The magic of the environment: literary definition and style examples

Atmosphere is important. People pay a premium to eat in a restaurant with a certain ambience, or buy a house in an environment that supports a certain feeling. In the same way, your reader won't remember every word you wrote, but if you fill the story with atmosphere, he'll remember how he felt about it.

And readers read to feel something.

The power of the atmosphere

Which version of this scene is more impressive, engaging and pleasant to read?

Here is version one:

Amanda went out of the hospital front door and sat on a bench. She was upset because her daughter Sarah had a car accident and was now brain dead.

And here is version two:

Amanda moved in a trance. Her feet felt distant and numb as they carried her over the shiny tiles of the hospital floor and spilled her on a cold iron bench at the entrance. Nausea rose and clogged her neck with a sour, painful lump. She bent down and pressed her head between her knees. She tried to clear her mind, but the picture of Sarah, all the tubes and bandages, refused to go.

A carefree moment behind the wheel, a few seconds of inattention, and her little girl was gone. All that was left was an empty shell that was operated by machines and monitors.

Each version basically provided the same information, but the atmosphere between the two couldn't be more different.

Atmospheric literary definition

The atmosphere is all about emotions. It is the texture of the story that arises from the careful selection of details and offers the sensory palette through which the reader can experience story events.

the atmosphere, Mood, and frame are inextricably linked, which makes it difficult to analyze and treat them as a separate entity. So I think about the difference:

Mood is the goal emotion – how the reader should feel.

the atmosphere is the environment that evokes and supports these emotions through language, images and specific details.

frame encompasses both mood and atmosphere and offers a broader framework for geography, period, historical background, culture etc.

View creates atmosphere

To be effective, no story is delivered to the reader intravenously or surgically implanted. Every word of a story should reach the reader through the point of view, which is conveyed through the sensory inputs, opinions, emotions and thoughts of this character. The way to create atmosphere and draw your reader deep into a story is to anchor it firmly in the mind of the point of view.

Your characters live in a world and exist there for a reason. Make sure that the dialogue and narrative reflect their purposes, and make sure that these purposes often conflict.

When I write a scene, I have the goal or purpose of the scene in mind. I "get into the character", then I live the scene – I see, hear, feel, smell, taste, think and think about what happens, let it play in my head and write it as authentically as possible.

Genre forms atmosphere

As always, the type of story you tell has a huge impact on the way you tell it, including the kind of atmosphere you want your readers to create.

For example, suppose you are writing a scene in which a man and a woman camp before dark. The atmosphere you create varies a lot depending on the genre. Do you see how the same scenario in romance, suspense, fantasy, science fiction, western and horror will have a different feeling?

Atmospheric examples in 11 genres

When I worked for our local library system, I learned how important sound and atmosphere are for readers' satisfaction. Readers yearn for certain atmospheres by genre, so it's important to deliver what they're looking for. Here's a taste of some of the "flavors" that readers crave.

1. Adventure

Readers want to feel heroic, targeted, and daring. The atmosphere will be a danger and risk of being on the lookout, and may include a sense of "strangeness" that highlights the danger, as these stories tend to play outside of the character's ordinary world.

Here's a piece of atmosphere from Jon Cleary's novel High Road to China.

At 12,000 feet they flattened and sat like eagles in the glowing galleries of the sky. The air up here was much cooler and Kern was happy about his flight suit. He felt the tiredness slide away from him with the sweat that had flooded him on the floor. But it was more than just the air that animated him. He had felt like this the other morning, but now the feeling was stronger, it was almost a sexual advantage.

Cleary used details such as the glowing galleries of the sky, the tiredness that subsided with the sweat, and an almost sexual tension to convey an atmosphere of conquest and adventure.

2. Imagination

Readers want to feel enchanted, inspired and brave. The atmosphere is mythical, magical and life affirming and these stories often have an epic, good versus bad feeling and take place in a different world or on a different earth from that in which we ordinary beings live.

I have a small example of Harry Potter and The Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling.

Harry was sure that Dumbledore would refuse to tell Riddle that there would be time for hands-on demonstrations at Hogwarts, that they were currently in a Muggle building and therefore had to be careful. To his great surprise, Dumbledore pulled his wand out of an inside pocket of his suit jacket, pointed it at the shabby closet in the corner, and moved the wand casually. The closet went up in flames.

The Dumbledore name evokes a fantastic feeling, along with references to Hogwarts and Muggle. Even if you've never heard of Harry Potter, these terms evoke visions of something mystical. The magic wand, the casual stripe and the burst of flames confirm and intensify this feeling.

3. Historical fiction

Readers want to feel like they are learning painlessly about history and experiencing a moment from the past. These stories take the reader back in time and must do so convincingly, with accurate details and reconstructions of events. The atmosphere is very different depending on the topic and can range from a romantic to a brutally stoic view of the time.

Here's an example from Jeffery Deaver's 1936 Berlin novel, Garden of Beasts.

