How to Create Mood and Atmosphere in Fiction

As writers, we want to invite readers into the worlds we create as seen through the eyes of our characters. If done well, this not only immerses the reader completely in the story itself, but, in turn, makes our characters more three-dimensional. But how can we create the kind of atmosphere that draws readers in, while still keeping them emotionally involved in the story itself and not overloading them on details?

  • Use all five senses when describing a scene: Many writers depend only on sight to describe a scene, but don’t forget the other four senses. There’s a whole world out there based on scent, texture, sound and taste. People who are visually challenged can give wonderful descriptions all without the sense of sight because they depend on their other senses for information.
  • Don’t write a checklist: Some writers will include multiple sensory descriptors, but it’s done in checklist form (Visual cue? Check! Auditory cue? Check! Tactile cue?...). As a result, these descriptions totally lose their emotional punch.
  • Use atmosphere to add a little backstory: When a character notices a particular detail, it can recall a memory for them that introduces a tiny bit of backstory to help build that characterization. Someone who grew up on a farm would be more likely to notice the smell of freshly cut hay or recognize the sound of a mechanical harvester, so pad the description with a bit a memory that makes it real for that character.
  • Don’t describe everything to the nth degree: Leave a little of the scene to the reader’s imagination so they can make it their own. This makes it a personal experience for the reader.
  • Don’t overload the front end: Pay attention for ways to pepper description through the action in a story. Don’t spend the first five pages in description simply because you spent a month solid worldbuilding. Find ways to weave that description through the novel in judicious amounts.
  • Use the mood of the narrator to translate the scene: The same character will view the same location in two drastically different moods in different ways. Use these details to highlight the character’s emotional state.
  • As always, any rule in writing can be broken if you do it well. Writers are told to never open a novel with the weather, but I guarantee, if you do it well, your readers will be so engrossed that they won’t notice that you broke the rule in the first place.

What about you? Are there any tricks that you have to create mood and atmosphere in your own writing?

Photo credit: hpaich