Monday, November 26, 2012

It was a dark and stormy night...

by S. L. Duncan

Not too long ago, I got notes back from my agent on my new manuscript. It’s a weird thing sending your work out to someone who has both the power to crush months of work in a single blow or light the fuse of another possible dream come true.  What follows from the moment we authors hit send is a frozen, panicked state of fear while we wait for the worst.

Well, at least that's what happens to me. Hence my absence from the interwebs.

I’m thankful to report his enthusiasm falls somewhere on the latter end of that spectrum. After some light refocusing of plot, we’ll be submitting in Spring!

So long as the news is mostly good, I love getting notes. I know; that’s a stupid thing to say. It’s sort of like, “I don’t mind playing Monopoly, so long as I win.” But finding the better story in a good story is a blast. Trying to make a broken story work is ... well ... work.

Accompanying my good news was a list of the story’s strengths and weaknesses. As a story that takes place during World War II, atmosphere was an extremely important thing for me to get right. London during the Blitz had a specific feel and look. Its people spoke in a specific manner and rhythm. Somehow, according to my agent, I’ve managed to not screw that up.

So I want to talk a little about atmosphere, inspired in part by this post at my blog over at In the recipe of the narrative, atmosphere is like a stock or base—the foundation for where the world of the story will be built and the characters will (appropriately) live and breathe. Take for example a thriller or horror story, where atmosphere functions to encourage feelings of suspense or fear. It’s not just the dark and stormy night, by why there’s a feeling of fear and suspense. What about the world created by the author makes the characters (and thus the reader) feel fear and suspense?

I recently read Swamplandia! by Karen Russell. If this book does anything brilliantly, it’s atmosphere. From the feel of the swamp to the look and attitudes of the characters, you are drawn into the world. Atmosphere is one of Russell’s sharpest tools, creating the sandbox that would inspire these characters and motivations. More than just setting, her atmosphere flavors the story with a specific reality unique to this story.

So how do you get atmosphere right? Well, I suppose that depends. For me, to capture the atmosphere of the Nineteen Forties London Blitz, I had the benefit of looking to a specific time and place in history. Using books, radio programs, war diaries compiled by the BBC, and films, I got a sense of how people lived in their natural environment during this unnatural time. Once you know what it was like to live in their world, in their reality, you can make character decisions that make sense in the context of the time and place of the specific story.

That’s atmosphere.

The trick is making everything connect. Character decisions, motivations, settings—all these things have to feel real and appropriate as they work together to weave the narrative. Atmosphere should be what bridges all these things together and form the reality.

What works for you? Any books out there that you’ve recently read that do it well?

S. L. Duncan writes young adult fiction, including his debut, the first book in The Revelation Saga, due in 2014 from Medallion Press. You can find him blogging on and Twitter.


Jean Oram said...

Ooooh. Atmosphere. Hmm. Actually, the book I am reading right now has atmosphere. It's "The Paris Wife" and I have a definite feel for the area and time they are in. (It's about Ernest Hemingway.)


Welcome back, Mr. Dunc. (Law.) ;)

Jemi Fraser said...

Some writers do atmosphere so well! It really does add a lot to the story! :)

Gina Gao said...

The atmosphere turns the story around like nothing else.

Arlee Bird said...

I definitely appreciate the writer who can create atmosphere so vividly on the page that it sucks me into the story. One great example that I found was in Cormac McCarthy's The Road. When I wasn't reading the book I would sometimes be dreaming it and it was very spooky. I felt like I was on the journey with the protagonists.

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