I’ve been thinking a lot lately about atmosphere. Some books practically drip with it, bringing you directly into a world that feels completely real. You close the book and look around yourself and the whole world looks gray by comparison. You want to go back to Narnia.
So how do you get that kind of atmosphere? Well, it starts before you even start writing, when building the world. Sure, you’ve worked out the system of government and how they produce their food, that’s not what I’m talking about. But how does it feel to wake up in this world? Is it cold? Dark? Hot? Dry? Are there bright colors, music, white towers? Is the pace of life fast or slow? Do things feel safe normally, or are people worried about danger on every side?
Sometimes it helps to borrow an aesthetic from somewhere else. Naomi Novik has written books with an obvious Eastern European aesthetic as well as some that draw from the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars. These two feel very different. The scenery, the customs, the words people use all contribute to the overall feel. And because we know about these times and places, Novik is able to awaken whole strings of associations we might have with other books or movies in these settings. Spinning Silver made me feel a little like Dostoevsky. His Majesty’s Dragon was played out in my imagination on the sets for Master and Commander.
Think of how movie creators do it. They don’t just tell us “we are on a ship.” They create the entire ship, complete with tiny details like compasses and sextants. They make the costumes authentic to the period. They study up on the rules of address on a sailing vessel and when the watches switch over.
That’s what we have to do when we’re writing. We create sets much bigger than we’ll need, because we can’t say when we might need to zoom in on that compass. And we want to give the feeling of a world that’s much bigger than the story. That’s really why Tolkien and Rowling resonate so much, despite their flaws: the worlds have so much room in them that you can imagine whole new stories.
Then it’s time to write and create that atmosphere. Small details help the most. Does she walk over or trudge over in the wet slush? When he meets eyes with his mother, is she worried? What is everyone wearing? You can suggest the details in a few quick lines, like an artist can sketch your face without having to start with an oval – she knows what details are the most striking about your face. And you know what details are the most striking about the world you’ve created, and which suggest the mood the most.
In my fantasy work, I found atmosphere easy to weave in–the trouble was that I was using premodern England as my source, and that’s getting a little overdone by now. When you’re trying to be original, it’s a little more difficult. Science fiction is hard too, especially if your aesthetic is anything other than “shiny climate-controlled spaceships.” The trite is easy to do, because we’ve all seen it so many times. Coming up with something a little bit new is harder.
What are your favorite books with rich, immersive atmospheres?