When an editor mentions “atmosphere,” they aren’t talking about the barometric pressure in the air. In regards to the tools of writing, atmosphere is the culmination of descriptive words that give the reader a sense of the world your characters inhabit. The way those same characters respond to the world you’ve created defines the tone. What you should aim for in your work is an atmosphere so potent that you will feel as if you’re standing in the story; a sensory experience as it were. If you find your manuscript is failing to connect, atmosphere and tone might be just what you need to cut through the static.
One does not simply use adjectives and call it a day. Atmosphere takes place in several levels of the writing process such as the setting, or the theme of the overall story. Oftentimes mood is used interchangeably with atmosphere, though this isn’t entirely correct. Mood is the product of tone and atmosphere; in short, your endgame. If you are trying to convey a negative mood, there will be negative descriptors. Contrary to mood, adjectives for atmosphere tend to carry more physical or visual weight, such as somber or bleak.
One of the best examples of atmosphere in writing is gothic literature. This genre’s entire existence relies on the atmosphere within its pages. A prime example of the gothic genre would be everyone’s OG vampire lust object, Dracula. The story begins with Jonathan Harker detailing his journey; he describes howling dogs, queer dreams, dark skies, and reticent locals whom invariably cross themselves as he sets out to Castle Dracula. This slow start is a gentle lure that, much like poor Mr. Harker, is dragging you deeper to your dark fate.
A good way to figure out which atmosphere to build is to write out how you want your readers to feel. Is your story horror, romance, or science fiction? What kind of scenes do you associate with these genres? What kind of a place would your atmosphere be found?
Let’s take whimsical as an example for atmosphere. What springs to mind?
- do you imagine a million little bubbles floating along on a clear day?
- or the dappling of sunlight through a colored window as those reflections dance across surfaces
- perhaps you imagine a sky filled with hundreds of hot air balloons
Making a list of adjectives that fall under your atmospheric mood is another avenue at your disposal. Once again looking at whimsical, what descriptors would you use to “set the mood”?
Now you have the broad concepts for setting, as well as words that can play off the locales to heighten the reader’s immersion.
Next up is atmosphere’s cool older sibling: tone. Much like atmosphere, tone is based on the word choices you make. Tone imposes a feeling on us by building on the ambiance of atmosphere, thereby adding to the sensory portrait we want to create.
While atmosphere is the emotional response derived from the setting, tone is the attitude of your MC. One of the most entertaining examples of tone in a writing piece is Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal. Perhaps one of the best satirical pieces to be written, A Modest Proposal does not pull any punches. From the outset, Swift emphasizes the disparity of the situation for the impoverished Irish. He bemoans the annoyance of the poorer class, begging and being unable to feed their children. The text has the reader thinking he must be a pompous jerk, until he delivers his ultimate shade: he recommends the rich eat the excess children as they are not contributing to society. He even goes so far as to calculate the number of children that are “useless” or “unneeded.” This he suggests, solves the problem of the disavowed lower class. The tone that he sets is one of absolute scathing condescension towards the upper class and their ineptitude to do no more than complain.
To write tone, you just have to imagine what kind of person your MC will be, and how they will respond to the world you make for them. Are they chill and flexible, or are they stern and unmoving?
Let’s revisit that whimsical atmosphere. There isn’t a limit to the options for tone, but to keep things simple we’ll show two kinds. The first will run parallel with the atmosphere, while the second will contrast it.
- When sunlight hit the stained glass orb, Millie stared in awe as the reflections skipped across the room, reminding her of the faeries in her stories.
- The children cried out in delight at the mass of bubbles; Mark looked on with a sneer, knowing that such joy was fleeting.
These characters each respond in a unique manner to the atmosphere, affording us two very different tones. It’s these varying interactions and styles that lend a bit of zest and nuance, making your work stand apart.
Atmosphere and tone work in writing similarly to a soundtrack in film; you don’t often realize its importance until it falters. Just as a score crescendos or quiets, these devices too can be utilized to push the plot, up the pacing, and add tension. When used properly, tone and atmosphere can add an emotional depth that engages the reader, pulling them further into the story, insisting they turn the pages to see what comes next.