The Short Story part 2: Setting and Atmosphere #amwriting

When I begin writing a short story, I want my first paragraphs to surprise an editor in a good way, to make them suspend their disbelief long enough to finish reading the story.

Especially in a short story, we must use the setting to establish a feeling of atmosphere, a mood that will hint at what is to come. Atmosphere is the part of a world created by your inclusion of colors, scents, and ambient sounds. The words you choose determine how the visuals are shown.

A reader’s perception of a setting’s reality is affected by emotions they aren’t even aware of. So, in a short story those first paragraphs must give the reader a sense of familiarity even though it’s a place they’ve never been.

We give the reader something they can understand without being bluntly told.

Do you want to convey a sense of danger? Imagine a woodland pond. On a windless day, the pool will be calm, still. The sky and any overhanging trees will be reflected in it. When a storm rolls in, things change. The waters move. Ripples and small waves stir the surface, reflecting the dark gray of the stormy sky.

Use the colors of the sky, the chill of the wet earth. Allow the scent of rotten leaves to linger in the air.

In the previous installment of this series, we talked about how important word choice is when attempting to communicate a feeling of action.

This is also true when you want to show the atmosphere of a setting. A dark, gloomy setting created by “weighted words” establishes an ominous atmosphere. This will be reflected in the mood of your characters.

“Weighted words” are those with strong descriptive power. Choose words that are intense and bold in their own right. This is crucial when writing a short story because you have a word count limit to consider.

Lighter words, such as those that begin with softer consonants, will create an atmosphere that feels gentler.

We have mentioned this before: while the two terms, mood and atmosphere, are usually used as synonyms, they are different from each other. In literature, mood refers to an individual’s internal feelings and emotions as often as it does the piece’s overall atmosphere. The term atmosphere is always associated with a setting.

The characteristics we call mood and atmosphere are created by inference. We offer the reader a word-picture that is hinted at and suggested rather than bluntly stated. Writers give the reader something to infer, something they can interpret.

What is the interpretive aspect of this layer? The author’s job is to use inference so that the reader can interpret their intention. That is, a reader can effortlessly understand what the author was attempting to convey.

The general mood is heavily influenced by other aspects of the narrative: setting, theme, ambiance, and phrasing.

A reader’s perception of a setting’s atmosphere is affected by a character’s emotions. Emotion, as written on the page, is the character’s experience of transitioning from the negative to the positive and back again.  As the characters’ emotions change from high to low throughout the story, the overall mood is influenced.

In this layer, visual objects in a room or an outdoor space color the atmosphere and affect the characters’ moods. Think about the word” Gothic.” Gothic atmosphere has a winter feel to it, even in summer.

Barren landscapes and low windswept hills feel gothic to me. The word Gothic in a novel’s description immediately tells us we are looking at a dark, moody piece set in a stark, desolate environment. We know it will include some supernatural elements.

The atmosphere/mood dynamic of any narrative is there to make the story’s emotional experience specific. It is not a substitute for emotions that an author can’t figure out how to write.

For me, as an author, creating the right atmosphere leads to shaping the characters’ overall mood. The right mood can help you articulate specific emotions.

Environmental symbols are subliminal landmarks for the reader. Thinking about and planning symbolism in an environment is key to developing the general atmosphere and affecting the mood.

In a short story, you have only the first few paragraphs to set the scene and establish the mood. If you can do it in one sentence, even better.

Sunlight glared over the ice, a cold fire in the sky that cast no warmth but burned the eyes.

And so, to wind this up, setting, atmosphere, and mood are intertwined. Getting those three aspects right and establishing them at the outset means making good word choices. Where you find atmosphere in the setting, you also find mood in the characters.

To do that, go to the thesaurus and look up synonyms and antonyms for your mood word. Are you writing a dark story? Is the mood ominous?

Synonyms & Antonyms of ominous

Definition: being or showing a sign of evil or calamity to come.

Synonyms: baleful, dire, direful, doomy, foreboding, ill, ill-boding, inauspicious, menacing, portentous, sinister, threatening.

Related words:

black, bleak, cheerless, chill, cloudy, cold, comfortless, dark, darkening, depressing, depressive, desolate, dim, disconsolate, dismal, drear, dreary, forlorn, funereal, gloomy, glum, godforsaken, gray (also grey), lonely, lonesome, miserable, morbid, morose, murky, plutonian, saturnine, sepulchral, somber (or sombre), sullen, sunless, wretched.

Other related words:

discouraging, disheartening, hopeless, unfavorable, unpromising, unpropitious, ill-fated, ill-starred, star-crossed, troubled, unfortunate, unlucky, evil, malign, malignant.

Antonym for ominous: unthreatening.

Near Antonyms for ominous:

auspicious, benign, bright, encouraging, favorable, golden, heartening, hopeful, promising, propitious, prosperous.

Previous in this series:

Theme part 1

Theme part 2

Short Story part 1 word choice

Credits and Attributions:

“Ominous.” Thesaurus, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 19 Jan. 2021.


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3 responses to “The Short Story part 2: Setting and Atmosphere #amwriting

  1. Chris, Thank you so much for your support, and all you do for indies! 😀 ❤


  2. Pingback: Conveying Mood part 2: adverbs #amwriting | Life in the Realm of Fantasy