Something you might not know about me is that I absolutely love to paint. It’s my way to destress (or at least it was before I adopted a dog who likes to lick wet canvases and palettes). I’ve been drawing, painting and creating art for as long as I can remember and I think that’s why I’m so drawn to atmospheric stories. These stories have an added artistic element that allows my very-visual self to really sink into the stories and experience them alongside the character. Over the hundreds of manuscripts I’ve read, I’ve noticed that the authors who create an incredibly vivid atmosphere for their story are the ones who utilize every element of their writing to maintain that picture.
Atmosphere refers to the way the story pulls you into the world and paints a picture so vivid that it takes you a minute to remember where you are when you put the book down. It draws from every single element of craft and when all of these elements are working together, it creates an incredibly powerful form of imagery that will strengthen every one of those nontangible elements that push a book from great to abso-freaking-lutely amazing!
My favorite tip for creating a story with incredible atmosphere is to use a vision board. This could be on Pinterest, or you can print out the pictures you find and create a collage. If you’re writing in first person, put yourself into the mind of the character by making your desk look like you’re at their desk instead. If you’re not a visual person, make a playlist that puts you in the world you’re creating. Writing about warriors? Workout/box/get a wooden sword and hit things before you sit down to write. Whatever it is you need to do to get into the mindset you need to create the world you’re envisioning. And, for the love of God, don’t think about creating atmosphere while writing your first draft. Just get into the right mindset and you’ll naturally create at least a whisper of it on your own.
While editing, look at every element for consistency. Are you using words that would have been used in the era/world you’re writing in? What is the feel of the word you’re using? Would sad, mournful, solemn, or distraught fit better in the atmosphere you’re creating. It’s kind of like matching clothes; some words just go together.
Let’s say you’re writing a historical mystery with elements of horror (SEND IT TO ME!). Chances are, you’re not going have a character think “Whatever” and roll her eyes. Atmospheric elements you could use might be fog, rain, dark corridors (notice the word choice. Not hallways, corridors), big dresses in muted tones, castles on cliffs overlooking the sea, desperate or deranged characters, top hats, and a mysterious stranger who is hiding a secret. Is he dangerous or should we trust him?
Is the city dirty or pristine? Is there smog everywhere or is the city “green.” What fits within the story you’re telling and the atmosphere you’re creating? You can have both atmospheres to your story. Look at how much of a contrast Suzanne Collins has between the districts and the Capital in Hunger Games. This contrast might be a huge thematic strong point in your story. The main goal is to know what atmosphere you’re working toward and to edit yourself accordingly.
As I hope I’ve explained, you don’t need pages of description to show the atmosphere of your story. (Sorry Tolkien) Pick and choose your adjectives and adverbs wisely and you’ll have a story that readers want to sink into time and time again.