Atmospheric setting: how to envelop your readers in emotion
Some books wrap us in feelings. They don't paint pictures. They transport us to evocative places that envelop us like a blanket, or a cloak, or fog. Characters and plot still matter but the atmosphere carries us, determines our mood and changes our reading experience.
This is Atmospheric Setting, and it's a powerful a tool.
As writers we paint worlds with words. Our choices put ideas in our readers' minds. We get to respectfully push a feeling and create a reaction. Good books accomplish this as a matter of course. But from time to time we read a book that does this all the time, that feels atmospheric, slow-burning, powerfully emotional. A story where the sense and feeling of place carries you away. A story that sways. The atmosphere becomes part of the tale and sometimes even a character itself.
5 Tips to create an ATMOSPHERIC SETTING
This is setting in its most encompassing and powerful. Atmospheric setting. Not every story requires or benefits from it. Fall however, is a season perfect for books that do just that. The very feeling and taste of autumn fits it. That mix of nostalgia and contemplative quiet. The sense that something is slowly coming to an end, that isn't sad entirely, rather a touch celebratory. After all, fall is a season of preparation but also of harvest.
So how do we create that kind of Atmospheric setting in our writing. Here are 5 tips:
1. Define the mood: Be very clear about the feeling you seek to transmit with your atmospheric setting. Both the obvious and the underlying, the abstract and the themes. Then create a list of adjectives that describe that mood, those feelings. That core list doesn't all need to be included in your descriptions but will provide guidance and something to go back to once you're done. Would people describe what you wrote in any of those words. note: be flexible. Maybe what you wrote is no longer aligned to your original plan but wonderful nonetheless. Never forget writing is craft and art, planning only gets you so far.
2. Use all senses: We do this in writing all the time, but it becomes especially important when working to create an atmospheric setting. Images, flavors, smells, the suggestions of things, the feelings on our skin. You will need every tool in your arsenal. The key is not to go overboard. The art of setting is not to bog yourself down in description but only provide suggestie brush strokes. The reader will fill in the rest. The smell of cinnamon alone carries a mountain of meaning. Less is more. You will probably have to put a lot on paper first and then sharpen your ruthless scissors.
3. Watch your pace & refine your word use: Regardless of your voice, when creating an atmospheric setting you will have to be very precise in your wording. Different synonyms produce different feelings, with disparate connotations. This might be less relevant in an action scene. When trying to create Atmospheric Setting, nuance is your friend and can be your worst pitfall. Watch your descriptions and adjust wording that better captures those feelings. Also, adjust your pacing. Atmosphere requires more often than not a slow burn. Enough time to observe and reflect. This is why it matches fall season so well. So take into account punctuation and sentence length. Play with rhythm. These are often forgotten and the key to evoking strong feelings.
Nuance in word choice is critical to set the right tone.
4. Use Color and light: Colors matter. Even the names of colors. Light. The time of day. Indoor or outdoor. Colors are associated with particular emotions so do some research on that and design your palette. You will be amazed how a few dashes here and there bring your setting alive.
5. Leverage shared cultural experiences: Seasons bring with them certain repeated experiences. As much as we crave the new and exciting, humans thrive on the familiar. So bringing a few comforting elements to your setting can help produce the feeling you want both with punch and economy of words. Think of spiced wine and apple cider, think of pumpkin pie and the smell of clove. Of sweet potato and hot chocolate. Careful though, certain cultural markings have been overused to become stereotypes, so make sure you add your flavor or personal twist.
A Bonus tip!
6. Use rituals: Rituals add richness to our human experience. In books, they help bring your world and sense of setting to a new level. Rituals work beautifully because they require little explanation; they are action-based rather than expository and by nature filled with emotion. Build even a small one into your narrative and see it breathe with meaning.
THE SECRET INGREDIENT
What makes an atmospheric setting work
If you think of any of those tales that touched you in that special way, stories that enveloped you, you will find a thread. Nostalgia. An always romanticized view of something that either was or we wish had been. This force can serve your writing tremendously, because it is an emotional shortcut. From monsters under the bed, to the joy of trick or treating or the glamour of a 1920's speakeasy, we share images of the past. Of childhood. Of simpler times. Of love. Even of sad things overcome. The past by its definition is bittersweet. When looking to imbue your setting with emotion, a glance back is critical. make it short and sweet. make it relevant. But don't forget to add a turn of the head to look at the past. Because the past, real or imagined is always powerful.
The secret ingredient is nostalgia. The past, real or imagined, is a powerful emotional trigger.
Dare always. Keep writing.