According to the dictionary, atmosphere means ‘the pervading tone or mood of a situation’. It’s the background music for the horror story, or the hollandaise on your eggs benedict. Atmosphere is the air you breathe, literally and figuratively. As a writer, my aim is to provide a product that sucks the reader in – whether creative or non-fiction.
There are a few ways to approach atmosphere. I try to keep it in mind when writing my initial draft but it can be difficult to get the tone just right. Usually I wait until late in the first draft before I start playing about, unless there’s a specific need to focus on it earlier. So, where to begin? The first thing you need to do is consider the writing at hand. Take, for example, this section:
Cymry looked once over her shoulder before turning away.
‘Let it burn,’ she thought as she left.
Functional, direct, basic – the sort of thing I might write as the story pours out of my head, knowing that I’ll go back later. There isn’t anything particularly wrong with it, but there’s a lot to improve. Try to imagine you are there, standing next to Cymry. Is she an action hero or simply a bad chef? There’s no clues here – just a list of actions.
When I was at writing school, ‘show, don’t tell’ was a common mantra. This is a perfect place to start when considering how a paragraph might be transformed. I have told you what Cymry is doing. But how can I show you? Atmosphere is the key here. You have five senses, right? Cymry certainly does, and a couple extra too. She’s probably not aware of it, but she uses them all the time to sample her surroundings and react accordingly. In order for Cymry to seem real, I need to let her senses talk instead of my narrative. So then we might have:
Shadows fled as the walls turned a ghastly shade of orange. Cymry glanced backwards, unable to resist the spit and crackle of the flames. Heat caressed her hide, burnishing her resolve as the fire leapt across furniture and up the walls. Glass shattered and thousands of tiny razors whistled into the smoke. The Alchemist’s experiments sizzled and popped, purified by fire. Cymry’s nostrils curled in satisfaction and she swung away, willing her body forward.
‘Let it burn,’ she thought, limping into the darkened tunnel. ‘Let it all burn.’
Immediately we’ve learnt several new things about Cymry and her environment. Simply employing her sense of sight, hearing and touch have expanded the original paragraph to be far more interesting with minimal effort on my part.
If you’re an over-writer then you can use atmosphere to decide which information is relevant and which to take out. For example:
The kettle boiled as Sage dropped the tea leaves into her grandmother’s old tea strainer. Years of use had coloured the metal a soft brown, and no amount of scrubbing would bring it truly clean. Sage bent to the cupboard below, drawing out two cups and saucers with a matching floral design, setting them out on the bench with careful hands. She traced a finger over the gold-foiled edge of one teacup, remembering her grandmother drinking from the same cups when she was a child. Had it really been so long?
Ahem. I’ll stop there. Even writing that felt like blah, blah, blah, make the tea already. Do we care so much about all those itty bitty details? Really? The answer is both yes and no – because you want to keep the information that’s relevant to moving the story forward. If you look back, you’ll notice that even though this paragraph is significantly longer and more descriptive than the previous example, it’s still just a list of actions. There’s no real life here, just a bunch of words hanging out together. But if I employ a couple of Sage’s senses, we might get something like this:
Sage sprinkled sugar into two china teacups, the kettle whistling merrily beside her. Laughter bubbled in her memory and she glimpsed her grandmother smiling and sipping from the same cup. Sage blinked steam out of her eyes and let the image fade, tugging the kettle from the stove. Had it really been so long?
Already we get a better feel for the mood. Taking out unnecessary actions has left room to bolster the atmosphere and convey more of the actual story. Considering these two examples are off the top of my head, they’re far from perfect – but I think you get the idea. In a true drafting process, I would revisit these paragraphs several times, tweaking and testing until I felt the weight of every word balanced perfectly with the mood I was trying to create. I don’t recommend using all five senses at once, however. Pick one or two that are most relevant to the mood and stick with them, or you risk overloading your reader and losing the point of your writing.
Whilst I’ve given creative examples so far, I employ these same guidelines when working with a non-fiction piece. When transforming dot point notes into a narrative that the client will enjoy, I try and manipulate the information to be atmospheric as well as informative. In these situations, a single sense is almost always enough. For example:
All forklifts must display a data plate.
This is a dot point I actually have in my notebook. If I employ sight, it can easily become more interesting:
An operator inspecting his or her forklift will notice that it displays a data plate on the bodywork. If the data plate is damaged or missing, the forklift is not fit for use.
Practice and perseverance are the keys to good atmospheric writing. Don’t be afraid to write out the paragraph in a few different ways until you find what works best. You might just be surprised!
What about you? How do you put atmosphere into your writing?