Welcome back, readers! It’s Monday once again, and that means it is time for another Being a Better Writer post! But first, a bit of background.
Did you know that the first Being a Better Writer post went up August 2nd, 2013? It wasn’t on this site initially, being hosted on a free blog, but has since been transferred to here (it was The Art of Misdirection for the curious). Five days later, Misdirection being such a popular success, it was followed by a post on why writers need to read. Then a post on details. Before long, Being a Better Writer was a regular, weekly Monday post, and has been ever since, even when migrated from that blog and onto this site.
That means in just two months, BaBW will have been being regularly posted for six years. To put another spin on it, I only published my first book in February of 2013. I’ve been doing Being a Better Writer almost as long as I’ve been published. Once a week, baring holidays. That’s something like 47-48 posts a year. For six years.
All provided free of charge for any who may come across them. Being a Better Writer has appeared in college English course syllabi, on writing forums, on Reddit, and linked from just about everywhere. Sands, I’ve even had people attempt to “borrow” it. More than likely, there are a few places that have that I don’t know about too.
But again, all free of charge, and as of several years ago, now on an ad-free site.
The point I’m getting at? No, Being a Better Writer isn’t ending. Nor is it slowing down. There are enough writing topics out there that they’ll probably never run out. So don’t worry about that.
No, what I am suggesting is that if you’re a regular or long time reader of Being a Better Writer, don’t forget that there’s an author working to make ends meet behind the screen. One that has faithfully delivered a new Being a Better Writer post once a week, save holidays, for nigh-on six years. It’s a one-man show here on the other end where BaBW is concerned. Topics have to be found, research has to be done, the post themselves have to be written …Over six years that’s totaled over half a million words worth of writing advice. That’s a lot of material. If each BaBW post was condensed into an average lengthy novel (120,000) words, that’d make it a five-book series. Or just two shorter-than-average books of my own.
That’s a significant investment. I’m not trying to toot my own horn by bringing this to your attention, though. What I’m suggesting is that if you’ve ever found Being a Better Writer useful, whether it’s as the occasional reader, someone who shows up every week to read the newest post, a student from a college that’s syllabi made us of it … Whatever your initial cause for coming across it, please consider the fingers at the keyboard behind it. Maybe share the post so that more eyes can see it. Or, if you’ve got some spare cash, you can always purchase a book to support the author and see if they follow their own advice. You can even become a Patreon supporter, funding from which is used to keep the site ad-free.
But even a share is great. Did you like a Being a Better Writer post here on the site? Share it on Facebook, Twitter. Let those you know, well, know. They may find it just as useful.
Alright, I’ve said my six-year piece. Now, on to today’s post! Atmosphere!
So, we’ll start in the usual place: What on Earth do I mean when I say “atmosphere?” Well, at the most base, I’m talking about setting. The scene, the place, the locale.
Except that there’s more to it than just that. A setting is … well, a setting! A silver mine deep beneath the earth. A desert beach next to the ocean. A cabin in winter. These are all settings.
But an atmosphere is more than just a setting. Look back again over each of those settings I posted above. What do you envision with each one? What are they like? Does stating the setting alone give us much of a read on it?
No, it doesn’t. Because they’re just settings with no further development. If I go back and add to each one, well, then they start to be a bit more defined. Say, for example, if instead of “a silver mine deep beneath the earth” I’d written “a dusty silver mine deep below the earth.” How has the setting changed. Or rather, how has your feel of the setting changed?
See, as I said above, atmosphere is more than just a setting. A setting is just a place. But an atmosphere? Atmosphere is the tone, feel, or mood of a place. How it feels to be there. The aura it projects. How your character feels and acts while they’re there.
A good way to think about it, actually, is like a cardboard piece in a board game denoting a setting. Have you ever played a game that uses those before? I have. Use varies, but it usually shakes out that there’s a large bit of cardboard with a picture and a name on it that is “the setting.” This can be something like “The Plains” or “The Docks.” And that’s the given scenario for play so that the players can picture it.
However, a good game won’t just stop there. Sure, there are games out there that simply print up a list of six settings, and you pick one at random, and that’s all that you have. They’re just settings, but have no other purpose other than to give the players of the game a place for the action to take place.
In other words, they’ve told the players about the setting, and that’s enough for them.
But other games go a step further. They may have cards that will be shuffled into the deck that are specific to a setting, for example. “The Docks” may bring fog, limiting players’ choices or abilities. Or there may be flavor text on the setting, or cards associated with it, that offer details like “The boards creak beneath your feet. You can hear faint waves lap against the pilings. Are you alone?” Some games even ask players to develop these details themselves as they play, asking them to embellish their choice with each turn.
