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Exercise 35: Building atmosphere with word choice

Welcome to the last entry in our atmosphere series. I know this is a complex subject, but I think it’s worth exploring. If you want to achieve long-term success as a writer, you need to create stories that have an emotional impact on your reader–and atmosphere is a tool you can use to do that.

For today, I want to focus more on descriptive word choice. We talked about dialogue a few weeks ago, so check that out if you need a refresher.

The words you use to set up a scene, to describe your characters and what’s going on around them, are going to play into your story’s emotional tone. So start with thinking about what kind of tone you want–is this a romantic story, or a scary one? What should your reader feel when you’re writing this scene–think about physical feelings as well as emotional ones here. If it’s outdoors, keep the weather in mind, too.

I feel like it’s almost easier to write too much and delete puffy words later than it is to write too little and have to enhance a scene, but that’s one of those things that will vary among writers. Do what works best for you.

For the sake of the exercise, consider a scene you want to write. What’s going on? Look at what the characters are doing, and what they should be feeling. Next, think about the setting. Is it inside or outside? What’s the weather like? What kind of background noises might we hear? What about tastes or smells? Sensory description will help set a mood. Think about the geographic region, too–you might describe summer in New Orleans as sultry, but summer in New Mexico would probably be arid, right? If you’re a planner, it might help to create a mood board of words you think will describe your setting and scene before you sit down to start writing it.

Use sensory words as often as you can. Showing, rather than telling, is going to help you develop your atmosphere, but you need to use a light touch.

Write a short scene. Use sensory description and showing to help develop a distinct atmosphere. Do whatever you can to create an emotional tone that will stay with your reader long after they’ve finished it.

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Exercises

Exercise 34: Atmosphere and Pace

Last month, we talked about writing on macro and micro levels. Macro is the large scale of the story–plot, character development, and so on. Micro is the small scale–word choice, spelling and grammar, sentence structure. Both of these come into play when we’re looking at a story’s pace, and how your pacing affects your story’s atmosphere.

Macro level pacing

On a macro level, if you have a lot of high-stakes action events one after another, it’s going to make your story feel rushed. Readers might miss important details if they’re hidden in fight scenes or heated dialogue. On the other end of the spectrum, if you put a lot of emotional scenes or light, silly scenes in a row, it might make your readers feel like nothing important is happening. The story might start to drag. Either way, you’re going to have trouble maintaining an emotional tone that’s consistent throughout the story if the plot isn’t moving at a consistent pace.

Micro level pacing

On a micro level, you want to look at sentence structure and word choice as well as what’s going on with the story. If you’re writing a fight scene, or a fast-paced action scene, you want to lean into shorter sentences and smaller words. Use longer sentences and big words here and there for variety’s sake, but overall you want to be brief. It helps the reader move from one sentence to the next faster, which helps the scene feel like it’s moving faster. When you’re writing an introspective or emotional scene, you want to do the opposite. Longer sentences, more complex word choice, and lots of description will help slow your reader down and ease them into the scene.

Once again, your pacing will affect the tone of your story. Shorter sentences build can help you build tension, but you might lose the descriptive edge that helps you create your atmosphere if you’re not careful. Longer sentences give you plenty of space to be descriptive and build an atmosphere, but you need to use a light touch or you risk boring your reader.

Okay, let’s exercise

Rather than have you write a new story for this, I think it’s better if you go over an old one. Even though pacing is something I try to keep in mind when I write a story, I think it’s easier to adjust in a second or third draft. You really have to be able to see the whole picture when you’re looking at macro-level pacing, and I think it’s more efficient to do micro-level revisions after you’re finished with the macro changes.

Go back to one of your old stories. First, just read it. Make note of anything that seems like it’s moving too fast or too slow. Then do whatever you need to do to correct those problems; move scenes around, delete things that don’t add anything to the plot, add scenes if explanation is necessary. After that, try to focus on your sentence structure and word choices. Change anything that doesn’t help you maintain the emotional tone you want your story to convey.