Another man sat on a decorated chair and sipped coffee, his legs crossed like a woman's: the scarecrow Paul Joseph Goebbels, the state's Minister of Propaganda. Ernst had no doubt about his ability; He was largely responsible for the early and important mainstay of the party in Berlin and Prussia. Still, Ernst despised the man who couldn't stop looking at the leader with adoring eyes and smugly spreading gossip about prominent Jews and Socis, and then dropped the names of famous German actors and actresses from UFA Studios.

The reader is drawn into the historical scene, learns factual details and absorbs the taste of the moment through the details that Deaver chose: scarecrow with clubfoot, revered eyes, name drops and damned gossip.

4. Horror

Readers want to feel a shiver, sense of threat, and supernatural terror. The atmosphere is key and must pervade the story with a sense of foreboding and discomfort as readers wait for the unexpected. Create the ominous and macabre for the reader, with a crucial element of surprise and sometimes an unresolved end as the horror continues.

I use a short example from Edward D. Hoch's story "The Faceless Thing".

It was steaming here, steaming and hot from the sweat of the earth. He switched on the flashlight with trembling hands and followed its narrow beam with his eyes. The place was almost like a room on the side of the hill, a room maybe three meters high with a floor of mud and mud that almost seemed to bubble up as he watched.

When we read this description, hot and steaming from the sweat of the earth, a small space buried in the hills, it feels like we're being swallowed up by an evil earth monster, and the bottom of mud and mud bubbles in our minds Wait for something horrible to come out of it.

5. Literary fiction

The readers want to feel the joy of the language that they challenge themselves to think and take up profound concepts through symbolism and beautiful pictures. The tone is usually provocative and the problems are more serious, often with grainy and punchy backgrounds that can create a dark atmosphere, although different types of humor can also come into play.

As an example, I drew a paragraph from Harlan Ellison's story "The Whimper of the Whipped Dogs".

She was repeatedly drawn to the window to stare into the yard and the street. She tried to look from her window at the Swann House in Bennington over the bleak Manhattan concrete: the small courtyard and another white dormitory; the fantastic apple trees; and from the other window the rolling hills and beautiful Vermont countryside; Her memory flitted as the seasons changed. But there was always concrete and the wet streets; The rain on the sidewalk was black and shiny blood.

The desolation comes through and gives a hopeless feeling, the pictures come alive. The atmosphere has depth and meaning.

6. Secret

Readers want to feel challenged intellectually and enjoy the satisfaction of seeing justice. Although the mystery genre is evolving and is becoming increasingly difficult to define, there is always a puzzle to solve. So the atmosphere is full of expectation, secrecy and curiosity, sometimes full of dangers.

Here's an example of Straight from one of my all time favorite mystery writers, Dick Francis.

During the evening I could not open the green stone box or understand the devices. The shaking of the box gave me no idea of ​​the contents and I assumed it could be empty. A packet of cigarettes, I thought, though I couldn't remember ever seeing Greville smoking. Maybe a box for two card games. Maybe a box for jewelry. His tiny keyhole remained insensitive to probes from nail scissors, case keys, and a piece of wire, and in the end I surrendered and put it aside.

Francis is very curious when the reader and character try to open the mystery box and guess its meaning.

7. Tension

Readers want to feel this delicious thrill of uncertainty and tension without knowing who to trust or where to go. Not everything is what it seems, something uncanny moves beneath the surface, and the atmosphere is of a nightmarish quality. The danger looms, the madness lurks and there is often a slow burning of fear, which leads to a stark climax.

The right atmosphere is crucial, so I turned to one of the masters, Mary Stewart, for an example from her novel This Rough Magic.

A wave rocked me and almost turned me over. When I fidgeted and tried to get up again, another came, a wash like that of a small passing boat that rolled me behind me. But I hadn't heard the rudder or the engine; All I could hear now was the blow of the exhausted waves against the rock. I stepped on water and looked around confused and somewhat alarmed. Nothing. The sea shimmered empty and calm to the turquoise and blue of its horizon. I felt down with my feet and found that I was a little further from the shore and could barely touch the ground with my toes. I turned back to the shallows.

The atmosphere is pretty screaming from threat. Something happens, something troubling and invisible, and we are overwhelmed by the waves. Stewart uses words – ruffling, rocking, fidgeting, exhausting, driving – to create a feeling of insecurity and vulnerability.

8. Romance

Readers want to feel a spark, the thrill and disappointment of a romantic pursuit, and the ultimate satisfaction of a happy ending. It's difficult to determine a general atmosphere for such a large and diverse genre, but anticipation is a necessary ingredient for the right atmosphere – a yearning hunger and a burning desire for perfection.

Here is an example from Nicholas Sparks' novel The Notebook.

