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5 Tips for Writing Atmosphere


This weekend I got a wake-up call that is already providing excellent help for the story I am currently editing.  It came in a workshop about writing short stories.  The instructor talked about bringing the setting to life through atmosphere.  I’ve often worked at finding different ways to express setting, to bring it alive for the reader. I use “ambience” as my guide for bringing it life. How does it feel or smell to the reader? What about noise?  That was the thought he put into making it come alive as “atmosphere.”  So how does that work? Here are five tips for providing atmosphere for your readers.

  1. Consider the characters and Point of View. One thing that really hit me as he talked about atmosphere was the different way each character might look at a setting. I remember my thrill the first time I visited New York and the urgency of the city.  I wanted to drink it all in. On the other hand, the first time I took my father to New York, that sense of urgency became a feeling of anxiety. Too much going on—things moving too fast. He was a man of the country and he wanted out of those canyons of tall buildings.  He preferred the feel of the open landscape. 
  2.  Remember the seasons. A cold winter day in New York was very different than when I visited in spring or the heat of summer. The ambience in the cold was a much different feel, not just in temperature, but in the flow of the city, not to mention the variety of smell and increase in exhaust fume. Again that change in sensations is the atmosphere you want to get across.

  3. Don’t forget to feed on all your sensations. To me sound can be just as important as the sights or smells.  The quiet of a summer afternoon on a Colorado prairie is going to be very different than the constant sound of ambulances or police sirens in downtown Denver.

4. Try to see it through your character’s eyes. I mentioned earlier about writing in different Points of View, but remember that a character’s overall view of life will be very different.  Again, going back to my dad – on another trip--this time to the Northwest. He surprised me as we reached the yellowing grass of New Mexico and its wide open plains. We had just driven across country from lush grassy hillsides in Oregon and Washington. But he was happy to see those wide open plains.  He confessed that he had felt claustrophobic in the middle of all those tall, close-in trees. 

5.  Soak in all the sensations and get them into your story. To my dad, that was the other thing about being back close to home. He could smell the grass, he said, and he hadn’t felt that when we were back east where the scents were to him very foreign, whether from cars or even to the damp scent of the forest. He was ready for a quiet evening, looking over the plains and feeling the warm, dry evening breeze.

Characters from different backgrounds will see your story atmosphere and setting differently and that’s one thing you need to remember and bring to life as a writer.    





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