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Exercises

Exercise 33: Dialogue and Atmosphere

Welcome to another atmospheric exercise! So far we’ve had an overview and then talked about using your setting to build an atmosphere. Today, I want to talk about how dialogue can affect your story’s atmosphere.

Your characters’ interactions play a part in creating your story’s mood. It’s not just what they say, but how they say it. What makes them open up to one another? When a character feels vulnerable, they invite the reader in closer to them. Think about confessions, emotional outbursts, secret crushes, fears, or regrets. Also consider what makes them happy, or what might make them laugh. Finally, look at what they don’t say–what they hide from one another, and how that makes them feel.

Think about how setting and dialogue might tie in to one another, too. People’s behavior will change somewhat depending on where they are. You’re not likely to see nightclub behavior during a religious service, for example. At least, not in any service I’ve ever attended…

If you’re looking for examples, I like The Hunger Games a lot because so much goes unsaid. It makes those moments when Katniss does let other people in that much more effective. She’s so closed off, which is understandable given her background, that I love seeing her when she’s vulnerable or trusting. Plus, when Katniss puts her faith in someone, it makes the reader want to trust them, too.

I also like Janet Evanovich’s Numbers mysteries. Obviously they’re mysteries, but the atmosphere is more humorous than anything else, and a lot of that comes from the dialogue.

Write a conversation between two characters. Use the setting and dialogue to set an emotional tone. If you want, you can revise a story you’ve already written to give it a bigger atmospheric impact.

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Exercise 32: Setting up atmosphere

Last week, we did kind of an overview on creating a mood or tone in a story. Today, let’s talk about how your setting can affect your story’s atmosphere.

Emotion

I touched on this last week, but I feel like it bears repeating. A rich atmosphere relies heavily upon senses and emotion. Before you get serious about inserting atmosphere into a story, take a moment to think about how you want it to resonate with your readers emotionally.

Setting

Believe it or not, a lot of your story’s atmosphere is going to come from its setting. You can use setting details to intensify a character’s emotional state or describe their situation, and ground your reader in your fictional world. Strangely, but maybe appropriately given the month, a lot of my favorite atmospheric stories are vampire novels–check out Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles, The Silver Kiss by Annette Curtis Klause, and Demon in my View by Amelia Atwater-Rhodes. Sometimes the characters and plots were overly simple, and The Silver Kiss had some pacing issues, but I felt like all of these authors succeeded in building atmospheres that lingered in my mind long after I finished reading the books.

There are a lot of ways to do this. We all know I’m not a planner, so although I try to keep atmosphere in mind when I’m writing, I usually end up refining it after I have my rough draft finished. Initially, I just want to have my characters exist in a world that seems believable. Everything else comes later.

You can choose a setting that meshes well with your characters and plot, or one that is juxtaposed to create conflict between the characters and their world. Then use sensory description to allow your readers to hear, see, touch, taste, and feel your characters’ surroundings. Showing, rather than telling, at key moments will also help you immerse your audience into the story.

A lot of this comes down to practice, so don’t feel bad if it all the pieces don’t fall into place right away. Like so many parts of writing, establishing atmosphere is a balancing act. Too little, and your story lacks impact. Too much, and it gets boring.

Write a short piece and try to incorporate as much of the above as possible. It doesn’t need to be a real short story with a structured beginning, middle, and end; a brief scene will do. If you’d rather, you can also go over something you already wrote and try to enhance that story’s atmosphere instead.

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Exercise 31: Atmosphere

It’s spooky time! Or, for those of you who aren’t interested in Halloween, it’s autumn! Either way, this is a perfect time to talk about atmosphere.

No, not the weather.

Atmosphere is the mood of a story. It brings your reader closer to your characters by allowing them to feel what the characters feel. Building a strong atmosphere relies on showing and telling, and sensory description, among other things. Stories with a strong atmosphere tend to stick in a reader’s mind long after they’ve finished reading, so it’s a skill that you want to develop as much as you can.

