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.

Great Opening Lines – and Why! (Aug 2019’s Great Opening Lines)

A Pale View of Unbearable Lightness

I wrote in Great Opening Lines – and Why! (Part 3 – Some Great Opening Lines) that I’d share more great opening lines as I found them.

“Niki, the name we finally gave my younger daughter, is not an abbreviation; it was a compromise I reached with her father.” – Kazuo Ishiguro’s A Pale View of Hills
I’m amazed at how much is given the reader in that single sentence. I want to know that Ishiguro agonized over it, that it’d been through seventeen-hundred drafts, endless workshoppings, backs-and-forths with dozens of editors.

Either that or it’s one of those amazing flukes the author is unaware of until someone points it out to them.

We’re given the two focal point characters in that opening line; Niki and her mother. We learn that the mother is not happy with the name, but was willing to compromise on something that would be in her life forever – if that’s not character description nothing is.

We learn that “we” made the decision about “my” daughter. Possession but not ownership. Another character descriptive element.

We learn the mother prefers names that are not abbreviations. IE, names that have more meaning, more history. However, the fact that the mother thinks in terms of abbreviations lets us know that the mother sees things confined, constrained, walled-in.

In one sentence, we have the entirety of the book.

Note to readers: I explain in my Goodreads review that this book is a major fail. It’s got a killer opening line and the majority of the book is a worthy read. Ten pages from the end it died for me. Give it a read and let me know what you think.

“The idea of eternal return is a mysterious one, and Nietzsche has often perplexed other philosophers with it: to think that everything recurs as we once experienced it, and that the recurrence itself recurs ad infinitum!” – Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being
I (incorrectly) reference this book’s opening line in my Writers’ Corner Interview. The opening line offers this philosophical tidbit, the next line, “What does this mad myth signify?” asks the question and the rest of the book explores so many implications it’s staggering. The book’s seven sections dissect the opening posit from many angles (more than seven) and the first line’s theme recursed on every page.

I also appreciate that an opening line inviting readers to think may be a major downer to some. Never-the-less, this opening line prepares you for the exploration that begins in the second paragraph and doesn’t end until the butterfly circles the room and the piano and violin are faintly heard in the last paragraph. Definitely a keeper book.

Do you have any great opening lines you’d like to share?
I’d love to know them. There’s a catch, though. You have to explain in context why a line is great. Saying a line is great because it comes from some great literature doesn’t cut it. Quoting from archaic and/or little known works doesn’t cut it.

Feel free to quote from archaic and/or little know works, just make sure you give reasons why something is great. I stated the Great Opening Lines criteria back in Great Opening Lines – and Why! (Part 2 -What Makes a Great Opening Line?).

So by all means, make the claim. Just make sure you provide the proof according to the guidelines given. If not, your comment won’t get published.

Damon Knight’s “Creating Short Fiction”

Not one of the better books for emerging writers

Caveat #1 up front: I studied with Damon Knight a lifetime and a half ago. Caveat #2 I read the original hardcover, not the “The Classic Guide to Writing Short Fiction Revised Edition” paperback.

This was a fascinating read for me as I could hear Knight speaking throughout. Is it a worthy book?

Not convinced it is. There’s a lot in it and Knight provides plenty of exercises. What is not provided is clear, concise examples of technique. There’s lots of “Some people do it this way, others do it that way, you find your own way, and here are some exercises to help you find that way.”

I’m not an advocate of that “find your own way” school until you’ve learned the basics. In traditional Japanese martial arts, there’s a concept of “cutting” and if there’s anything demonstrating the “10,000 hour rule”, “cutting” has to be it. My point is (and all my teachers might agree), once you’ve got “cutting” down, everything else just happens. I prefer books that help you perfect your cutting then let you find your own way.

The book is strong on theory, weak on practice and application. There’s some good stuff here, simply not enough of it to make it a worthy read.

 

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Great Opening Lines – and Why! (June 2019’s Great Opening Lines)

A delightful science fiction mystery, a fantasy that’s never been classified as such, and both about gendering

I wrote in Great Opening Lines – and Why! (Part 3 – Some Great Opening Lines) that I’d share more great opening lines as I found them.

“The place stank.” -John W. Campbell’s Who Goes There?
Tight and direct. Simple and evocative. With nothing else, you know (or at least I did) the narrator’s gender, their background, their mindset, that the story’s going to be about some kind of unpleasantness, and what to expect.

It’s worth reading the entire opening paragraph because it builds so beautifully off that great opening line: The place stank. A queer, mingled stench that only the ice-buried cabins of an Antarctic camp know, compounded of reeking human sweat, and the heavy, fish-oil stench of melted seal blubber. An overtone of liniment combated the musty smell of seat-and-snow-drenched furs. The acrid odor of burnt cooking fat, and the animal, not-unleasant smell of dogs, diluted by time, hung in the air.

If you have any doubts after reading the opening line, the rest of the first paragraph leaves no room for questioning. The entire story is a masterclass in storytelling and storycrafing technique for authors and writers of any genre. I offer a full review on Goodreads

“He – for there could be no doubt of his sex, though the fashion of the time did something to disguise it – was in the act of slicing at the head of a Moor which swung from the rafters.” – Virginia Woolf’s Orlando
Here is the opening line to an incredible fantasy book that (as far as I know) has never been listed as fantasy. The first line tells the reader that the book is going to be about sex, but not coitus (there’s plenty of that, don’t worry), instead sexual identity. I’ll admit here that transgendering is an oddity to me. So many people feeling a need to specify “He/Him” and “She/Her” in their social profiles. I wonder if this need to publicly self-identity is the outcome of better surgical techniques, increased awareness, or something indicative of the unsurety of our cultural identity as a whole.

Such concerns didn’t exist in Woolf’s time. She was able to write a political novel with a protagonist who could – quite literally – take a long view and the fantasy element is subtly hammered home in the last chapter. Hinted at in the first line, hammered in the last chapter – Yowza!

Nice.

I’ve written a full review on Goodreads.

Do you have any great opening lines you’d like to share?
I’d love to know them. There’s a catch, though. You have to explain in context why a line is great. Saying a line is great because it comes from some great literature doesn’t cut it. Quoting from archaic and/or little known works doesn’t cut it.

Feel free to quote from archaic and/or little know works, just make sure you give reasons why something is great. I stated the Great Opening Lines criteria back in Great Opening Lines – and Why! (Part 2 -What Makes a Great Opening Line?).

So by all means, make the claim. Just make sure you provide the proof according to the guidelines given. If not, your comment won’t get published.


Yes, this post is about a week late. This blog was transferred and it took a while. Sorry for the delay.

Charles R. Swindoll’s “Touching Others With Your Words”

An interesting read if you’re an anthropologist studying this segment of modern culture but not worth most writer’s time

First, it fascinates me that my copy is entitled “Touching Others With Your Words/The Art and Practice of Successful Speaking” and the Amazon version is “Saying It Well/Touching Others With Your Words.” Perhaps between my edition and the current one the author learned the importance of concision in crafting titles?

This book is about crafting good sermons. But good sermons are essentially good stories. Does the author provide enough insight into good story-telling and -crafting to make it a worthwhile read?

For my part, not really. Unless you’re evangelical, it takes a lot of reading to find the nuggets worth keeping.

Greetings! I'm your friendly, neighborhood Threshold Guardian. Members can view the rest of this post by simply Logging In. Non members can view the rest of this post by joining. All posts are free to all members save certain posts in the My Work category. Enjoy!