The words were spoken so sincerely that she knew he wasn't just saying it to be nice. He really believed in her ability and for some reason it meant more to her than she expected. But then something else happened, something even more powerful. She never knew why it was happening, but at that point the abyss began to close for Allie, the abyss she had built in her life to separate pain from pleasure. And she suspected at the time, perhaps not consciously, that this was more than she wanted to admit.

The emotional longing to connect with another person is here, the desire to tear down the wall and trust someone with the innermost parts of your soul. That is the atmosphere of true romance.

9. Science fiction

Readers want to feel fearless and groundbreaking, as if they were crossing the boundaries of the familiar territory and entering new, new worlds. Details can be found all over the map, but the atmosphere is usually explorative, questioning and testing, in a way a journey of discovery filled with the enigmatic and extraterrestrial.

I took an example from one of my favorite Ray Bradbury short stories: "The Veldt".

They stood on the thatched floor of the kindergarten. It was forty feet wide, forty feet long, and thirty feet high; it had cost half as much as the rest of the house. "But nothing is too good for our children," George had said. The kindergarten was silent. It was empty like a jungle clearing on hot noon. The walls were empty and two-dimensional. Now that George and Lydia Hadley were standing in the middle of the room, the walls began to purr and retreat at a crystalline distance, and now an African steppe appeared in three dimensions on all sides in color that was reproduced to the finals of pebbles and something Straw. The ceiling above them became a deep sky with a hot yellow sun. George Hadley felt the sweat start on his forehead.

The familiar, a kindergarten, becomes something new to discover – an African steppe. The created atmosphere is both fascinating and subtly threatening, draws the reader into a strange space and arouses curiosity.

10. Thriller

The readers want – obviously – to feel enthusiastic. They want an adrenaline rush to experience intrigue, dangers and fears. Frenetic and larger than life, thrillers offer an atmosphere of great danger. The tone of a thriller consists of elements from the genres of adventure, suspense and horror and is characterized by despair and constant movement.

I use an extract from J.M. Dillard's adaptation of The Fugitive as an example.

Amazingly, the train's forward motion slowed but did not stop. Kimble heard it more than he saw it, just when he heard the shuddering explosion that vibrated in the ground under his bound feet. In the gentle, breathless, menacing wash, he looked over his shoulder and saw flames streaming down the side of the train. Glowing red-orange against the background of the night, the fire illuminated the level crossing like daylight and revealed the injured security guard, who was safely on the opposite bank. Kimble saw all of this in a millisecond, and as he continued to look without slowing down, there was another eardrum that squeaked metal on metal as the burning locomotive drove off the tracks – away from the guard, straight toward Kimble.

The atmosphere is characterized by constant danger and multi-directional attacks, so readers and characters are barely able to stay one step ahead of a certain, final catastrophe. Fast and exciting.

11. Western

Readers want to feel morally as if they are committed to justice and decency. The atmosphere of a West creates a kind of rugged chivalry and honor against a rough backdrop. Action, adventure and crafty strategies play a big role, but justice is paramount and suffering and sacrifice are an integral part of the landscape.

Here is an example from Larry McMurtry's Dead Man & # 39; s Walk.

Bigfoot Wallace was crouched by the fire – he had just poured himself a cup of coffee. It was chickory coffee, but at least black. Bigfoot paid no attention to the turtle – Matty Roberts, in his view, had always been a little eccentric. If she wanted to throw snapping turtles around, it was her business. He was concerned with more pressing concerns, including the identity of the three warriors who tortured the Mexican to death.

Robust conditions and justice – these are also expressed in this short extract in the atmosphere.

Satisfied taste buds are synonymous with a happy reader

What I've given you above is just a small sample of the atmospheric possibilities, but let me stress how important the right taste is to readers. Determine the atmosphere you want to create – the type of emotional experience your reader desires – and deliver it through the senses, emotions, and opinions of your POV character.

Doing so will help your reader enjoy the kind of reading experience he craved when he picked up your book. You can both be satisfied with this offer.

Do you crave a certain atmospheric taste in the books you read? Tell us about it in the comments.


Let's fill a scene with atmosphere! Choose one of the following scenarios and let the atmosphere come alive as I did in the hospital example above. Use lots of sensory details and don't forget to express the opinions and emotions of the characters.

  • Jim ran the 10km race. It was his first race since his open heart surgery and he was happy to be able to run again.
  • Mary Beth drove down the freeway. She was too restless and upset to stop when her twenty-eight-year-old told her he wanted a divorce.
  • The storm blew streams of water into Brandon's boat and flooded it. Brandon was horrified to see the boat sink six miles off the coast.

Let the atmosphere shine through! Write for fifteen minutes. When you're done, post your work in the comments and give feedback to your co-authors.

Joslyn Chase

Joslyn ChaseEvery day she can send readers to the edge of her seats, tingling with tension and chewing her fingernails on the knob, is a good day for Joslyn. Get her latest thriller, Steadman & # 39; s Blind, an explosive read that lets you flip through to the end. What leads a man to murder, their collection of short suspense, is available for free at