There are several elements to keep in mind when you’re trying to build atmosphere. First and foremost, you need to know what kind of emotional tone you want for your story. Then you can use your setting, dialogue, pacing, and word choice to set that tone. On Fridays this month, I’ll go all of these building blocks with you.

For our exercise today, I want to start simple–like I usually do when I introduce a new concept.

Reread a favorite story or two, and try to examine how the author set up the atmosphere in the story. What aspects of their writing make you feel things? What makes you think? Take a few notes if you need to and try to keep the concept in your mind next time you’re reading something new.

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Exercise 29: Micro Edits

I debated writing this at all. You can find a lot of apps out there that will help you deal with minor issues instead of doing it all yourself. Look into Grammarly and AutoCrit. I think even Google Docs has a grammar option. I don’t think an app is going to beat a human reader at spotting some errors though, at least not for a while yet, so critique is still an important part of the process.

Micro edits are where I spend most of my editing time. There’s a lot to say here, but I’m planning on breaking that down and covering specific topics in other posts, like the one I did about adverbs a while back. Today is just a general overview.

It’s more than just spelling mistakes

Although checking for spelling and grammar mistakes (aka proofreading) is a part of micro editing, there’s more to it than that. Micro edits take you down to the individual sentences and words that make up your story. If the macro level is plot and tension, the micro level is atmosphere and emotion. It actually does affect your story on a macro level, too; if your prose is tending toward purple and you spend too much time describing things that just don’t matter, you will kill your tension and ruin your pacing.

Rather than tell you to do these things in a specific order, I’m going to give you a list of what I like to look for, and you can address them in whatever order you please.

Homophones

These are words that sound the same, but are spelled differently and have different meanings. Think there vs their (or they’re). Hear and here. You’re and your. Dual and duel. Proofreading software doesn’t always catch these, so you’ve got to rely on a human reader to spot these mistakes for you.

Adverbs and other garbage words

You’d be surprised how much redundant words can puff up somebody’s word count. I’ve heard of writers who reduced their word count by tens of thousands when they cut out adverbs and other unnecessary words. I think the apps that I mentioned up above will flag a lot of these for you.

I wrote about adverbs before, so check that out if you haven’t already. Other words to look out for: that, just, even, or anything that’s next to another word that means the same thing.

I once did a critique for someone who insisted on writing entire paragraphs of sentences that were all saying the same thing but with slightly different words. And then they argued about it and said people wouldn’t understand it was important otherwise. You know what, though? Readers aren’t stupid, and writers need to have more faith in their audience. Pick one sentence. Get rid of the other four.

Sentence Length and Type

This sounds simple but can be a big problem. Some writers write lots of simple sentences in a row. It makes paragraphs sound choppy. They don’t flow well. Eventually it starts to feel repetitive and boring. (See what I’m doing here?)

Writing needs variety if it’s going to flow. Some of that variety comes from your word choice, and some of it comes from using different kinds of sentences. Short sentences can be emphatic. Long sentences help you relay complex ideas and information to your readers, but be careful about putting too many long sentences together without something to break them up; that can also become boring over time. (See what I did there?)

I know I mentioned it in the subheading, but I’m not going to go over all of the types of sentences today. This isn’t a grammar blog. If you’re interested in learning about sentence structure, here’s a great resource. When you’re doing a critique, if a writer’s sentences don’t blend and flow, and they feel choppy or heavy, point it out to them. If you’re seeing a lot of long sentences, you might also indicate where you think they could break those up.

Word choice

This can be a difficult one. Word choice plays a huge factor in your atmosphere, your characters, and pretty much every aspect of your story, from the big, obvious things to the little background details that some people won’t notice until they’re reading it for the third or fourth time.

