Elements of Setting: Atmosphere

Ciao, SEers! Today, we’re moving on in the setting series. We’ve already discussed time and locale. Today, we’re going to discuss what’s probably my favorite element: atmosphere.

Another way to think of it is “mood.” What can you include in your story that will impact the emotions the character feels? (And, consequently, what the reader feels.)

Common Attributions

I really wanted to call this symbolism, but I didn’t want to confuse anyone. Yes, if there’s a dove in your setting, you could be trying to represent peace. But that’s not (exactly) what I mean. There are places in this world that (whether it was a conscious marketing ploy or an accident of nature) we tend to associate with particular emotions. Paris is considered (by most) to be the city of love. That doesn’t mean it’s the only romantic city in the world. But if you set your story in Paris, particularly if it’s a romance, people are going to look for the warm-fuzzies. If you want to step back from the global-level and go down to the small-scale details, you can choose a private lanai in Hawaii at sunset. Or a bucket of champagne by a crackling fire in a five-star ski chalet.

Suspense fans know what they’re getting into the second the car breaks down by the abandoned, rundown mansion. Or when the fog rolls across the tombstones at the cemetery.

Yes, these are tropes. They’re bordering on the cliche. (I maintain, as tired as some of these are, it’s what you do with them and not the settings themselves that determine how overdone they feel.) But they are easily recognizable and more than carry their weight with respect to developing a certain mood to your story.

Meaning Reassignment

I know I just made a case for using the tried-and-true recognizable settings to evoke specific moods. Now, I’m going to turn that on its head.

Sometimes the best way to create a mood is to take what readers feel comfortable with and assign the opposite meanings to it.

Suspense writers, can you take that same romantic chalet and make it terrifying? Of course you can. Make the power be cut instead of the lights turned off intentionally. Make the gentle snowfall an escape-blocking blizzard. Make the guy with all the right words and better dance moves lock your heroine inside… and come at her with the pointy end of the wine opener.

Maybe you choose to make it more subtle. How can a beautifully decorated Christmas tree indicate pain instead of joy? Maybe the ornaments were all hand-crafted by a loved one who recently passed away. How does the smell of freshly baked bread make your character sick? Maybe that’s all he had to eat as a boy, and it reminds him of lean times. (Bonus points if his mother went to prison for stealing a loaf of bread and he grew up alone on the streets.)

You get the idea. For every instance where the familiar easily sets the mood, there’s a way to make it mean something else to the main character. That’s when you get to show your creative skill.

I think you can see how atmosphere can elevate the mood of your story, impacting both the character’s and the readers’ experiences. Next time, we’ll discuss setting as it relates to attitude. In the meantime, I’d love to hear how you use common attributions and meaning reassignment effectively in your work. Let’s talk about it below.

74 thoughts on “Elements of Setting: Atmosphere

  1. I must admit, I have that less is more, white room syndrome. I try to use setting to my advantage, but fall short most times on the first draft. It takes several passes and edits and even sharing with my reading partners.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m burned out on the four main supernatural creatures (zombies, werewolves, vampires, and witches). I think the only reason Twilight succeeded was because the vampires were sparkly in the sun instead of dying, as the writing was inexperienced and the story itself was nothing new. I like your idea about intelligent zombies. That could breathe new life into a tired trope. Thanks for weighing in.

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  2. Thanks for a great piece and some entertaining reading. I was particularly laughing about “city of love”. I spent much of last night writing a love (sex) scene in the most unromantic of places between a deranged woman and drunk man who does not like her. Oh, for it to have been Paris and a real romance. So much easier. The scene is necessary to the story, but it is no fun trying to write it. Fourth attempt but I may have it right this time.

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  3. In Papala Skies young teen Rochelle finds herself in wilderness at night in the scary new place she will have to live, but in her mind she transforms this world into her familiar life in Chicago– the cliffs become skyscrapers, the starry sky Adler Planetarium, etc. I shift atmosphere from reality to impression, which is cool for enhancing POV. THANKS for a thoughtful post, Staci.

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  4. Pingback: Elements of Setting: Atmosphere – BlueJew Presents PiTe The Concept

  5. I love this thinking outside the box regarding atmosphere. I enjoy a story where the expected, or norm, is turned on its ear. I don’t think I’ve ever tried to write that way intentionally, but as a reader, I love it. Thank you for this thought-provoking post about story atmosphere. You gave me some ideas!

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  6. You make some excellent points here, Staci, and ones that I hadn’t really focused on but were behind the dissatisfaction I’ve felt with some of the books I’ve read. When authors stick to the same stock ideas, the tale becomes predictable and stale – akin to the young woman who, knowing there’s something really dangerous in the area, goes down to the dark cellar to investigate strange noises. Turning a style on its head can bring a freshness and tension to a story that elevates it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I used to love the campiness of slasher films. Now I find them boring. And that’s exactly why. How many teenagers in the woods are going to go into the trees by themselves? Or the boathouse? Or the creepy basement? I really like the idea of setting up that situation then just before the readers’ eyes glaze over, doing something unpredictable. Thanks, Trish.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Sometimes, in these tropes, you wonder why the protagonist does what they do. It’s obviously not a good idea to wander into the basement at night with only a torch when the electricity has failed. Even if nothing is there, there’s the possibility of tripping and falling headlong down the stairs. I certainly wouldn’t do it.

        Liked by 2 people

      • Speaking of ads, I love the one they air around Halloween where the four teens are idiots and hide in the shed where the chainsaw-wielding killer is standing. He removes his mask and rolls his eyes at them. Makes me chuckle every time.

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  7. What a fascinating post, Staci. You’ve given me much to think about. Switching out the expected (romance in Paris) with something threatening is intriguing. Hmm…I feel something brewing. 😊

    Liked by 2 people

  8. I like the idea of taking the expected setting/atmosphere and turning it into something opposite. I have an idea of doing that in an upcoming WIP. I hadn’t thought of it being the opposite, just the idea that sprang up.

    This is an important element that is sometimes lacking in stories. At times I’ve felt like I’m reading in white space.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I encounter white room syndrome more often than you’d think. I’m always mindful of setting when I write (because it’s my weakness), but I know I can do better.

      I love the idea of flipping something on its head. I know we’ve discussed this before (and recently). I believe, if done right, it can be refreshing. Thanks, Joan.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Pingback: Elements of Setting: Atmosphere | Legends of Windemere

  10. Excellent, Staci. I especially like your emphasis on the principles, steering us toward uses of symbols, tropes, and subtext to set the tone and mood without overdoing it. That’s the art of writing, and even though readers can’t always say why they love a particular story or author, the combination of techniques builds loyal fans. Thanks for your inspiring post!

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