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What Gives a Novel Atmosphere?

K Caine

By K. Caine

K Caine Wonders What Gives a Novel Atmosphere?When I think about whether or not a story has atmosphere, I think about how I felt when I experienced it. Stories with atmosphere, for me, have associated feelings with them—and not just any feelings, but the visceral kind. When I think about atmosphere, I believe immersion can be an important part.

Immersion: It's About Telling Readers Where They Are

When I was growing up in the nineties, video games had static graphics at best. Your character moved steadily over an unchanged landscape, and if you stopped and looked around, there was no telling where you had been or where you were going. I still remember the first video game I played when my character actually left footprints behind, and it was so shocking to me that I stopped what I was doing and literally just ran around in the snow for a bit, because I could, because it mattered, because I could see where I’d been. Deeper immersion creates a more engrossing atmosphere, and that, in turn, leads to a more memorable story.

Think about the things that your characters touch, the ways in which the settings around them aren’t pristine. Are there fast food wrappers on the street, are there paw prints in the snow? What about the place where they’re standing is less than perfect? Does it smell like garbage, or like car exhaust? Are there mosquitoes humming around? Has someone been fishtailing their vehicle and left tracks in the gravel? Is the trail they’re walking on uneven? Have there been puddles left from the rain?

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When thinking about immersion, you should be thinking about realism. Immersion is basically the set design of storytelling—it’s the detail work of walking onto the stage, and deciding—okay, what goes on the desk? What dishes are they using in the kitchen? What kind of rug is on the floor? You shouldn’t stop your narration for this—goodness knows that we rarely stop and absorb all the tiny details of a place when we arrive there—but if you know what kind of details are there, then you can pull from that organically when you’re writing.

If you can take five minutes to stop and figure out whether your character writes their shopping list with a ballpoint pen or a fountain pen, that says something about them! And all of that information can be used to build atmosphere. If you’re looking to build a cozy atmosphere, but you’ve written a show-room perfect high-gloss kitchen—it’s harder to pull that comfort feeling from it. But if you have comfortable chairs, and a warm fire, and blankets, and maybe a cat—it’s a heck of a lot easier.

K. Caine is the author of A Study in Velvet and Leather. This is an excerpt from their Patreon essay on atmosphere.


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