It’s hard to distill everything about word choice into a few short paragraphs. Basically, you want to choose words that make the story sound true to itself, and the characters sound true to who they are. For today, just try to keep it in mind when you’re reading over a story. If something about a word seems out of place, look it up. If the definition doesn’t align with what you think the author is trying to portray, point it out to them so they can fix it.

Find a story to critique. Pay close attention to micro issues, and point out any problems you find to the author.

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Exercise 28: Macro Edits

Last week we talked about some of the differences between macro and micro edits. Today, I want to go all-in on macro edits, and what you might look for when you’re doing a critique of someone else’s work.

The easiest way to do a macro edit is to just read the story and make notes of anything that stands out to you. Look for inconsistencies, questions that go unanswered, scenes that feel like they’re moving too slow or too fast, and anything that seems over or under explained. Then try to think about why these things are issues.

Once you’ve identified the problems, and potentially the causes, make a note for the author. It’s not your job to come up with a solution or try and fix it for them, although you can make suggestions if you want.

Plot and Structure

Some of this is going to depend on whether you’re reading a short story or a novel. Short stories can get away with having fewer story beats, but the writing needs to be much tighter. There isn’t room for long, slow scenes or puffy language.

Plot Holes and Inconsistencies

A story’s plot is what takes a character from Point A to Point Z, and everywhere in between. A plot hole is when a character goes from, say, Point A to Point D, or from Point E all the way to Point L, without any transition or explanation of what happened in between.

Inconsistencies happen when the author loses track of what’s going on. A great example of this happened in a book I read a long time ago: The protagonist wrecked her car on her way home one night. The next morning, she got up and drove herself to a job interview, and then had to ask for a ride home because her car had been wrecked the night before. The author forgot about the totaled car for a minute, and accidentally had the character drive somewhere even though she didn’t have a vehicle.

This was an actual, NYT-bestselling book, that no doubt passed through the hands of several people before it went to print. I don’t know how they all missed this mistake, but somehow they did. I think they fixed it in a reprint, but I don’t have my original copy anymore so I can’t check. I don’t remember the title, unfortunately.

Pacing

The story’s pace is how fast the plot feels like it’s moving. Intense action events move pretty fast. Emotional events can feel heavy and slow. You need to balance them out so the story doesn’t rush or drag, but moves steadily toward the climax and resolution.

If the story’s pace is too slow, you’ll probably feel bored while you’re reading it. Pacing that’s too fast skips over details and can be confusing. It might also feel like a string of events that happen one after the other, without giving you time to process what’s going on or catch your breath. Either way, make a note for the author so they’ll know they need to look over it.

Character Development

Motivation and change

Dynamic characters naturally change over the course of a story. What’s important here is making sure that the changes are consistent and don’t come out of nowhere. Most scenes should have events that push characters to question or examine their viewpoints and correct course as needed. Characters also need something that motivates them to keep going, and that motivation can change as well.

Writers can get away with characters who don’t change as long as they reveal more of the character’s personality to readers over the course of the story. This is not my favorite thing to write or read, but I’m not going to make a big deal about it if I feel like the writer has done it well.

If you feel like characters are too static, or their choices don’t make sense, point it out.

Narration and voice

This could also fall into micro edits since it deals with word choice. Basically, the narration needs to be consistent and smooth. It also needs to feel like it suits the character that’s narrating the piece. Once again, if you notice anything that seems off, point it out. Maybe they’re using words that are too complex or too simple, maybe their accent changes, really anything that just seems awkward needs to be brought to the author’s attention so they can fix it.

Other

A lot of this comes down to inconsistencies. Like if you say a character lives in a one-story house, and then they go upstairs for something. Or a character who’s a total jerk is suddenly kindhearted out of nowhere with no ulterior motive. Really it’s just anything that makes you stop reading and start looking for an explanation. Some people like to focus on the theme of a story; I usually don’t get that technical. Same with symbolism and foreshadowing–some people are really into that sort of thing, but I don’t find them as appealing. If I notice an issue, I’ll point it out, but it isn’t something that I look for.

