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CREATING ATMOSPHERE

July 25, 2017

The world your characters live in isn’t static, a flat black-and-white place where everyone just moves and talks. It’s a dynamic environment. There’s color and objects and smells and feelings to go along with whatever they’re saying and doing.

When we’re writing, we sometimes have the tendency to get too much in the action or dialogue and forget about the world itself. I’m sometimes guilty of that. On the other hand, if you’re of a literary bent, it can be just the opposite. You’ll get so much into describing the world, you forget about the characters actually doing something and endlessly drag on with descriptions of the world and the characters. They never go anywhere or do anything.

There has to be a balance.

Since I’m a get from point A to B with the minimum of fuss type writer, I’m all for word economy, so I’m likely to be more action and dialogue and skip out on the descriptions, or not add in enough. I’ve learned, especially through my writer’s group when I’m getting skimpy with atmosphere and how to add it in when I’m not doing it enough. When I read for pleasure, some writers drag on with description and I tend to skip over that if it gets too much. A little I like, so in those examples, I tend to pay attention. That’s what I model my own writing after because I figure, if I pay attention to it, more than likely, others will do the same.

All it takes is a few words or lines sprinkled here and there.

EXAMPLES

Mary walked down the path toward the cottage. She dreaded confronting Roger. It had to be done.

Oh…kay. Something is happening. A little drab though.

Mary walked down the path toward the cottage. The smell of the lavender brushing against her legs distracted her negative thoughts. A light breeze ruffled her hair. She whisked it away from her face. “I don’t want to confront Roger, but it has to be done,” she muttered under her breath.

Atmosphere.

Jorin stared across the gap at the freighter, rolling in the swells. It listed to port, the stern partially raised as the ship took on water. “We don’t have much time.”

            “I’ll get the Zodiac launched. I hope there’s someone alive over there.” Lars turned without another word and headed for the hatchway.

We get the idea, but it could use a bit of spark to go with the action and dialogue.

Jorin stared across the gap at the freighter, rolling in the swells. A stiff breeze ruffled his hair, salt droplets dribbled down his face and into his mouth. The thick air descending from the southwest hinted at ozone from the oncoming storm. The ship, a possible derelict, listed to port, the stern partially raised as it took on water. He gazed up at the sky. “We don’t have much time.”

            “I’ll get the Zodiac launched. I hope there’s someone alive over there.” Lars turned without another word and headed for the hatchway.

Atmosphere.

Now, the above two paragraphs could be further picked apart, of course, but that’s not the point. I’m not out to give you the perfect sentence, the ultimate grammatical phrase. If you can do better, knock yourself out. They’re merely examples to illustrate my point.

Which is…

YOU DON’T HAVE TO WRITE A BOOK…

What I mean is that you don’t have to write a book within a book to describe things. You don’t have to overdo it if you’re writing action-based fiction. Or, even non-fiction. When you’re adding atmosphere to your prose, you don’t have to throw the book at your reader.

You don’t have to beat your reader over the head with minutiae!

Just a few words here and there, a few sentences. Modify a sentence, add a phrase.

Word economy to enliven the action and dialogue.

I admit I’m just as guilty as the next for under-describing at times. I like to get to the point. At the same time, I sometimes will spend an entire paragraph describing something. It may be a relatively short paragraph, especially compared to many of my contemporaries, but considering the rhythm and flow of my own prose, those paragraphs tend to stand out. When I read to my group, they take notice.

“That paragraph’s too long.”

“It’s too listy.”

“It needs to be broken up.”

This “long” paragraph may only be four sentences, yet in contrast to the rest of the prose, it may appear way too large.

You have to keep that in mind with your own style.

I personally prefer short paragraphs when I read. I like to see space on the page. I think long and hard before I pick up a book in the bookstore when I see wall-to-wall words. That tells me the writer is wordy and likes to ramble. I certainly don’t want to do that myself!

SUMMARY

Whatever your ultimate style is going to be, you don’t need to throw the book at the reader to add atmosphere. All you need is a few carefully placed phrases here and there with description, to add in enough detail to set the frame of reference, the mood, the tone, the setting. It adds color and atmosphere.

Happy writing!

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