Tag Archives: atmosphere in literature

World-building, part 2: building reality #amwriting

When I write a world that my characters might live in, I want to express more than merely the sights, the sounds, and the smells. I want to convey the emotions that place evokes for me, the author.

The fact is, unless we are there physically, other places don’t really exist for us. For this reason, the only world that really exists in this incarnation is the space we physically occupy as individuals.

The only true reality is the space we can see, hear, smell, and touch. This is our setting, the world in which our life story plays out.

In literary terms, what is setting? It is the environment your characters live and interact with. It is scenery, topography, plants, and animals. The setting is also comprised of a place in time, defined by an era, or a level of technology.

These aspects of the setting are crucial to making a story real to a reader. However, if they are shown as unconnected elements, this setting lacks something. We must inject these elements with the indefinable fantasy thingamajig we call atmosphere.

Perhaps you experience a sense of longing when remembering a particular place.  For me, one place represents a feeling of home and lingers in my heart. When I am writing in my fictional world, I am drawing on the memory of that long-ago place.

That lost time and place has a hold on my emotions and is made brighter and shinier by the false lighting of memory. This is why, despite the fact my childhood home is a real place, it is also a fantasy.

A reader’s perception of a setting’s reality is affected by emotions they aren’t even aware of. We must give the reader something they can subliminally recognize, something they can relate to. We need to convey a sense of familiarity to a place the reader has never been.

“Familiar” does not mean safe or comforting. It means the elements of the environment are recognizable on a subconscious level, something the reader can understand without having experienced it, or being bluntly told.

This is why I draw maps. If your characters must do any traveling in a fantasy world, you probably should make a rudimentary map. The map is my indispensable tool for keeping my story straight.

It doesn’t have to be fancy. All that is required is a pencil sketch showing a few lines for roads and the general location of any cities or topographical features that come into the story.

When your characters are traveling great distances, they may pass through villages on their way, and if these places figure in the events of the book, they should be noted on the map. This prevents you from:

  • accidentally naming a second village the same name later in the manuscript
  • misspelling the town’s name later in the narrative
  • forgetting where the characters were in chapter four

Perhaps the land itself will impede your characters. If geologic features are pertinent to the story, you will want to note their location on your map so that you don’t contradict yourself if your party must return the way they came:

  • rivers
  • swamps
  • mountains
  • hills
  • towns
  • forests
  • oceans

Even if your work is wholly set on a space station/ship, consider making a floor plan.

My novel, Billy Ninefingers, is set almost entirely in a wayside inn. I made a drawing of the floorplan for my purposes because that is the world in which the story takes place.

In the narrative, if you are writing fantasy, I suggest you keep the actual distances mushy because some readers will nitpick the details, no matter how accurate you are. Yes, you wrote it, but they don’t see it the way you do.

Using medieval distances won’t help, because they’re not concrete—a league might be three miles or one and a half, depending on the country and era. Some readers will argue that their version of a league is the only real version and blah blah blah….

When it comes to creating reality on paper, a perception of familiarity is everything. Use your memory to visualize the scenery:

Imagine the surface of a pond. On a windless day, the pool will be calm, still. The sky and any overhanging trees will be reflected in it.

Add in a storm, and things change. The waters move. Ripples and small waves stir the surface, which now only reflects the dark gray of the stormy sky.

Atmosphere is the part of a world that is created by colors, scents, ambient sounds, and how the visuals are shown. It is visual and tied to the setting, but the perception of it is affected by the moods and emotions of the characters.

From the first paragraph of a story, we want to use the setting to establish a feeling of atmosphere, the general mood that will hint at what is to come.

We do this by employing lighter or darker descriptions. A dark, gloomy setting created by “weighted words” establishes an ominous atmosphere, which will be reflected in the mood of your characters.

I think of “weighted words” as those with strong descriptive power, and which don’t need a lot of support from adjectives and adverbs to convey their intensity.

Lighter words will create an atmosphere that feels brighter.

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

Many sci-fi and fantasy novels are set in real-world environments. The settings are familiar, so close to what we know, that readers have no trouble accepting that world.

I love books where the author’s gift for world-building creates a layer of reality I can immediately “fall” into. Setting, action, interaction—these most obvious components combine to showcase the more profound aspects of the story.

I have been returning to the works of other authors to see how they create their worlds, how they choose words to build a setting and create atmosphere and mood.

Some of their tricks work, and some not so much, but I keep reading and learning. By figuring out what didn’t work for me in a novel, I hope to avoid those mistakes in my own work.


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The inferential layer of the Word-Pond: Mood and Emotion #amwriting

Today we go a little deeper into the Word-Pond that we call Story. In talking about literature, the word mood is sometimes used interchangeably with atmosphere. Like conjoined twins, mood and atmosphere march along together; separate, but intertwined so closely that they seem as one. Mood is long term in the background and makes the emotions evoked within the story specific. Atmosphere is also long term but is part of world-building. Atmosphere is the aspect of mood that setting conveys.