I’m sure I’ll write posts later that deal with more specifically and in-depth with some of these issues, but I feel like this should be enough to get you started. So check out today’s exercise below.

Find a story to critique. Read over it with an eye for some of the issues that we discussed today. If you have concerns, bring them up so the author knows what they need to address.

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Exercise 27: Macro and Micro Edits

Today’s exercise is less of an exercise and more of a rant, but bear with me please.

There are ways and ways of tackling your critiques, but today I wanted to talk about two very basic concepts: macro edits and micro edits. You can also apply these to your self-edits. Let’s go over what they are.

Macro

These are your big changes. Think plot, setting, story beats, character development. A lot of critiquers like to start with macro edits and work their way down to the micro edits because as you work, you might create more micro-level errors that need to be fixed.

Micro

Micro edits are small changes–but that doesn’t mean they can’t have a big impact on a story. These are things like spelling and punctuation, word choice, sentence length, and all those other fiddly little details. Many writers do this last, after they’ve fixed all of their macro level issues. These can be harder for some people for several reasons. Sometimes it’s because they don’t have strong grammar skills. Other times it’s because they get so deep into a piece that their brain skips over the mistakes.

How I do things

As much as I’d like to be a strictly macro-first editor, I have a hard time seeing what’s going on in a story if there are lots of micro errors.

I start by reading over whatever it is I’m planning to critique, and mainly taking notes. I will make low level micro fixes at this point if I find any. Like I’ll fix commas or apostrophes that are in the wrong places, or correct misspelled words, but that’s about it. Then I’ll work on macro edits, which we’ll talk about in more detail next week. After that, I’ll spend a lot of time on higher-level micro edits. Think word choice, sentence structure, and all of those little things that really make your prose shimmer and flow. This is where I spend most of my critiquing time, and I plan on writing several posts that will help you with this kind of work.

The important thing here is that you shouldn’t be rewriting the story yourself. That’s for the writer to do. All you’re going to do is make suggestions to the author. The actual process of that is going to be a bit different depending on what software you’re using. Google Docs has a suggestions setting that I like to use. Scribophile offers the option to critique a piece inline or with comments. Critters.org has a system where you use little carat markings and add comments. If you’re not certain how a system works, check the site guidelines before you start making notes on the document.

Examples of notes: “Start a new sentence here.” “Punctuation goes inside the quotation marks.” “This character’s name is Lula now, but it was Lola when you introduced her.” “This scene doesn’t add anything to the story, and it’s affecting your pacing. Include (some kind of information they might include) or consider removing it.”

You should also make note of anything you like about a story.

On to the exercise!

For today, I’m going to keep it fairly simple, but we’re going to get into more difficult material starting next week. I just want to try and start getting you ready for that today.

Find something to critique. I’ve been using Scribophile, but you can find authors seeking beta readers in Facebook groups, or on Twitter, Goodreads, or Reddit. You can also practice on your own work if you have something you’d like to go over. Read the story and try to identify errors that would be considered micro edits and errors that would be considered macro edits. Think about why those errors exist, and try to come up with ways to fix them. When you’re finished, share your suggestions with the author.

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Exercise 26: Checking for Adverbs

I warned you this was coming.

Wednesday, I wrote about different ways you can–but maybe shouldn’t–use adverbs in your writing. Today I want you to practice that.

Get out one of your older stories and highlight all of the adverbs. Then take a good, hard look at each one and decide if it’s the best word choice or if your story will be stronger if you replace it with something else.

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Exercise 25: Describe a Sunset

Like showing and telling, sensory description is another one of those things that we’re going to revisit from time to time. It’s one of those things that helps you insert emotion into your writing, which in turn helps you to bond with your readers. You don’t want to overdo it, of course, but you need to have a good grasp of how and when to use it.

Write a short scene that takes place at sunset. Try to use as many of the five senses as you can.

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