Creating Atmosphere in Stories

Recently I’ve been thinking a fair bit about atmosphere and the strategies writers can use to create atmosphere in their stories. Of course plot, character, and voice are vital to a good story, but atmosphere also helps to draw readers in. When an author does a particularly good job of creating atmosphere, I find that’s something that will really stick with me well after I’ve finished reading the story. I love reading a book that is wonderfully dark and creepy or one which makes me feel like I’m in the midst of a lazy summer day even if it’s not summer when I’m reading the story. I believe that atmosphere helps the reader truly feel like they are experiencing what the characters are experiencing.

There are several elements that writers can use to create atmosphere in their stories. These are some of the ones I’ve been thinking about lately with some examples:

  • Setting (a creepy, abandoned house or a windswept heath)
  • Senses (a boom of thunder, the spray of salty ocean water against skin, the smell of acrid smoke)
  • Weather (driving rain, a dry, hot wind or fingers of mist)
  • Imagery (shifting shadows, dappled shade)
  • Word choice
  • Character emotions

Creating atmosphere is something I want to work on with my own stories. Lately I’ve been trying to incorporate more senses, using all five rather than relying simply on sight. (Thanks, Sarah L Blair!) I’m hoping this is something I’ll get better and better at the more I write.

What are your thoughts on creating atmosphere? What other elements do you think are important?

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5 Comments

  1. Nicole L. Bates said,

    April 9, 2013 at 3:27 pm

    Great ideas, Sarah! I definitely need to work on incorporating all of the senses into my writing. My favorite stories are the ones that make me feel what the characters are feeling, so character emotions are really important to me as a reader and a writer. I need to work on conveying those emotions by describing the character’s actions and reactions though, instead of coming right out and telling the reader- “show don’t tell” seems to be the most common tip I’ve heard, which would apply to all of those areas you listed and, in my opinion, create the kind of atmosphere which lingers in a reader’s mind long after the book is closed.

    • Sarah L Fox said,

      April 9, 2013 at 4:19 pm

      I definitely agree with you about the importance of character emotions. I’m trying to get better at showing character emotions instead of simply telling the read that so-and-so was angry or whatnot. And I’ve relied primarily on sight for too long! Adding other senses makes a big difference, I’m finding. 🙂

  2. April 9, 2013 at 5:28 pm

    Using all senses to describe a setting is something I think I have a pretty good handle on, so I’ve been working on character emotion instead, trying to get into the guts of what they’re feeling. It’s difficult though. I can imagine a physical feeling or a reaction in response to an emotion, but trying to put it into words – without getting wordy! – is not easy.

  3. May 28, 2013 at 1:11 pm

    I’m working on that too!


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