When I was invited to do a guest post on atmospheric writing, I was flattered. But I quickly ran into a problem: I don’t actively aim for atmospheric writing. So it’s not something I put tons of conscious effort into, and it’s definitely not something I have a checklist on hand to achieve.
I tried to look back and reverse engineer it, but that was making things harder than they had to be. In my experience, atmospheric writing isn’t a goal. It’s a natural outcome of my process.
I guess I should eventually explain what atmospheric writing is, and why you may or may not want it.
Atmospheric writing has a consistent tone. The very world through your characters’ eyes has a mood, almost a flavor. This is what this story FEELS like. It doesn’t mean you can’t add humor or romance or action in a story that is primarily in another genre. But it has a core identity, and it doesn’t betray that identity.
Some people, hearing this phrase, may attach it solely to horror or grimdark. But if you’ve ever read a romance where the background seemed tinted in sepia and rose, a Fantasy where the entire story thrummed with magic and mythos, or a thriller where every breath seemed urgent and you could almost hear the ticking clock, you have encountered atmospheric writing.
Atmospheric writing clutches at readers. It’s an embrace with claws. And it sticks with readers long after they finish your story. They may not remember every plot point along the way, but they will certainly remember how the book made them feel.
That sounds great. And it is. I love it! But it definitely comes with costs.
You’re intentionally narrowing how far outside of the primary tone you will go, and how often. And that can be tiring to read. This goes doubly for a tone that is tense, scary, or sad. You can drain a reader’s emotional well, and they may have to put the book down at times. If you do it right, they will return, but that’s a risk you’re taking.
The other cost is the effect it has on prose. I’ll make this explanation brief, because it could be a blog post all its own.
There’s a spectrum between sparse, utilitarian prose (often called Orwellian, compared to a clear glass window), and more poetic prose (compared to stained glass; prettier, but harder to see through). Building atmosphere typically costs words and moves your prose into poetic territory.
Let’s say that you’ve decided that the pros outweigh the cons. If atmospheric writing isn’t something you intentionally try for… how do you achieve it?
- Read the kinds of stories you’d like to write. This usually takes care of itself, since the stories that inspire us tend to be in genres and styles we enjoy. You’ve probably heard this advice before. It helps here, too.
In my case, this meant pulling from Edgar Allan Poe, Dan Wells, and even creepypasta, in Horror. And in Fantasy, I’m constantly talking about Robert Jordan’s use of Third Person Limited. You can DEFINITELY see some of that influence on the visions in Altar.
- Know the tone of the piece you’re writing. Find a center in what the reader should be feeling most–perhaps two or three emotions–that serve as the core of the experience. Don’t be completely bound to these emotions. Don’t stunt your piece. But build out from and return to those points.
In Altar, the center is loneliness, looming threat, the struggle against hopelessness, and the horror of things we can’t change. There are moments of rage, humor, celebration, peace. But they’re reaching from that center. It keeps the story focused, cohesive.
- Build your character voice(s). How does their setting and the events of the story shape how they view the world? How does the tone of the work seep into the character? Know how they would describe things–and just as essentially, how they wouldn’t.
If you keep the tone and the character voice in mind, a million smaller decisions become almost automatic. Does your story linger on moments of romantic tension? Banter between friends? The heartbeats before bloodshed? The paralyzing chill of terror?
What comparisons are appropriate? What senses should you emphasize in a given moment?
It may take some tweaking here and there. But if you start from the character voice and the emotion of the scene, you’ll be able to build an atmosphere that feels so real to the reader that it refuses to let them go, even after they’ve finished the story.
Now that you’ve read the word “atmospheric” enough times for it to lose all meaning, go have fun creating it!
About the Author:
After reading The Riftwar Saga by Raymond E. Feist and The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan as a teen, I just KNEW I had to be a writer. I started immediately on my first novel, which was terrible. Sometime later, I started on my next novel, which was less awful, and in late 2017 I started on what would eventually become An Altar on the Village Green, book one in The Chained God.
I’ve spent several years as a freelance fiction editor, working with authors like Sarah Chorn and Michael Wisehart. I’m also known for my reviews, ramblings, and writer Crash Course series on my website.
I live in Indiana with my wife, two cats, and one sassy bearded dragon.