Emotion is immediate, short term. It exists in the foreground but works best when in conjunction with the overall atmosphere/mood.

Robert McKee, in his video seminars, tells us that emotion is the experience of transition, of the characters moving between a positive and negative.

While emotions are immediate, they can be subtle. I like books where emotions are dynamic, but where the character’s internal struggle becomes personal to me.

Mood is a large word serving several purposes. It is created by the setting (atmosphere), by the exchanges of dialogue (conversation), and the tone of the narrative (word choices, descriptions). It is also affected by (and refers to) the emotional state of the characters—their personal mood.

Emotions that are undermotivated lack credibility and leave us, the reader, feeling as if the story is flat. We have deep, personal reasons for our emotions, and so must our characters.

A woman shoots another woman. Why? Add in the factor of her child having been murdered by this woman, and you have high emotion, high drama. Therefore, motivation for a character’s emotions is fundamental to the motivation for their actions.

Which is more important, mood or emotion? Both and neither. Characters’ emotions affect the overall mood of a story. In turn, the atmosphere of a particular environment may affect the characters’ personal mood. Their individual moods affect the emotional state of the group.

Because emotion is the experience of transition from the negative to the positive and back again, emotion changes a character’s values, and they either grow or devolve. This is part of the inferential layer as the audience must infer (deduce) the experience.

You can’t tell a reader how to feel—they must experience what the character feels and understand (infer) the character on a human level.

What is mood? Wikipedia says:

In literature, mood is the atmosphere of the narrative. Mood is created by means of setting (locale and surroundings in which the narrative takes place), attitude (of the narrator and of the characters in the narrative), and descriptions. Though atmosphere and setting are connected, they may be considered separately to a degree. Atmosphere is the aura of mood that surrounds the story. It is to fiction what the sensory level is to poetry.[1] Mood is established in order to affect the reader emotionally and psychologically and to provide a feeling for the narrative


Setting can contribute to atmosphere, but in itself, the setting is only a place, not atmosphere.

What is atmosphere? Atmosphere is associated with the environment but is an ambiance that pervades a literary piece with the intention of evoking a certain frame of mind or emotion in the reader. Atmosphere is created as much by odors, scents, ambient sounds, and visuals as it is by the characters’ moods and emotions.

Now we know that atmosphere is environmental, separate but connected to the general emotional mood of a piece. From the first paragraph of a story, we want to establish a feeling of atmosphere, the general mood that will hint at what is to come.

PEDIAA https://pediaa.com/difference-between-mood-and-atmosphere/  says:

Mood vs. Atmosphere

Although the two terms, mood and atmosphere, are usually used as synonyms, there is a subtle difference between mood and atmosphere in a general sense. Mood can refer to the internal feelings and emotions of an individual. However, the term atmosphere is always associated with a venue. But, the mood and atmosphere are interrelated in this aspect as well. For example, a gloomy and dark setting in a play creates an ominous atmosphere. This atmosphere can also affect the mood of the characters as well as the audience.

Difference Between Mood and Atmosphere

  • Mood refers to the internal emotions of an individual.
  • Atmosphere is usually linked to a place.
  • However, both mood and atmosphere are used as synonyms in literature.   
  • They refer to the emotional feelings inspired by a piece of literary work.
  • Mood and atmosphere are created by diction, dialogues, descriptions, tone, setting, etc.

Robert McKee tells us that the mood/dynamic of any story is there to make the emotional experience of our characters specific. Happy, sad, neutral—the overall emotional mood is no substitute for the characters’ emotions, but the two, overall mood and emotion must work together to draw the reader in.

This inferential layer of the Word-Pond we call Story is the place where we realize that creating this pond requires thought on our part. Like a diver seeing an undiscovered shipwreck for the first time, the story is still waiting to be uncovered. The bottom of this pond is still distant, and we have a lot of deep water to travel before we get there. On our way down, we have more denizens of the deep to examine.

Next up: a closer examination of Writing Emotions: the sharks of the Word-Pond.

Credits and Attributions:

Much of my information comes from watching seminar-videos on the craft of writing found on YouTube, and posted by Robert McKee. He is an excellent teacher, and YouTube University is a free resource for the struggling author. His book,  “Story” by Robert McKee, is a core textbook of my personal library. Robert McKee on YouTube

Wikipedia contributors, “Mood (literature),” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Mood_(literature)&oldid=895686542 (accessed July 7, 2019).

Difference Between Mood and Atmosphere, by Hasa © 2017 PEDIIA https://pediaa.com/difference-between-mood-and-atmosphere/ (accessed July 7, 2019).

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:The Oracle – Hawaiian Symbolist by Marguerite Blasingame.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:The_Oracle_-_Hawaiian_Symbolist_by_Marguerite_Blasingame.jpg&oldid=276120985 (accessed June 27, 2019).

Ruins of the Oybin (Dreamer) – Caspar David Friedrich 1835 [Public domain]
Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Caspar David Friedrich 011.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Caspar_David_Friedrich_011.jpg&oldid=326731449  (accessed May 24, 2019).


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