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.

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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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.

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The Writer’s Digest Handbook of Short Story Writing

A good worker’s trade book

The Goodreads blurb is “Some of the best advice available on how to create character, use description, create a setting and plot a short story.” The Amazon blurb is “Here’s a collection of the most helpful articles from WRITER’S DIGEST magazine covering every aspect of short story writing. Every writer, from beginner to professional, will find guidance, encouragement, and answers to such concerns as how to make characters believable, developing dialogue, writer’s block, viewpoint, the all-important use of conflict, and much more.”

Definitely some advice although not until the third section (Characterization). The first two sections read more like Brenda Ueland’s If You Want to Write, basically cheering sections for those unsure and/or starting out (which is to be expected. This was the handbook for the Writer’s Digest Fiction writing course).

I can believe that the separate chapters were Writer’s Digest articles. They both read as such and, from a business perspective, why solicit for something already owned?

Is it helpful? Yes. I was suprised at how much new (to me), useful information the book contained (once I got past the rah-rah sections).

There’s enough in here to keep writers developing their craft going for quite a while. I do recommend it.

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What’s a “Flaknoc”? (revealing tech through characters)

Readers learn about your story’s tech by character action and reaction

I took part in a writers’ discussion a few nights back. The question “How do you describe future tech in your story so your reader understands what it is?”

I said, “You don’t. Your characters do.”

Huh?

Was this the economy Flaknoc? Hell, no!
Wait. What’s a “Flaknoc”?

 
So here’s an example:
Kia paced back and forth on the roof, hands across her chest, fingers tapping against her arms, waiting for Rory’s Flaknoc to appear. She considered sitting on one of the reinforcement pylons – they were such a pretty warning yellow, and strong because Rory insisted they get a luxury, six-seater Flaknoc with the dual hemolifts, not a two-seater, single hemolift economy model, oh no, not Rory – but moving gave her a chance to practice her outrage. She raised a hand to her brow at the end of each circuit, blocking the setting, midland’s sun, and each time debated getting a thermosuit; the air carried that early evening chill so prevalent since the third evacuation.
Ah. She heard the distinctive
Rummm of Rory’s Flaknoc. A moment later the air bubbled and Rory’s Flaknoc grew in the bubble’s center. Rory waved. Kia tapped her watch and glared at him.
He hovered. She didn’t move. He motioned her back. She took a step. He glared back at her, motioning her back again, the movement quick, hostile.
She moved just outside the blue landing circle and waited for him to reploy the Flaknoc’s shield. He jumped out, hurrying past her as she followed, one step behind, matching his gait, a harpy taking irritating nibbles when his back was turned. “Your skin has that nice pink tinge it gets when you break all the containment rules. Racing back again? I told you this Flaknoc’s shields weren’t safe. How many times — “
He spun on her, his hands raised in frustration. “I have no idea how many times. I’ve lost count.” He threw the energizing-stick at her feet. “Here, take it back. Take it back, get our money, buy something
nice and shut up.”

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