How to Write “Atmosphere” in fiction writing? First, find your Voice.

Hello, my writer friend! How are you doing?
This is Tom Leveen. I wanted to do a quick, sort of down-and-dirty look at a
topic I’m going to be teaching on, here in the Phoenix area, in just about a week.
And that topic is on “atmosphere.” What is atmosphere?
What *isn’t* atmosphere? And how can we use it or manipulate it in our writing? So
let’s just go ahead and jump right in: Atmosphere, to me, is very closely
connected with the idea of Voice, and I use “voice” with kind of a capital “V” to
underscore its importance and what it is versus what it isn’t.
Voice is not “dialogue.” Voice to me — my own personal opinion — is everything you bring
to the table. It’s all of your good experiences, all of your bad experiences,
everything that makes you who you are, is your Voice, and Voice can be manipulated.
It’s largely, I think, a matter of … I wasn’t gonna say “Talent”…
it’s not “talent.” Voice is largely a matter of instinct or impulse; whatever
kind of first comes out of you tends to be your Voice. But once you’ve done that,
once you’ve made a first draft, whether that’s a short story, novel, or some other
work … whatever is on the page there is your Voice. But again, that can be
manipulated. So can “atmosphere.” Let’s take a setting like the Old West; the American
Old West. When we say that that is literally just a setting, it’s not a
*genre.* Now in that setting, you can create a “Western” of course. You could create a
category romance, you could create a science fiction novel, you could create a
thriller, or a mystery, horror, supernatural thriller… anything. If you
think of any other genre, it can basically be slotted into the American Old West.
And what that genre … what those genre expectations are, are going to impact
your Voice and your atmosphere (in my opinion). So for example, we’re going to
set a horror story in the Old West. Well then we want to choose words and
organize them in such a way that we get a horror or supernatural
sense of the place, right? And those words are probably going to differ at least a
little bit — if not dramatically — than if we were writing a category romance set
in the same time and place. Likewise, if we were doing something more science
fiction, like “Cowboys vs. Aliens,” things like that, or more of a thriller,
or anything like that, our word choices are going to impact the atmosphere. I’ve
never been to the Old West. I live in Arizona and I’ve been to, you know, horse
ranches and things like that. We’ve got Old Tucson, and we’ve got Tombstone which was still a town, you know, where the OK Corral shootout took place. These are
real places that you can visit and you can get a sense of time and place by
visiting them. But the reality is, it’s 2018, we … I don’t know what exactly
it was like to live in the Old West, you know, over a hundred years ago, but I know
what horse poop smells like! Maybe you do too; it depends on where you’re from or
what kind of adventures and vacations you’ve had, I suppose! Let’s talk about
horse poop! Let’s just talk about horse shit right now for a second. If you’re
writing a category romance set in the American Old West maybe you don’t want
to talk about the smell of horse shit You *can,* it’s certainly reasonable. It was
*there,* so maybe that is something I want to include. But probably, to set the
atmosphere, maybe you want to focus on the sweet smell of hay or
honeysuckle or creosote after a desert storm; something like that, which
will set your your atmosphere just a little bit more in the romantic vein. If,
on the other hand, you’re writing something in the horror genre, maybe you
*do* want to talk about the smell of horse shit. Maybe that’s the kind of thing
that you want to give your reader upfront so that they know, “Okay, this isn’t
going to be a pleasant experience,” or “This isn’t going to be a pleasant setting, a pleasant scenario, a pleasant atmosphere.” Voice is when you
sit down to write a horror story and you’re describing blood, and the first
word that comes out of you is “red.” Okay, that’s fine, there’s nothing wrong with
calling blood “red” because, golly, it is! So that’s fine. That’s probably your Voice.
If that’s the thing that came to mind, you probably
want to trust it, at least initially. In revision, on the other hand, you need to
be asking yourself those critical questions over and over again. Is “red”
the right word? Should it be “crimson?” Is it “magenta?” Is it chunky, is it fluid, is
there some other thing that we need to describe it?
Do we need to describe the blood at all? What is the best phrasing? What is the
best word, the best punctuation, the best white space on the page to get across
the atmosphere we want to have our readers experience? Another example, if we
are writing, let’s say, a chase sequence. Okay, and you have a big whopping block
of text of huge paragraphs. That’s fine; if that’s your Voice, that’s cool there
are plenty of examples of writers who do that. In general, you might want to
consider breaking up a big paragraph like that into smaller chunks. Maybe two
paragraphs, maybe three, maybe ten. It just depends. But that’s the kind of thing
that you want to do for revision. I hope that makes sense. So atmosphere is about
(in my opinion), particularly the revision process: fine-tuning those words and
sentences and phrases, making sure you have chosen the right word and the right
descriptive paragraphs the right things that you want to include that are going
to give your reader a real sense of time and place. So I think atmosphere is the
thing that really sets us and grounds us in the genre more than it does the time
and the place. Again, we can set something in the Old West, but that doesn’t mean
it’s a western genre novel. There are any number of genres you could set in the
Old West, or in the future. Just because we’re set in the future doesn’t mean
it’s science fiction. So if that’s something that you have been sort of
locked into, try to break out of that. Your setting is not your atmosphere.
