Just like painters use different colors, techniques, and brushstrokes to create life on a canvas, a skilled writer can use literary techniques to evoke an atmosphere that is as tangible as the real world. Whether you’re writing about characters creeping into a haunted house, adventuring across a fantasy realm, or stumbling into a meetcute on a rainy summer’s day, developing a strong atmosphere can pull your reader into the story and make them feel like they’re living it themselves.
What is atmosphere in writing?
The atmosphere of a story similar to the mood, but “mood” usually refers to the emotion of the overall scene, while “atmosphere” means the emotion of the setting of that scene. It’s your setting’s ✨vibes✨.
Understanding how to control the atmosphere of your story can help you to make your reader feel the things you want them to be feeling. This is something a lot of writers struggle to master, but it’s also one of the most fun things to write!
If you can use atmosphere to create a more engaging, immersive story, you’ll be able to pull your readers into the story and hold their attention through to the end.
How to write strong atmosphere: 5 steps
Here are five guidelines you can use to craft a strong atmosphere for your stories.
1. Write with the five senses
This is a basic one, but it’s so important. When writing atmosphere, consider all of the senses–not just sight and sound. What does it smell, taste, and feel like? Of course, not every one of the senses will be necessary for each scene’s goal, so choose the most effective ones.
If I’m writing about a swamp (which I often am), I’m probably writing with every sense. There’s a ton to look at, there’s a ton to hear—water splashing, frogs croaking, mosquitos buzzing, cicadas screaming, other bugs—just a shit ton of bugs. It smells like a dryad corpse. Or a human corpse, depending on where you’re at. You feel the humidity and, if you’re walking, you’d feel the twigs and bones poking at your feet. Swamps are creepy. It’s an atmospherically rich setting. That’s why I write about swamps so much. I think they’re sexy and terrible.
Here’s the opening bit from The Swamp Witch to show you what I mean:
Marigold leans her head against the back of her rocking chair, eyes closing to swamp buzz and raven caws. She grinds herbs in a mortar and pestle by touch. Her bare feet stretch out on the porch, warming in the setting sunlight. A June bug flies in lazy loops, knocking gently against the shack.
Her eyes are closed here, so we’re getting zero visual input. We hear the rocking chair creaking, the “swamp buzz,” the ravens, the June bug. She feels the mortar and pestle grinding and the warmth of the sun on her feet. She lives here, so she wouldn’t necessarily be noticing the smell of the swamp right now, because she’s used to it.
This is what I’m talking about when we can write with every sense, but it won’t necessarily serve the story, or in this case, the character perspective. This is also a pretty kind description of a swamp, and that’s because Marigold lives here, so she’s comfortable. Any other character describing it would probably make the swamp sound like a much worse place to be. We even see that when she gets visitors—the way they interact with the setting is much different than the way Marigold does.
Other times in the story, we do use other senses because it works for those scenes. For example:
Marigold hefts the bucket to her hip and walks with moonlight. She picks her steps along a familiar path, toeing from low cypress knee to grass tuft to avoiding sinking her feet in mud.
The crabs’ pointed legs titter against the metal bucket. She sings to them.
When the sun beams hottest, the swamp smells like old meat left to turn. But at night, it’s earthy. Marigold likes to take her walks in the dark.
We get to “see” how the swamp looks at night. We hear the crab legs “tittering,” which is a fun, light-hearted word. Instead of really focusing on how the swamp smells during the day, which is gross, Marigold takes walks at night, when it smells less like that. So we’re still getting an accurate description of what it’s like to live here, but Marigold likes it, so we’re focusing on the good and using positive word choices.
With the crabs, they’re scratching against the metal bucket, so we could describe it sounding like fingernails on a chalkboard, we could villainize the crabs, and that would change the atmosphere of this scene. What could be a scary, dangerous trek through an unlit swamp, is framed like a lovely midnight stroll, because it’s Marigold and she’s insane. That’s atmosphere. It’s how your reader should feel about a setting.
2. Utilize language
Word choice has a lot to do with atmosphere. Like we pointed out with the previous example, the crab legs tittered like a laugh instead of a scraping or dragging of nails type description. So you can describe the same thing two different ways, and you might end up with the same imagery, but based on your word choice, your reader could feel two completely different ways about it.
Certain words have certain connotations, so if you’re writing a spooky scene, you will use spooky words to describe it. I once critiqued a story about two men who are about to get abducted by aliens, and they’re running away. It’s a tense moment, and it was effectively described, but one of the words the writer used was “bounding”. And to me, that sounds like skipping, like it’s a fun word. It’s serving Tigger, which was not the goal of the scene.
3. Pay attention to syntax
The way you structure sentences can have the same effect as word choice, so pay attention to syntax. The pacing of your individual sentences can contribute to the atmosphere. Like we’ve talked about with fight scenes or any action sequence: If your sentences are shorter and clipped, the images might come to your reader in flashes, which can make it feel more tense and fast paced. If you’re going for like a melancholy, reflective bit of prose, you might use longer, more complex sentences to make your reader feel like they’re kinda moseying along with you.
I have a scene in my current novel where a character has just come out of a high stress situation and she’s walking in the woods afterward. And the woods are supposed to be very comforting and a little enchanting, so the description is written in long, flowy sentences to kind of convey the calm, almost dream-like state, the forest puts her in.
Word choice and syntax pull a lot of weight for building atmosphere.
4. Create an immersive writing experience
For a lot of writers, headspace is incredibly important to their process. If that sounds accurate to you, you might try creating immersive writing environments when you want to nail your atmosphere.
If you’re writing a scene set in a cave, turn your lights off, turn on an echoey ambiance playlist. If you’re writing a scene set in public from the perspective of a socially anxious character, maybe go sit in a busy coffee shop and pick up some details that might make a person nervous.
You can use playlists or scented candles or whatever to try to get yourself in the headspace to write for that particular atmosphere. MoMo O’Brien-core.
I like to watch scary movies then write in the dark if I need to write an unsettling scene, and I’m sure that trick can work for lots of genres. So putting yourself in a tangible version of your desired atmosphere might help you hone it a little easier.
5. Keep something in mind while you write
I have a setting in one of my books that’s an underground cemetery type place. When I write in that setting, I picture one particular gravestone and how it looks, how it’s lit, the moss growing on it, all of that. That’s the image that comes to mind, so I write the whole setting and the scenes that happen there with that vibe. It’s a good trick for consistency through a scene, and for that particular setting throughout the entire book.
If you’re not visual, you might come up with a word or a phrase that you associate with this atmosphere. And basically, being able to conjure that image or that phrase keeps the atmosphere steady.
If you’d like to see these tips in action, check out this video where edit scenes sent in by my patrons:
Writing strong atmosphere allows you to transport your readers to a vivid and immersive world, evoking emotions and capturing their imagination. By paying attention to the elements of setting, sensory details, and tone, you can create an atmosphere that resonates with your readers and lingers long after they finish reading.
Considering all five senses and which ones are relevant for that setting’s atmosphere, paying attention to word choice and syntax, trying to create immersive writing experiences, and keeping an image or phrase in mind as you write can all help you create the atmosphere of your scene.
Ultimately, a strong atmosphere engages your readers on a deeper level, forging an emotional connection and making your story come alive. So, take the time to cultivate the atmosphere you desire, and let your readers become fully immersed in the world you’ve created.