Atmosphere matters. You might be someone who will pay a premium to eat at a restaurant with a certain ambience or buy a house in a setting that supports a particular feeling. But what is atmosphere in literature, and how can you use it? Learning the literary definition of atmosphere (with genre examples) can help you write a better book.
Your reader won’t remember every word you wrote, but if you infuse the story with atmosphere, they will remember the way it made them feel.
But how can you weave atmosphere into your story without making it feel forced? How can your story's atmosphere evoke an emotional response and leave a lasting impression on your readers? How can you leverage this literary technique to enhance that feeling?
A strong sense of atmosphere figures into the works of William Shakespeare. Edgar Allan Poe mastered atmosphere in poems like “The Raven” and his haunting tales of suspense. J.K. Rowling managed it well in the Harry Potter series.
And you can learn it too.
There are many literary elements and devices of fiction a writer uses to impact the atmosphere of a literary work, including figurative language, word choice, similes, and personification. In this post, we'll examine how point of view and genre considerations help to set the mood and establish atmosphere.
Atmosphere Literary Definition
Literary atmosphere is all about emotion. As a literary term, it refers to the texture of the story—created by the careful selection of details—that provides the sensory palette through which the reader will experience story events.
Atmosphere, mood, and setting are inextricably bound together as literary devices, making it difficult to parse them out and treat each as a separate entity. Here's how I think about the difference:
- Mood is the target emotion—how you want the reader to feel. (Do you want them to feel a dark mood or creepy mood, a hopeful mood or comedic mood?)
- Atmosphere is the environment that evokes and supports that emotion through language, imagery, and specific detail. (Such as a lighthearted atmosphere or an ominous atmosphere)
- Setting encompasses both the mood of a story and atmosphere as well as providing the wider framework of geography, time period, historical background, culture, etc.
These three elements affect the type of emotion a reader feels, which makes them crucial in providing the kind of quality reading experience your reader will remember.
The Power of Atmosphere
Let's explore the power of Atmosphere. Which version of this scene is more evocative, more engaging, and more enjoyable to read?
Here's version one:
Amanda walked out of the front door of the hospital and sat on a bench. She was upset because her daughter, Sarah, had been in a car accident and was now brain dead.
And here's version two:
Amanda moved as if in a trance. Her feet felt detached, numb, as they transported her across the slick, shiny tiles of the hospital floor and spilled her onto a cold, iron bench at the entrance. Nausea rose, clogging her throat with a sour, painful lump and she bent over, pressing her head down between her knees. She blinked hard, trying to clear her mind, but the image of Sarah, all tubes and bandages, refused to go.
One careless moment behind the wheel, a few seconds of inattention, and her little girl was gone. All that remained was an empty husk, run by machines and monitors.
Each piece of writing supplied basically the same information, but the atmosphere between the two could not be more different.
Point of View Creates Atmosphere
To be effective, a story is not delivered to the reader intravenously or surgically implanted.
Every word of a story should flow to the reader through the viewpoint character, imparted by that character’s sensory input, opinions, emotions, and thoughts. The way to create atmosphere and pull your reader deep into a story is by grounding them firmly inside the viewpoint character’s head, immersing them in the narrator's attitude and internal feelings.
Your characters inhabit a world, and they exist there for a reason. Make sure the dialogue and narration reflect their purposes, and make sure those purposes are often in conflict. Use foreshadowing to seamlessly weave in setups.
When I write a scene, I have the scene goal or purpose in mind. I “get into character,” then I live the scene—I see, hear, feel, smell, taste, think, and opine through what happens, letting it play out in my mind, and write it as authentically as I can.
Genre Shapes Atmosphere
As always, the type of story you’re telling will have a huge impact on the way you tell it, including the sort of atmosphere you want to establish for your readers.
When I worked for our local library system, I learned how crucial tone and atmosphere are to reader satisfaction. Readers crave certain atmospheres by genre, so it’s important to deliver what they’re looking for. Here’s a taste of some of the “flavors” suspense readers crave with examples of atmosphere pulled from masterful pieces of literature.
Readers want to feel intellectually challenged and the satisfaction of seeing justice served. Though the mystery genre is evolving and becoming increasingly difficult to define, there is always a puzzle of some sort to be explored. So, the atmosphere is one of expectation, secrecy, and curiosity, sometimes fraught with danger.
Here’s an example from Straight by one of my all-time favorite mystery writers, Dick Francis.
During the evening I failed to both open the green stone box and to understand the gadgets. Shaking the box gave me no impression of contents and I supposed it could well be empty. A cigarette box, I thought, though I couldn’t remember ever seeing Greville smoking. Perhaps a box to hold twin packs of cards. Perhaps a box for jewelry. Its tiny keyhole remained impervious to probes from nail scissors, suitcase keys and a piece of wire, and in the end I surrendered and laid it aside.
Francis creates rampant curiosity here as reader and character together pick up the challenge and attempt to open the mystery box and deduce its significance.
Readers want to feel that delicious thrill of uncertainty and tension, not knowing who to trust or where to turn. All is not as it seems, something sinister stirs beneath the surface, and the atmosphere has a nightmarish quality. Peril threatens, madness lurks, and there is often a slow burn of anxiety which builds to a wrenching climax.
Getting the atmosphere right is critical, so I turned to one of the masters, Mary Stewart, for an example from her novel This Rough Magic.
A ripple rocked me, nearly turning me over. As I floundered, trying to right myself, another came, a wash like that of a small boat passing, rolling me in its wake. But I had heard neither oars nor engine; could hear nothing now except the slap of the exhausted ripples against the rock. Treading water, I looked around me, puzzled and a little alarmed. Nothing. The sea shimmered, empty and calm, to the turquoise and blue of its horizon. I felt downwards with my feet, to find that I had drifted a little farther out from shore, and could barely touch bottom with the tips of my toes. I turned back toward the shallows.
