One of the greatest absences I sense in modern novels, poems, and short-stories is atmosphere. When did we lose it? Where did it go? And…why??? I don’t know that I could answer any of these questions. All I know is it’s gone, and I want it back.
So, what exactly is this lost element, atmosphere? Atmosphere is the underlying mood or tone of a piece of art. It’s what flavors and colors a scene, or a moment, making it more than the sum of its parts. In film, the soundtrack, lighting, set, and movement of the characters are powerful contributors to atmosphere. In paintings, the composition, palette, and focus play parts. In music, the instruments, dynamics, articulation, and tempo make all the difference.
Atmosphere really exists independently of subject-matter. A good author can take a scene in which the same characters are present, doing the same things, but make the reader feel any number of ways about it. The magic is in well-chosen details.
The atmosphere of a scene is a combination of physical and emotional elements. Look at the scene through the eyes of your characters in reference to what their currently going through. If your main character is walking down a beach, whether they are waiting for a boat that they are confident will arrive soon, or one that they’ve heard rumors may have gone down earlier that day.
Supposing it’s the exact same beach, the exact same time of day, and under the exact same weather conditions in both scenarios, what makes the difference? The main character’s focus, and the narrator’s descriptions set the atmosphere in this situation. Here’s the narrative for the more positive scenario:
He kicked along the shore, bouncing pebbles into the springy, flashing wavelets. For a few minutes he watched the minnows scatter, vaguely aware of the jeering laughter of the gulls as they took off with each other’s fish bones and trash. When the rumble of a boat faded in, he looked up, shading his eyes against the blazing sunshine. That wasn’t them, but that one scudding in off the hazy horizon could be.
And the more worrisome scene:
A few paces from the docks, he stopped and scanned through the tethered boats. Gulls screamed through the heavy air as one by one, all the boats in the bay docked. The sun glared on the agitated water, but the horizon was dark and the incoming craft seemed to emerge from behind a dark blue curtain. Another boat droned in. His eyes snapped to it. No. That still wasn’t them.
Some of the details are the same. Some differ. The things that stayed in both scenes were described differently. In the first scene, he idly kicked stones and noticed minnows—in the second, he got right to the point, searching for the boat. The “springy, flashing wavelets” of the first scene became “agitated water” in the second. First, the horizon was merely hazy. Second, it was a mysterious barrio between him and those he waited for.
Try writing some scenes like this. Try writing the same scene—possibly even one with the same dialogue—and putting it in a different context. Use the atmosphere to convey the feelings of the scenes differently.