing called atmosphere, and why do we want it?
Atmosphere is about Emotion
In all the fiction we write, we are trying to create an emotion in the reader. Over and over, writers mess with the emotions of readers! That’s what we do.
Creating atmosphere is about setting the stage for your reader to feel something.
In fact, we want…
…your reader to imagine they can SEE the story happening
…maybe even that they are IN the story.
We want readers to feel they are right there, alongside your protagonist, experiencing the action themselves.
And wallowing in the emotion that you, as the writer, have planted.
Okay, get on with the details….
We create atmosphere through:
Time of day
Description (using all five senses)
In each of these mini-sections, I’ll pick on a genre to illustrate the point.
1. Your Opening sets the Mood
Never fool the reader! The way your book opens is the sort of book they will expect to read.
If your book is a comedy, your opening should have some fun in it.
If your book is a mystery, show us that right from the start.
Let’s look at some brilliant examples from the Masters:
Rebecca, by Daphne DuMaurier (psychological suspense)
Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. It seemed to me I stood by the iron gate leading to the drive, and for a while I could not enter, for the way was barred to me. There was a padlock and chain upon the gate.
From the opening paragraph, we feel the mood. Locked out! No Entry! You are not welcome here…
Now let’s look at Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams (my fave)
Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun.
Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-two million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.
No question here that we’re looking at something light and irreverent, maybe even satirical and silly. (I personally think, brilliant.) In any case, the mood is clear from the opening.
For this example, let’s go to the opposite end of Douglas Adams: Horror
In a horror story, I would want the atmosphere to be spine-tingling. I want you, the reader, to feel apprehension, as you wait, wait, wait for something terrifying to happen.
This may run the risk of sounding cliché. But probably, I wouldn’t set this in a crowded cocktail party. Instead, I would look for a setting that makes one feel ‘alone’.
An abandoned building
A house at the end of a road, isolated
A dark forest
An empty parking lot
However, it could be that your character wasn’t alone to begin with. You can do something even more powerful by having your protagonist start out with lots of people around them. And then, they become alone. Everything changes. The contrast intensifies the atmosphere.
So let’s look at that other part of setting: weather.
In real life, weather affects my emotion, as it does for several people. Make that sun bright, and it’s easy for me to be cheerful. Cloud me over in grey, and the world changes.
Sun or no sun
A bright sunny day…this signals hope.
Maybe your story starts out that way. And then maybe the weather changes…thunderclouds start to build.
Does rain falls lightly or does Thor show his wrath by increasing the wind and releasing torrents of rain?
This effectively changes the mood of your story.
It increases the tension.
In the timetravel fantasy book Rowena and the Viking Warlord, I used thunderclouds to signal the pending battle.
Time of Day
We can see well in daylight.
At night, our vision is compromised.
This is an excellent way to create an atmosphere of unease…of fear or threat. Just the sort of emotion you want in a suspense story.
Humans are naturally daylight creatures. We hide in caves or houses when it is dark because predators roam at night.
One easy trick: when you move to the scary part of your story, move it to night. Make it moonless. Bring in the fog.
Mix it up
Sometimes, you might want to be an evil writer person, and fool the reader. Make something absolutely horrendous happen in bright daylight. Sucker the reader’s natural inclination to think they and their beloved protagonist are safe, and then pull the rug out from under both.
Make them feel shock. Because remember, that’s what we fiction writers do. We mess with the emotions of readers.
Using ALL your senses is important for creating atmosphere. We do pretty well with sight. Don’t forget the others.
Smell – ever walk into a seedy motel room? Give me that smell (musty, mildew, stuffy, smelling of sweat and stale liquor) and I’ll be there again in my mind.
Touch – A sticky menu tells us so much about the establishment. Ditto a spot on the floor that acts like glue to the sole of your heroine’s shoe. She continues to walk, and with every step, the shoe sticks to the floor…
Who hasn’t had that happen. What did you feel? Annoyance? Anger? Helplessness? Embarrassment? Maybe even the feeling of being trapped?
Yes, we can use ALL the senses to create atmosphere:
I am always surprised by how often writers forget to use sound to their advantage. Humans are predators, so it is natural for us to describe a setting with photographic detail, in that we are hard-wired to notice movement against it. But we are also instinctively alert to sounds.
Don’t forget this valuable tool.
The irritating sound of an unbalanced fan.
Unrelenting traffic or a commuter train roaring by an apartment window.
These are stressful. They also signal class strata. Think of the brilliant movie Twelve Angry Men, and how they use the thundering sound of the El-Train (or is it L-Train) to quickly place the murder in a tenement.
The ticking of a clock.
Absolute quiet. Then the sound of footsteps.
Classical music playing innocuously in the background. Or is it country music? Pounding heavy metal?
Grab these cues to build mood.
The bitter taste of cheap, over-brewed coffee.
The sweet aroma of freshly brewed Kenyan AA. Sweet, sour…
Example: you could signal a wonderful date going sour by your protagonist’s reaction to the food she tastes.
The place looks wonderful. The food tastes unappetizing.
The man looks perfect…you get the picture.
Okay, they’re telling me to wrap it up.
One final example: Writing Noir and thrillers
Many of my short stories are noir.
Emotions wanted: uneasiness, fear, heart-in-throat
How to set atmosphere quickly, in Noir and thrillers:
I’d stage the opening at night.
It won’t be a clear night, unless it is very, very cold.
Probably, there will be some fog.
Or sweltering humidity.
Something to make your characters uncomfortable, and your reader feeling it along with them.
Example: The opening from the flash fiction story, “July is Hell” (from Thirteen, An Anthology of Crime Stories)
I came back to the squad car with two coffees, both black.
Bill was fanning himself with yesterday’s newspaper. “It’s frigging middle of the night, for Crissake. How can it still be so hot?”
I shrugged. “July is hell. Always will be.” I passed him the cup of java.
“This job is hell,” Bill muttered, leaning back in the seat.
Everything in these opening sentences leads the reader to an atmosphere that is uncomfortable. The characters don’t just tell you that. The author SHOWS you. Bill is fanning himself. It’s night. Even the coffee is black. July is hell, and so is the job. This is not going to be a happy story, and you know it, after just a few lines.
Okay, not the final example. I also write comedy. Can’t help but end on a light note:
Example: The opening from the short story, “Cover Girl” (from World Enough and Crime Anthology)
The door opened, and a big man who was all chest and no hair strode in, barking orders.
“I’m looking for Mel Ramone.”
“You found her,” I said. I find missing persons for a living. But I didn’t think he’d pay me for this one.
Totally different atmosphere created this time. Hopefully, by the end of this very short opening, the reader is smiling.
And hopefully, I've left you smiling, too.
Billed as Canada’s “Queen of Comedy" by the Toronto Sun (Jan. 5, 2014), Melodie Campbell achieved a personal best when Library Digest compared her to Janet Evanovich.
Winner of 9 awards, including the 2014 Derringer and the 2014 Arthur Ellis (Canada) for The Goddaughter’s Revenge (Orca Books), Melodie has over 200 publications, including 100 comedy credits, 40 short stories, and seven novels. She teaches Crafting a Novel at Sheridan College, and is the Executive Director of Crime Writers of Canada.