Put Some Feeling into It: Making Your Setting Work Overtime
Lately, I’ve begun to notice that the word “atmospheric” is used a lot in book reviews and bookish conversations. This is, no contest, the buzzword most likely to compel me to pick up a book or download a movie. I reflected on why that might be, since on the surface, it strikes me as a vague descriptor that could be used in praise of almost any kind of story. What is the word “atmospheric” actually advertising?
Here’s what I concluded: If a story is atmospheric, the setting of that story has surpassed its basic function as backdrop and become something greater, something as integral to that particular story as its protagonist. Some might call this “the setting becoming a character.” I think of it as the setting becoming an emotion.
Let’s return for a second to the word “atmospheric.” If a book has a certain atmosphere, one could as easily say the book had a certain vibe or feeling. Remember learning about “pathetic fallacy” in English class? Pathetic fallacy is when a writer attributes human feelings to a non-human thing. Usually, pathetic fallacy is kind of cheesy: the heavens break open and rain pours down in buckets right after the protagonist is broken up with, that kind of thing. This is generally too heavy-handed and makes the mistake of reflecting the protagonist’s emotion in that moment—which, in a well-written scene, will be apparent enough.
Setting description should instead be used to sow seeds of emotion in the reader. You’ll want to tread lightly so that it doesn’t impose an emotion the reader isn’t actually getting from the story. But consider subtle aspects such as the color of things—a room bathed in golden light, for instance, will encourage a different feeling than a room aglow with blue light. If the protagonist is walking across a field, does she feel the tickle of grass, or do her boots sink into the earth with each step? If it absolutely must rain, are the drops cold and piercing on the skin, or warm and gentle?
Atmosphere is simply many instances of these little setting details, executed consistently with an eye to maintaining one overarching feeling throughout the story. What that feeling is depends on the type of story you’re trying to write. Neo-noir is one category of fiction that depends on a sustained feeling of bleak despair, while cozy mysteries rely on a general feeling of warmth and familiarity despite plots that involve murder and crime. If you’re having trouble, think of your story as a film. What consistent lighting or effects would best tie each scene together into a whole movie? Why? What one feeling do you want the audience to remember after they leave the theater?
What are some of your favorite "atmospheric" YA reads, Swooners? Got any questions for our editors about setting, or writing in general? Let us know in the comments!