Many writers speak of a story’s three elements: plot, characters, and setting. This is basic-level stuff when it comes to writing fiction, and the beginners should know the basics. But writing great fiction, or even good fiction, is anything but basic, and this is the blog of someone who wishes to become great. Or it’s just what I happen to want to talk about today, whichever of the two it is.
Plot, characters, and setting each split into more nuanced ideas: from plot comes development, twists, rising action, falling action, and many more. From characters comes character arc and characterization. From setting comes places, dates, attitudes, atmosphere…
Atmosphere? Now that’s the one we want to talk about. Atmosphere permeates setting, and one is always created no matter the intention. I’ll get into how mood and atmosphere are different and why you need both, but first I need to explain what atmosphere really is.
Atmosphere is a set of prerequisite behaviors, occurrences, or other normalities that permeate a setting. If you want the non-technical version, it’s basically a collection of stuff that people or things do within a certain context. For example, on Azeroth, Orcs greet using the phrase “lok’tar”. It (however small) contributes to the atmosphere of the Horde.
When you gather half a million “stuff people and things do”, it creates an atmosphere. When people and things do what they’re supposed to do within the context you’ve established, they’re adhering to the atmosphere. If they don’t, they’re transgressing. Atmosphere is a bit like verisimilitude, but a little bit MORE like mood if I’m honest.
So how is atmosphere different from mood? Well, mood is a feeling. Atmosphere cannot be interpreted any other way. Elden Ring has a distinctive mood as well as an atmosphere: the atmosphere is the traveling merchants, the monsters that try to attack you, the lore of the bosses, the weapons you collect. The mood is the feeling inspired by each of these things.
Therefore, your mood is going to be pretty wonky if you can’t get your atmosphere straight. Common mistakes in mood happen when you have two items/people/events in your atmosphere that generate contradictory feelings (like, say, you introduce a post-apocalyptic society and then have two characters have a pleasant conversation that is completely unaffected by the first modifier).
The exception here is when you blend feelings. Evil, killer animatronics and pizzerias usually don’t go together, but Five Nights at Freddy’s makes it work. That’s because it molds the two together into a new feeling: apprehension at something strange. The Last of Us tv show does a poor job of this: in one episode you’re witnessing a sappy romance, in the next you’re seeing a scene of heartwrenching cruelty, in the next a character is cracking a corny joke.
All very good and well, until you realize none of these things are interconnected. They generate different feelings, and while the show could choose to mash them together and form something new, so many emotions would only result in a mess. Therefore, the only chance is to partition them into neat little boxes: this is the sad episode, this is the sappy episode, this is another sappy episode, this is the episode with lots of blood…
But I digress; mood is not the topic here. Atmosphere is. When you’re creating an atmosphere, you need to focus on things that will generate consistent (but not monotonous) emotions. If you want to create a mood of over-the-top action and anime-style attacks, add big swords and girls with large eyes. If you want a mood of gritty sci-fi horror, fill the world with grime, crime, and…lime. (Actually don’t add lime. I just had to find something to rhyme…hey! I’m a poet and I didn’t know it! WOW!)
You get what I’m saying, don’t you? If you want a lighter mood, don’t introduce the twelve edgelord teens named Spike you keep hidden in your writing closet. (I know they’re there, don’t lie) If you want a funnier novel, make damn sure your novel is funny and not utter cringe. A good atmosphere goes a long way…all around the earth. (Sorry, last pun)
Be sure to check out my latest novel, Book 2 in the Praetors of Lost Magic Series, and our Publications page. Plus, I mean, it wouldn’t hurt to check out the Resources tab. It’s full of super helpful material and I promise it will help you out. Until then, writers!