Atmosphere Is…

Using physical descriptions to create emotional reactions in the reader

Regular blog readers have seen my reviews of writing books. I distill these readings into easy to use and remember storycrafting and storytelling chunks and will share my learnings in this blog.

Writing what I’m learning, explaining it, helps me understand it. Or let’s me know I don’t. Please feel free to comment and let me know when you’ve got something different. The whole point of this exercise is to learn!


Atmosphere is the presenting of physical details so as to create an emotional reaction in the reader. Emotional reaction is what allows the reader to identify and empathize with characters in the story.

 
Consider the line “Eric stopped as Julia entered a copse of ancient, dark boled trees” from a horror story I’m working on.

The details relevant to Atmosphere are “stopped” and “a copse of ancient, dark boled trees.” The word “stopped” tells us Eric doesn’t want to do something and what he doesn’t want to do is follow Julia into “a copse of ancient, dark boled trees.”

I hope readers experience some tension, some foreboding, and at the same time want to read more to learn 1) why Eric stops and 2) what happens to Julia in the copse. People have walked among old trees and loved the experience. But chances are people enjoyed walking in a brightly lit forest, sunlight streaming through the leaves of ancient trees or perhaps a forest rich with the sounds and scents of wildlife nesting in old trees or maybe a woods with rustling leaves and grasses guiding travelers on their way.

Such descriptions are longer than a copse of ancient, dark boled trees and intentionally so. I kept the phrase a copse of ancient, dark boled trees short to create a sense of confinement, entrapment, to make readers ill-at-ease; all emotional responses to physical details.

Creating reader emotional reaction is important to successful fiction and non-fiction writing. You want the reader involved, engaged. A bored reader stops reading your book and worse, won’t buy another one you’ve authored. An unengaged reader doesn’t care about your characters, your plot, your story, and ultimately, won’t care about you as an author.

The line Eric stopped as Julia entered a copse of ancient, dark boled trees should make the reader sympathize more with Eric than Julia because Eric is showing caution while Julia is entering that copse of ancient, dark boled trees and people (in rea; life) tend to favor caution.

That sense of confinement, foreboding, discomfort, ill-at-easeness comes from the words copse (a dense growth of trees), ancient (anything ancient’s going to either be very, very good or very, very bad), dark (it’s going to be bad), and boled (even if you don’t know what the word means it just sounds like something that’ll hurt you) to create a malevolent atmosphere.

Readers read stories with characters they can sympathize with, characters they can identify with, characters they can empathize with. Place a sympathetic character in a malevolent situation and the reader identifies with them because everybody’s been in at least one bad place in their life and wanted to get away, hence readers will empathize with Eric’s situation and want him to get away.

Use physical details to give the reader a sense of environment beyond “this is where it happens.” The copse of ancient, dark boled trees signals the reader that nastiness will occur.

Eric doesn’t want nastiness to occur. Readers want nastiness in their horror stories, not in real life, and that desire to keep nastiness out of their real life creates empathy with Eric. Hopefully (and without being consciously aware of it), the reader is feeling, “Get out of there, Eric! Be brave some other day!” while simultaneously wanting Eric to follow Julia into the copse where nastiness will occur because that’s where the interesting stuff happens.

Make sense?

Let me know.