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.


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.


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.

Image credit: Kristina Tamasaukite, Unsplash.

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