This week: Setting Pt 2: AtmosphereEdited by: LJPC - the tortoise
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This newsletter is about how to use atmosphere to add the right mood to your settings.
Sage advice about Setting and Atmosphere:
From Stephen King's On Writing
"When it comes to scene-setting and all sorts of description, a meal is as good as a feast."
From Dean R. Koontz's Writing Popular Fiction
"When describing a new setting as it first appears in a novel -- a new street, house, hotel, room, bit of landscape -- decide whether it warrants a lengthy description. If it is the focus of only one or two minor scenes, it does not deserve the same detailing as does the place where the climax and other important plot developments transpire. If, for example, a motel room in Chapter Three needs only a short description, don't treat it like this:
The hotel room depressed Joe Black. It measured twelve by eight feet, and it was made even smaller by the weak yellow light and the small, dirty window in the far wall. The only furniture was a swaybacked bed dressed in yellowed sheets and a battered chest of drawers with a cigarette scarred surface. The paint was spotted and peeling and discolored by too many years, too much cigarette smoke and too many sorrows absorbed from the tenants. The floor was covered with cracked, gray linoleum and stained with dozens of brands of spilled whiskey.
More to the point and less of an interruption in the narrative flow is this version:
The hotel room depressed Joe Black. Small, shabby and poorly lighted, it was the sort of room to which a poor man brought a whore, where a junkie came to shoot up, or where a hopeless wino ended up when he went somewhere to drink himself to death.
In less than half the words used in the first version, we've created the same atmosphere of poverty and despair. Economy of language is the most important stylistic goal."
Setting Part 2: Atmosphere
Why Atmosphere is Important
The atmosphere of a setting is a combination of details and descriptions that convey a mood and will make the reader feel an emotion, whether it's horror, suspicion, amusement, or tranquility.
The best way I can describe the importance of atmosphere is to compare it to the music in a movie. While the characters' actions and dialog carry the plot forward, it's the music that gives the scenes an underlying mood and can send a chill up the viewer's spine. Who can forget the theme for the shark in "Jaws" or those screeching violins during the shower-murder scene in "Psycho"? Next time you're watching a scary scene in a Horror movie, turn the volume off and see what a big difference it makes to the amount of fear you feel.
It's not enough to have your character creep down a dark alleyway and find the monster. Since your story doesn't have the benefit of a soundtrack, you have to make the reader tense by highlighting certain details in the setting and describing them to get the biggest emotional reaction.
How to Create Atmosphere
You can use atmosphere to produce a distinct mood -- one that's perfect for each specific scene. Atmosphere almost becomes another character in your story. Mr. Atmosphere has a physical presence and clothes (description including smell). He has dialog (sound effects). He has a mood (word choice). Make the atmosphere work for you to reinforce the emotions of the scene, whether your frightened characters are entering the haunted hotel, running from the killer, taking a moment for love, or resting in a safe place (or so they think. Heh-heh. ).
I'm going to let you in on the secrets I use to create atmosphere. I'll take the same setting and write examples of how to use word choices to enhance the mood and make the reader feel what you want them to.
Mood: Horror -- John woke to the smell of death. The rancid odor oozed through the tentflap and crawled up his nose. He choked, his fingers curling around the edge of the thin sleeping bag. In the deepening silence, something rustled against the ground outside. The sound of claws. Digging into raw earth. Coming closer.
To create an atmosphere of Horror, I chose words like death, rancid, thin, and raw. I used active verbs, like oozed, crawled, curled, and digging to give the impression things were moving closer to him. At the end, I used sentence fragments to increase the pace (like a ticking bomb or screeching violins).
Mood: Romance -- Kayla held her hands toward the campfire. Warmth flowed over her fingers and up her arms. When John eased into the seat beside her, the faint scents of pine sap and after-shave wafted through the air and tickled her nose. She studied his profile from the corner of her eye. The fire's glow painted his skin with a golden hue, and a breeze stirred the curls on his forehead. He belonged here, part of the wild terrain surrounding them.
To create a romantic atmosphere, I chose words that gave a sense of comfort like warmth, glow, and golden, and used smooth-sounding verbs like flowed, eased, wafted, stirred. To make sure that there was some hint of attraction, I used tickled to bring a smile to the reader's face, and I compared the hero to wild terrain.
Mood: Tension -- Darkness fell so quickly it was like night had crashed onto the forest. Kayla huddled closer to John and watched the campfire devour the dry branches they'd found. The blaze crackled and spat embers into the air. Sparks flew up toward the trees looming over their campsite. A gust of wind shook the limbs above her, making them creak and sway as if unseen creatures climbed among them.
To create an atmosphere of tension, I used active verbs like crashed, devour, crackled, spat, and climbed. These verbs show abrupt movement and make the scene seem about to explode even though there's no real action.