The atmosphere fairly screams with menace. Something is happening, something disturbing and unseen, and we are out of our depth, at the mercy of the waves. Stewart uses words—ripple, rocked, floundered, exhausted, drifted—to create a feeling of uncertainty and vulnerability.
Readers want to feel—obviously—thrilled. They want an adrenaline rush, to experience intrigue, danger, and trepidation. Frenetic and larger-than-life, thrillers encompass an atmosphere of large-scale peril. Comprising elements of the Adventure, Suspense, and Horror genres, the tone of a thriller is one of desperation and constant movement.
I’m using an excerpt from J.M. Dillard’s adaptation of The Fugitive as an example.
Amazingly, the train’s forward momentum slowed but did not stop. Kimble heard rather than saw it, just as he heard the shuddering explosion that vibrated in the ground under his shackled feet. At the soft, breathy, ominous whoosh, he glanced over his shoulder and saw flames streaming down the sides of the train. Incandescent red-orange against the backdrop of night, the fire illuminated the railroad crossing like daylight, revealing the injured guard lying safely on the opposite bank. All this Kimble saw in a millisecond, and as he continued to look, never slowing, there was another eardrum-shattering squeal of metal on metal as the flaming locomotive veered off the tracks—away from the guard, directly toward Kimble.
The atmosphere is one of constant peril and multi-directional attacks so that reader and characters are barely able to keep ahead of certain, ultimate disaster. Fast-paced and thrilling.
Readers want to feel heroic, purposeful, and daring. The atmosphere will be one of peril and risk, of being on a quest, and may include a sense of “foreignness” which highlights the danger as these stories tend to take place outside the character’s ordinary world.
Here’s a slice of atmosphere from Jon Cleary’s novel High Road to China.
At 12,000 feet they leveled off, sat like eagles in the shining galleries of sky. The air was much cooler up here and Kern was glad of his flying suit. He felt the weariness slide off him with the sweat that had swamped him on the ground. But it was more than just the air that was invigorating him. He had felt like this on other mornings, but now the feeling was heightened, there was almost a sexual edge to it.
Cleary used details like the shining galleries of the sky, the weariness sliding off with the sweat, and an almost sexual tension to convey an atmosphere of conquest and adventure.
Readers want to feel like they’re painlessly learning something about history as they experience tense and exciting moments from the past.
These stories take the reader back in time and must do so convincingly, with accurate detail and reconstruction of events. The atmosphere varies widely, depending on the subject, and can range from a romantic view of the period to a brutally stoic one.
Here’s an example from Jeffery Deaver’s suspense-packed novel of Berlin in 1936, Garden of Beasts.
Another man sat in an ornate chair, sipping coffee, his legs crossed like a woman’s: the clubfooted scarecrow Paul Joseph Goebbels, the state propaganda minister. Ernst didn’t doubt his skill; he was largely responsible for the Party’s early, vital foothold in Berlin and Prussia. Still, Ernst despised the man, who couldn’t stop gazing at the Leader with adoring eyes and smugly dishing up damning gossip about prominent Jews and Socis one moment then dropping the names of famous German actors and actresses from UFA Studios the next.
The reader is pulled into the historical scene, learning factual details while absorbing the flavor of the moment through the details Deaver chose to include: clubfooted scarecrow, adoring eyes, name-dropping, and damning gossip.
Readers want to feel a chill, a sense of menace and supernatural terror. Atmosphere is key, and must permeate the story with a sense of foreboding and unease as readers await the unexpected. Create the ominous and macabre for the reader, with a crucial element of surprise and sometimes an unresolved ending as the horror lives on.
I’m using a short example from Edward D. Hoch’s story ”The Faceless Thing.”
It was steamy here, steamy and hot with the sweat of the earth. He flipped on the flashlight with trembling hands and followed its narrow beam with his eyes. The place was almost like a room in the side of the hill, a room perhaps seven feet high, with a floor of mud and ooze that seemed almost to bubble as he watched.
Reading this description, hot and steamy with the sweat of the earth, a little room buried in the hillside, makes it feel as if we are being swallowed by a malevolent earth monster, and the floor of mud and ooze bubbles in our minds as we wait for something horrific to emerge from it.
Satisfied Taste Buds Makes an Entertained Reader
What I gave you above is just a tiny sampling of the atmospheric possibilities, but let me emphasize how important the right flavor is to readers.
Determine the atmosphere you want to create—the type of emotional experience your reader desires—and deliver it through the senses, emotion, and opinions of your POV character.
By doing this, you’ll help your reader enjoy the kind of reading experience they yearned for when they picked up your book, and that’s a deal you can both be happy with.
Do you crave a certain atmospheric flavor in the books you read? Tell us about it in the comments.
Let’s infuse a scene with atmosphere. Use your novel or short story in progress or choose one of the scenarios below and let the atmosphere come alive as I did in the hospital example above. Use plenty of sensory detail and don’t forget to express character opinion and emotion.
- Jim runs a 10K race. It's his first race since his open-heart surgery and he's glad to be running again.
- Mary Beth drives down the highway. She's been too restless and upset to stop since her husband of twenty-eight years told her he wanted a divorce.
- The storm blows torrents of water into Brandon’s boat, swamping it. Brandon is horrified to realize the boat is sinking, six miles off shore.
Any day where she can send readers to the edge of their seats, prickling with suspense and chewing their fingernails to the nub, is a good day for Joslyn. Pick up her latest thriller, Steadman's Blind, an explosive read that will keep you turning pages to the end. No Rest: 14 Tales of Chilling Suspense, Joslyn's latest collection of short suspense, is available for free at joslynchase.com.