Atmosphere (in my opinion) is related to genre. Atmosphere is the sense of a place:
the tastes, the texture, the smells, the things that are descriptive to us as the
reader, that really root us into that genre, and what the mood that we want to
have the reader walk away with. There are certainly, you know, certain
genres have very specific moods, or
atmosphere, to them. We’re not going to confuse a Stephen King novel with a
category romance, for the most part. There may be a couple of exceptions, but
generally speaking, we can tell from the first few pages of Stephen King versus a
Regency romance. Which of those two things we’re gonna get. Are we getting
something or are we getting something romance? Not to say romantic, but romance,
slightly different thing. So let’s say you’re writing science fiction: Is this
something where we want lots of cold, hard, rigid angles? Is it, you know, because
it’s very cold in space, right? If you want to bring that to the fore; or, I just
read a book not too long ago for my book club that was set, you know, very much
deep space. Long-term space travel, aliens, the whole nine, and yet was a very warm
and sort of embracing atmosphere, if you will. It didn’t feel like science fiction
at all because while it technically is going to be shelved perhaps in science
fiction, the atmosphere of the novel wasn’t cold, hard-edged electronic things
like that. It wasn’t “Battlestar Galactica,” it wasn’t even “Star Wars.”
It was very much its own thing and the author, I think, is to be commended for
doing that, because she was paying attention to the story she wanted to
tell, and it just so happened to be set on a spaceship, if that makes sense. So
what is atmosphere? Yeah, atmosphere I think, is the mood of the piece. It sinks
into the reader. It’s something that I think needs to be upfront in the first
chapter or the first few pages of a book, because you only get those first few
pages, remember that. I critique first pages all the time because I generally
don’t need to read your whole novel; I can tell you what your problems are
gonna be in the first 500 words, and any agent or editor would be able to do the
same thing. As a matter of fact, that’s what most agents do. They’re not going to
read past the first page if that first page didn’t grab them, so we want to
establish atmosphere as early as possible, and as quickly as possible.
However — personal opinion — I would argue that establishing the Voice of the
characters is even more important than that, but again, it depends on the genre;
it depends on your personal Voice, your personal style,
and what it is you want to convey, but we can’t have a great story without great
characters, for sure, but those great characters should be given a great
atmosphere in which to play and work in. I think it’s important that we become
students of the … I was gonna say the English language. I’m gonna change that
and say the *American* language because American words and idioms are very
different than English words and idioms or British words and idioms, versus
Canadian, vs. Australian or other English-speaking countries like that. So,
American English: We want to be very familiar and intimate, I would say, with
the various shadings of meaning when it comes to American words and phrases.
Again, is “red” the right word or is “crimson” the right word? Those are very
different. Even if slight, they are very different
things, and bring a different sense and a different emotion to the word. But the
other part about that is, does that word need to be there at all? I don’t know,
depends. Well, what can help your atmosphere? I would argue listening to
music can help you establish atmosphere; can kind of get your blood flowing and
make you think of images and textures, smells, colors, things like that that you
might want to use to establish atmosphere. Some of you have probably
heard me talk or have read about “emotional memory,” that’s another crucial
part about atmosphere. Again, I’ve never been to the Old West; none of us ever
have been to the Old West, presumably. If you are, congratulations for making it
this far! So I’ve never been to the Old West, so I’m probably not gonna get all
of those details right. But number one, I can research it; I can study it. Number
two, more importantly, I can bring to my description and to my characters things
that I myself have experienced. So if I’m going to write a horror story set in the
Old West, I may not be talking about the technical details of the six-shooter, for
example, because I don’t know those details; but I can very much talk about
what it feels like to be at the end of a gun. I’ve never had a gun pointed at me,
but I’ve been in enough situations of pure terror that I can talk about that,
and endow those feelings into the scene. That’s what emotional memory is.
Even though you may not have experienced the things that your characters are
experiencing, you can recall things where you felt that something that they are
feeling, and you — again — endow that into the scene, and that can help define
atmosphere. Think about places that you hated to go when you were a kid; what
were the things that you hated about, let’s say, you hated going to the
doctor’s office. Fair enough; what was it specifically? Really root;
dig down, drill down and find those specific… those specific descriptions. The
textures, the smells, the taste — everything. What was it about the doctor’s office
that you hated? Or the dentist’s office, or something like that, and then endow
that into a scene about the haunted house, or about your … you know, the
ex-wife’s house or whatever, if that’s what the scene calls for. On the flip
side, if you’re writing, let’s say … again, let’s say you’re writing a romance and
we want your your hero to be blown away the first time that he or she enters
into this person’s house or place of business or something. Well, what is the
feeling you want that character to have? And then you go back and use your
emotional memory to think of, “Oh yeah, I remember time I felt like that,” and you
endow that into the scene. I’ve never been, you know, to the White House. I’ve
never been to a super luxurious hotel, so I’m not I’m not probably gonna write
about that. Instead I’m going to write about, you know, the first time I went to
a new friend’s house and his dad had a lot of money or something, and that size
of their house compared to the size of mine; just being like, “Well, this is
intense,” in which case, it’s that emotional part — it’s that part that’s
going to speak to human experience that’s going to set up the atmosphere or
to set up the mood. Does that makes sense ? I hope it does. Anyway, I’ve probably talked
enough. Thank you for watching, I hope you found something useful in all this. I
hope I do a good job teaching this next weekend! If you enjoyed the video,
feel free to share it about a little bit, that’s okay with me. Encourage your
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to comment on, go ahead and head over to my Facebook author page which is, all one word; leave a comment or a question,
and I’d be happy to engage with you there. Thank you so much for being on the list,
I really appreciate that, and be looking for a new
book on living the life of a writer. Published or unpublished, doesn’t matter,
but living the life of a writer. I’m gonna be working on that here very soon,
and man, we are not gonna bullshit with this one, it’s gonna be all hard truths,
and I think you will enjoy that. So thank you very much for tuning in and I think
that’s it! Thanks, take care!

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