Saturday 18 April 2015

Six Ways to Establish an Electric Atmosphere in Your Story

The atmosphere is the mood or tone of the story.  It should draw the reader into the story.  It should enable the reader to imagine the world the writer is creating.  It sets up the expectations for the story.

A novel like Harry Potter is suspenseful and whimsical.  Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities is bleak.  Alice in Wonderland, on the other hand, is both sensible and nonsensical according to blogger Angela Gentry (

How do you, as an author, establish atmosphere?  Here are six ways:

1.  Set the mood for the story through an object, according to Angela Gentry.  She gives the example of a Terry Tempest Williams story in which a piece of fruit helps to set a dangerous tone.

"We smother the avocado with salsa hot chiles at noon in the desert.  We look at each other and smile, eating avocados with sharp silver blades, risking the blood of our tongues repeatedly."

2.  Establish atmosphere through setting.  Angela Gentry quotes the book A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle.

"It was a dark and stormy night.  In her attic bedroom, Margaret Murry, wrapped in an old patchwork quilt, sat on the foot of her bed and watched the trees tossing in the frenzied lashing of the wind."

3.  Description is also a tool you can employ to establish setting.  Use powerful adjectives and adverbs, suggests Esther Newton (  She gives the example of a hotel.

"She eagerly hurried inside, her eyes soaking up the sumptuous sofas, gleaming floors and dazzling chandelier taking centre stage."

The reader imagines businessmen in suits and women in elegant dresses walking the halls of such a hotel.  Ms. Newton puts forward a second description which creates a very different atmosphere:

"She gingerly stepped inside, her eyes widening at the sagging sofas, the filthy floor and dull flickering lights."

The reader imagines a very different clientele at the second hotel.

When describing your scene, don't neglect all five senses.  Authors tend to centre on sight and sound, sometimes glossing over smell, touch and taste.

4.  Use weather to establish the atmosphere of your story.  Contrast a "cornflower blue sky with a bright sun" to a "grey sky with menacing clouds charging across it".

5.  Use the time of day to establish the mood.  If you are penning a ghost story, make it at night to darken the tale.  The season is also important.  If your story is about hope, make it in the spring, the season of renewal and rebirth.  O'Henry's The Gift of the Magi is set during the Christmas season, for obvious reasons.

"The Magi, as you know were wise men -- wonderfully wise men -- who brought gifts to the babe in the manger.  They invented the art of giving Christmas presents."

6.  Don't forget point of view.  Ms. Newton recommends the first person which enables the reader to feel like he is part of the story.  However, third person allows the reader to see the situation from the viewpoint of more than one character.

"It was times like these when I thought my father, who hated guns and had never been to any wars, was the bravest man who ever lived." (To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee)

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