This week: Atmosphere in FictionEdited by: Joy
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“It is precisely the colouring, the atmosphere, the unclassifiable individual details of a story, and above all the general purport that informs with life the undissected bones of the plot, that really count.”
J.R.R. Tolkien, On Fairy-Stories
“The rain was that endless, gray, pounding kind of rain that makes your house feel cold and sad even if your mother's spirit isn't dying upstairs.”
Louise Erdrich, The Round House
“Green was the silence, wet was the light, the month of June trembled like a butterfly.”
“The house was very quiet, and the fog—we are in November now—pressed against the windows like an excluded ghost.”
E.M. Forster, Howards End
“The atmosphere beneath is languorous, and is so tinged with azure that what artists call the middle distance partakes also of that hue, while the horizon beyond is of the deepest ultramarine.”
Thomas Hardy, Tess of the D'Urbervilles
Hello, I am Joy , this week's drama editor. This issue is about noticing the atmosphere in our reading and creating an atmosphere in our stories.
Thank you for reading our newsletters and for supplying the editors with feedback and encouragement.
Welcome to the Drama newsletter
Suppose you arrived at a brilliant conceptual idea for a story, then leveraged it as inspiration to turn it into a premise. Later you came up with some of the other elements of storytelling such as a protagonist, antagonist, and even a plot. So far, so good, yes?
Maybe something is still missing. That something may be the atmosphere of your story. Before we talk about atmosphere, let’s take a look at a couple of other literary concepts that mean roughly the same thing but not in its minute details.
One of those concepts is the mood. Atmosphere is a broader term than the mood. Mood refers to the internal feelings of people and how they affect the overall story. Atmosphere, on the other hand, can exist at a particular scene or as the general feeling of the entire story with all its elements. Atmosphere can also contain in itself a mood or several moods.
Here is an example that illustrates the mood between two people, the two most important characters, in Nicholas Sparks, A Bend in the Road.
~”I guess that depends.”
She smiled at him. “On what my reason for staying would be.”
Staring at her, he couldn’t help but imagine that her words were either an invitation or a promise.”~
Now an example for the atmosphere from the same book.
~Spread before him was the Trent River, its brackish waters partially hidden by the cypress trees clustered at the water's edge.
The smoke from Miles's cigarette swirled upward and he could feel the humidity rising, thickening the air. In time, the birds began their morning songs, the trill whistles filling the air. A small bass boat passed by, the fisherman waved, and Miles acknowledged the gesture with a slight nod. It was all the energy he could summon.
The other concept is the tone. Atmosphere gives a broad emotional quality to a piece of fiction; whereas, tone means non-emotional formal or informal style of writing.
As an example to tone, here are a few sentences from Dean Koontz’s Frankenstein. Notice how he is lecturing the reader, as part of the tone he uses in this novel.
~ Two hundred years of life can leave a man jaded.
If he is a genius, like Victor, his intellectual pursuits lead him always on new adventures. The mind can be kept fresh and forever engaged as it confronts and resolves increasingly complex problems.
On the other hand, repetition of physical pleasures eventually makes former delights seem dull. Boredom sets in. During the second century, a man’s appetites turn increasingly toward the exotic, the extreme.~
Still, tone, mood, and atmosphere are closely related and that’s why even the best authors mix their terminology.
Thus, you might ask, what is atmosphere? Atmosphere is the feel you get as you read a story, as it usually emerges through description instead of action. It appeals to the readers’ senses by making the story more real, allowing them to comprehend the idea easily.
To illustrate this, Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca can be a good example, as the story begins with the description of the setting, the mysterious Manderley, and throughout the novel how that mystery affects the characters. In these few sentences, the main character is looking back at the place in her dream, after the story is told.
~There was Manderley, our Manderley, secret and silent as it had always been, the grey stone shining in the moonlight of my dream. Time could not spoil the beauty of those walls, nor of the place itself, as it lay like a jewel in the hollow of a hand. The grass sloped down towards the sea, which was a sheet of silver lying calm under the moon, like a lake undisturbed by wind or storm. I turned again to the house, and I saw that the garden had run wild, just as the woods had done. Weeds were everywhere. But moonlight can play strange tricks with the imagination, even with a dreamer’s imagination.~
Atmosphere has more to do with the setting and/or the environment that stage the story, and yet, it still has to relate to the action in a minute way. This is especially useful for writers because they can reveal shameful or ruthless feelings with less severity. To do this, writers control the shock of a brutal atmosphere by playing with the description of settings and objects.
Atmosphere, in short, is broader than the tone or the mood, for it makes the readers feel the meaning of the story in an indirect way.
Until next time!
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This Issue's Tip: Whatever the feeling you target as part of the atmosphere, go at it intentionally. Write inside that emotion and aura. Even during the editing, check each scene against that specific emotion.
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