When someone reads your story, they must finish the book and say, “I felt like the writer got under my skin. It’s as though he was writing my story.” When this happens, you will know that you’ve created the right atmosphere in your story. The way in which you can create the right atmosphere include using the five senses, describing images, and creating the right mood.
The five senses
To create the correct atmosphere, use the five senses of touch, sight, taste, sound, and hearing. Make every scene a feast for the five senses – tell your readers how the food tasted, how cold a gun felt to the touch or how enticing the smell of the female villain’s perfume was.
John Ling, author of ‘Fourteen Bullets’ says: ‘What most people don’t realize [sic.] is that stories are not movies. … Therefore, if you rely on sight, your stories will end up being very flat. A solution is to use what novelist John Barth called triangulation. Triangulation suggests that you should cut down on sight, and focus on other senses such as smell, hearing and touch. You will get a well-rounded story this way…’
On the first page of ‘Shantaram’ by Gregory David Roberts, the author added texture to his story with one word. Roberts wrote: ‘… that looked down upon a busy street, …’
He could have left it at ‘…that looked down upon a street…’ If it was just a street, it’s possible that readers would have imagined a street that was quiet, without many cars or people about. By adding one word, ‘busy’, the mental image he created was something altogether different. The street now probably has lots of traffic, people milling about, and street vendors.
Can you see how using one adjective has radically changed the image and atmosphere of the scene?
One of the best ways to lighten or darken a scene is to use the weather. Analyse published books and you’ll see that it usually rains when a car breaks down; there’s usually a storm (or an approaching storm) when the main person is about to enter a haunted house. A couple will usually kiss under a clear and moon-lit sky.
When you put in the effort and create atmospheric scenes in your novel, you’re effectively allowing the reader to make an emotional investment in the events playing out. When the tale is over, you can rest assured that your readers will appreciate your work. Indeed, fill every scene you write with atmosphere and no publisher will be able to resist publishing your novel.
- Roberts, Gregory David. Shantaram St. Martin’s Griffin; Reprint edition (Nov 2005)
- WritersandArtists.co.uk. Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook. A&C Black (June 30, 2010)
- Editors of Writer’s Digest Books. The Complete Handbook Of Novel Writing: Everything You Need to Know About Creating & Selling Your Work. Writer’s Digest Books; 2nd edition (August 22, 2010).
- Ling, John. Fourteen Bullets Silver Lake Publishing (15 Jan 2005)
- Sundararaj, Aneeta. Diamond Writing: An Interview with John Ling (2 August 2006) [http://www.howtotellagreatstory.com/byot/byot44.html]
Two Snakes Whistling at the Same Time
Let’s go back to Sara’s story and see how she added the elements mentioned above to make the story much better.
“Shekar, there are only two Scorpios in the group and the other one is currently in favour. I’m not. And I talked to three friends about this. They all knew she was referring to me.”
“OK.” A moment later, he asked if there was anything else I wanted to share. “I remember you texting me. Something more about Scorpios.”
I searched my memory then smiled. “Oh ya! I forgot.” I reached out to take my phone from him. “Good ah, your memory,” I said as he put the phone in my hand. I looked for the Facebook app and clicked on it. “When you have only one friend on FB and it’s Molly Gun, not difficult to find.”
“Breathe, Sara, breathe.”
I looked at him. “Huh?”
Waving his hand up and down, he said, “Since you took the phone, you stopped breathing. You’re becoming pale. Breathe.” His eyes were hard and his voice stern.
Right from the very start of your story, you must know the kind of atmosphere you’re going to create. In Lee Kuan Yew’s memoirs, you know that the atmosphere he is creating is that of a swampy new country that was transformed into a cosmopolitan city. In the biography of Narendra Modi, the atmosphere in the book is one of trying to create order from chaos. Similarly, if the world you create is cold, grey, and there’s hardly any sun, the story is probably of impending doom. If the world your characters inhabit is sunny and bright, there is much joy and happiness in your story.
Aneeta Sundararaj tells the stories of a diverse group of people from cardiologists and Ayurveda practitioners to independent financial advisors. ‘Two Snakes Whistling at the Same Time’ is included in a collection of stories that she is working on. Subscribe to the free newsletter on her website, ‘How to Tell a Great Story’ (http://www.howtotellagreatstory.com).