Mood: Tranquility -- The sun slid behind the treetops, leaving a trail of soft orange in its wake. John leaned against a log and stretched his feet out in front of him. Crickets in the shrubs began to chirp as dusk slowly melted into twilight. He knew he'd have to build a fire soon. But not yet. Not while the breeze still streamed across the clearing. Not while the scents of wildflowers and pine needles enfolded him in a blanket of calm.
To create an atmosphere of tranquility, I chose peaceful words like soft, chirp, melted, streamed, wildflowers, enfolded, and blanket. I also repeated the same phrase Not yet/Not while/Not while because repetition can lull the reader like a metronome, making them feel as sleepy and peaceful as the character.
Mood: Confusion -- Phoebe eyed the tent. The dilapidated thing sagged on its poles, and its canvas sides were as faded and stained as dirty laundry. Beers cans littered the ground, their garish colors contrasting with firepit's gray ashes. Her nose wrinkled at the smell of stale alcohol. She shuffled her feet, wondering if it was wise to stay there for the night.
To create an atmosphere of confusion, I put in images that contrasted with the idea of a peaceful wilderness (dilapidated tent, dirty laundry, colorful cans). This makes the reader feel unbalanced. They don't know what to expect next, so it heightens tension.
Edit, Edit, Edit
It's tempting to describe the entire setting as it appears in your mind's eye. In the case of a campsite, you might see the stones around the campfire, a charcoal grill, a red beer-cooler set beside the opening of a blue tent, oak trees with spreading branches, squirrels, a brightly-colored lawn chair, which are all in a twenty-yard diameter clearing covered with grass. But these facts don't convey atmosphere. They are simply a "laundry list" of objects. They add nothing to your scene and will bore the reader, who really just wants to know: What will happen next?
You need to decide how you want the reader to feel and choose only those things that best represent the mood you're trying to create. Edit out details until you have the few, strong images you really need. (Then get on to the important stuff: the story! )
Like Stephen King writes at the top, "... a meal is as good as a feast," meaning a few carefully chosen words are equal to reams of description.
Here are examples of how two great Horror authors create atmosphere in just a few words:
"It was vintage New Orleans, the little establishment. Overhead fans churned lazily, and the floor had not been cleaned in a hundred years."
~ Anne Rice, Merrick
The house was a rental. Brooding. Tight. A brick colonial ripped by ivy in the Georgetown section of Washington, D.C."
~ William Peter Blatty, The Exorcist
To use atmosphere to enhance your settings, you must think about the emotions your characters will be feeling in the scene. Find descriptive words that reflect their mood and use those choices to describe details of the setting.
Edit by going through the scene and taking out unimportant details or ones that don't add to the atmosphere you want.
Remember to break up description with character action so the lines don't read like a "laundry list" of objects.
You can also use sentence fragments and repetition, which can imitate music and make your readers feel the 'soundtrack' in your story.
Until next time: Let the horror bleed onto the pages with every word!
Here are some stories with good setting detail for your reading pleasure!
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To my delight, some writers took the time to comment on my last newsletter!
Vampyr14 writes: Great newsletter! Setting is SO important, but it's often hard to find the right balance between over-describing and not enough. A few well placed details can make a huge difference. And show a lot about the characters whose space we're in.
You're right about using little details to give insight into a character's personality. Thanks!
aszreal writes: Settings are my nemesis. If I can't have people in someplace generic like a coffee shop, I draw a blank. This is such a great way to look at it, thank you ^_^
It's great if settings are your only nemesis. I have a bunch of them!
T. Brumit writes: This newsletter was fantastic. The one thing that I struggle with in my writing is to adequately construct the settings. In fact I mull over it endlessly. I think these useful tips will benefit me and I plan to scour through all of my work and "tweak" it!
Thanks so much! You're not the only one who mulls. It's so hard to choose the best setting and the most important details to include. I hope I helped -- good luck with tweaking!
dejavu_BIG computerprobs writes: Incredible Newsletter as always!I love the topics you choose and the great info you give to incorporate it into my own writing. Let the horror ooze....................
Thanks so much for your encouraging comments! If there's ever a specific topic you'd like me to concentrate on, feel free to email me.
Danger Mouse writes: Hey Laura, Another great newsletter. I think you're right. Plausibility in setting is very important. Readers of horror want it set against the mundane. They're ready to suspend reality, for monsters. But everything else, ie: characters and setting, can't be so unreal that the story's lie feels blatant. Thanks for your help.
Changing locals goes good in novels. ... But short horror needs to stay in one place, with few characters. Trap a single soul for real terror.
You're right. It's hard to use different settings when you're limited by word count. My advice is more about longer stories and novels. And writing trapped characters fighting to escape is exciting, too. Thanks for commenting!
BIG BAD WOLF is Feeling Lucky submitted "The Werewolf's Gun" and writes: Sometimes you need to do research.
Research is important, but it can be like exercising -- you know what you should do, but playing videogames is so much more fun.
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