This, as a result, makes the setting more than a static place. Between mechanics that change the players’ choices, flavor text on the cards, and other elements, the players are shown how the setting affects them. The setting becomes fluid. Variable. Real. For the players, it’s not just an unchanging image, but a place now that has impact on each and every one of them and their decisions.
So, what does this brief aside on board game design have to do with writing? Well, it comes back to atmosphere, setting, and the difference between the two. Recall that I said the first approach merely told the players about the setting, while the second approach showed the same the setting by having it affect them? Well, the same is true for your writing, and comes back to an old phrase we’re all familiar with: Show VS Tell.
See, the very genesis of this post came from a writing chat I hang out in a where a new writer was trying to get their chops around a horror short but recognizing that their story was coming up short. One of the issues they were facing was that their setting was just that: A setting. All of the description of the locale the story took place in was “It was a room. It was creepy.”
Or something like that. You get the idea. This writer was telling readers what the setting was … and that was the end of it. They weren’t showing them any of it. As a result, their setting was just that: A static setting. There was no atmosphere. Nothing for the reader to dig into. It was “Scene A: We’re in a room. It is creepy.” and the reader was left with nothing else to go off of. The character moved through it, and that was that.
That’s a setting. But in any story (not just horror, where it is very vital), we want more than that. We want our reader to feel the place our character just set foot in. Remember above, where I said atmosphere was a tone, a mood, a feel of a place?
Well, if you’re a Futurama fan, you likely remember the episode where the Robot Devil loudly complains ‘You can’t just have your characters announce how they feel! That makes me angry!” (If not, here’s a link) And while the Robot Devil might immediately contradict his own statement, showing that there are some reasons to do just that, there’s a solid point that he makes. But even moreso with a setting. You cannot just tell a reader what the setting is, what the atmosphere is, and have it work. It doesn’t. You need to show them what the setting is.
Thankfully, this isn’t that hard to do. To give you an idea, I want you to picture someplace from your past, someplace you remember well, a place you would describe as having a lot of atmosphere.
Got it? Okay, now, what elements gave that place its atmosphere? What stands out in your mind? Was it the colors? The temperature? The sounds? The smells?
Now, how would a character you were writing react to or describe it? What would that setting be through their lens?
Now write that.
If that last bit sounds a bit challenging (it is getting inside someone’s head), then I’d suggest backing up a step and start with writing your own take on whatever setting you’ve come up with, from your own perspective or even treating yourself like a character in a story. Here, I’ll demonstrate.
Max stepped out onto the back deck of the boat, suppressing a shiver as the chill cold rolled over him, the warmth from inside the wheelhouse stolen away by the sharp winds. The deck rolled beneath him, a constant swaying rock occasionally punctuated by the sharp snap of an errant wave against the vessel’s side. Each sent a spray of salt water into to the air, and he turned his head to the side as the wind carried another wet burst across the back end of the boat, a drumming cascade of droplets rippling across his raingear. He let out a sigh, the sound buried beneath the rumble of the boat’s heavy diesel engine.
For the money, he thought as he made his way across the wet deck. Another wave crashed against the side of the boat, forcing his feet to shift once more. Another cascade of salt water swept after it, coating the back of the boat like errant rain. For the money.
Okay, that’s a bit rough, and honestly a bit heavy on the exposition … but this is an exercise. The point is to do more than just tell the reader “This was the back of a boat” but to show it in how the character reacts, what they feel, etc. In other words, to give it atmosphere.
Go ahead. Give it a try on your own. And don’t worry if it’s tricky. It’s an exercise, after all.
Now, one last thing I want to go into before I go: This can be more than just descriptions of the setting and how they feel. Sure, it’s nice to have a character note that the desert air is dry and dusty, but we can go further. Think about how an atmosphere will impact them! For example, we can have a character note “Hey, this place is dry and dusty” or we can have them try to speak, cough, and then clear their throat while mentioning how dry the air is.
Options here are limitless, and frankly, abounding. And they’ll be different for each character as well. Some, for example, wouldn’t be bothered by someplace being hot and dry. A character that’s terrified will focus on different elements than one that is tired.
Get into the minds of your characters. Use their lens to build the atmosphere of a scene. Don’t just give your readers a setting. Give them the character’s view.
So, recap. Don’t just give your readers a static setting. Give them an atmosphere. Show them the atmosphere. Think about the various elements of a place and how the character will perceive them, then relay that to the reader through action, observation, and even limitations (like a fog reducing vision or a freezer floor being slick). Build a place the reader can feel, not just see.
Good luck. Now get writing.