Recently, I’ve been reading Maggie Stiefvater’s series The Raven Cycle, and what has blown me away (besides the characters, plot, and just amazing story overall) is her ability to create atmospheric settings. What I mean by that is that the settings evoke a specific feeling, and this feeling adds to the tension or heightens the mood of the piece. Atmospheric settings can sometimes be so evocative that they are characters themselves. I found this in The Raven Cycle series by Maggie Stiefvater, Jazz by Toni Morrison, and The Witching Hour by Anne Rice.
In my own writing, I’ve tried to develop this skill while building the backdrop of London in The Winter Garden and Brasshurst Hall in The Earl and the Artificer. While working on this skill, I’ve learned a few things.
- Write your scene first. Add your atmosphere after. I tend to write my scene in layers where I write out the dialogue and overall scene direction first. Then, I do a quick pass through where I add more detail until the scene is fleshed out. When it comes to writing, dialogue, plot, and character movement is much more important than atmosphere. My suggestion is always to work on your scenery after you’ve gotten the essentials down. This also tends to eliminate pages and pages of atmosphere/scene building because you already know what you need in your scene instead of tossing in everything and the kitchen sink just in case your character needs it.
- Know what you’re trying to evoke. It makes infinitely easier to build tension or heighten the mood if you know what you’re trying to accomplish. Ask yourself a questions. Is your story paranormal or a western? How does your genre affect the atmosphere of your piece? What’s the overall emotion in this scene? Suspense, mystery, anger, romance, sadness, etc. Does the feeling fit the genre or scene? Does it fit the characters? Sometimes the feelings will conflict with characters to create tension, but if it stands out in a bad way against the rest of your story, you may want to rethink what you’re trying to create.
- Figure out what your scenery looks like before you start adding it in. I don’t mean that you need to break out the Sims and start building an entire house, but you should know the major features or the features you hope to highlight. My suggestions is to jot down the defining characteristics of the character the scene relates to. For example, when I was creating Dr. Hawthorne’s home office, I knew he he was a busy doctor who was progressive for his day. This comes out in his bookshelf, which is filled with medical texts from scholars throughout history, and between books there are rather disgusting anatomical specimens in jars. Because he’s busy, his desk is covered in notes that need typing and random bits of paper for his own research. Personal spaces should reflect the characters who live in them. As always, knowing where you’re going makes it infinitely easier to avoid writer’s block.
- Focus on the senses. And not just sight. Pretend that you’re where your characters are. What would you smell? Could you taste or hear anything? The more sensory details you include, the more evocative your scene will be. When I get stuck in this area, I go onto Pinterest to look for photos or Youtube for videos of scenery or thunderstorms, depending on the scene. If need be, look up words to describe smells or tastes. I know I’ve looked up how to describe the smell of rain.
- When you’re all done, go back and prune. You don’t want pages and pages of atmosphere, so go back after you’ve written your scene and see if you can get rid of anything. Pay careful attention to word choice as you’re editing. Are your descriptions succinct and do they make sense? Show them to someone else and see what their feelings are about your descriptions. Sometimes what’s in our heads doesn’t come out on paper. Atmospheric writing should add to the scene, so if it’s doing nothing but adding to your word count, cut it.
If you’re trying to boost your writing skills and learn how to create atmosphere in your story, my best suggestion is to read and take notes on what other authors do. The best way to learn to write is to learn to read as a writer.
Do you have any examples of writers who rock at creating evocative scenery?