Atmosphere is a literary technique that is concerned with the feeling readers get from the elements of a narrative.
Atmosphere is a literary technique that is concerned with the feeling readers get from the elements of a narrative. It is influenced by the setting , foreshowing, objects, background, and the character’s past experiences. The atmosphere is often directed in accordance with the mood of a particular piece. Some possible atmospheres include fearful, suspenseful, lighthearted, and joyful.
- 1 Definition of Atmosphere
- 2 Elements of Atmosphere
- 3 Examples from Literature
- 4 Atmosphere or Mood?
- 5 Why Do Writers Use Atmosphere?
- 6 Related Literary Terms
- 7 Other Resources
Definition of Atmosphere
The atmosphere is the feeling a particular work conveys to readers. It includes the emotional aspects of any place, time, or event. More often than not, the atmosphere changes in a piece of literature. In the first chapter, it might be lighthearted, but by the tenth chapter, it might be incredibly dark and dreary. If a writer has successfully created an interesting atmosphere, the reader will easily become involved with the story and find themselves caught up in the actions of the characters.
Elements of Atmosphere
When considering how to write or analyze the atmosphere in a particular work of fiction, readers and writer should consider the following elements:
- Setting : when and where the story takes place. Includes the time of day, weather, and more.
- Point of View : the narrative voice and its reliability. Consider, for example, the narrator in ‘The Raven.’
- Imagery : descriptions that cater to the sense. These tap into sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell.
- Foreshadowing : especially effective when it is ominous. Characters and readers will know something bad is about to happen.
- Figurative Language : use of devices like similes , metaphors , and allusions . Help to create imagery and atmosphere.
- Theme : the story’s purpose. Can direct the atmosphere down a particular path.
- Diction : refers to the vocabulary the writer uses and how they arrange the words.
Examples from Literature
The raven by edgar allan poe .
Of all the poems that Edgar Allan Poe wrote throughout his life, ‘ The Raven’ is perhaps his most atmospheric. Throughout the poem, readers should feel suspense , fear, and concern for the speaker , who is undoubtedly in a very strange position. There is a great deal of mystery in this poem, and it can be felt in almost every line. For example:
And the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain Thrilled me—filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before; So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating “’Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door— Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door;— This it is and nothing more.
In these lines, Poe uses words like “rustling,” “terrors,” “late,” and “sad” to help build the atmosphere in these lines. Readers should walk away from them feeling as though they, too, were in the room with the speaker and are just as haunted by the sound of knocking and the raven.
Read more Edgar Allan Poe poems .
Romeo and Juliet Act I Prologue by William Shakespeare
The Chorus sets the tone for Romeo and Juliet in these first lines and provides an atmosphere for the events that follow. Here are the first few lines of the play:
Two households, both alike in dignity (In fair Verona, where we lay our scene), From ancient grudge break to new mutiny, Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean. From forth the fatal loins of these two foes A pair of star-crossed lovers take their life,
The author lets the audience know about the disastrous events to come but doesn’t provide them with all the details. This creates an atmosphere of suspense and expectation. A viewer might also experience dread at the thought of “star-crossed lovers” taking their lives.
Explore William Shakespeare’s poetry .
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
There are some wonderful and incredibly dark examples of the atmosphere in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Consider these lines that should help the reader feel exactly what the characters feel:
He walked out in the gray light and stood and he saw for a brief moment the absolute truth of the world. The cold relentless circling of the intestate earth. Darkness implacable. The blind dogs of the sun in their running. The crushing black vacuum of the universe. And somewhere two hunted animals trembling like ground-foxes in their cover. Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it
Using words like “Darkness implacable” and “crushing black vacuum of the universe” leaves little the imagination in regard to what it’s like in this world. There is darkness, fear (seen through words like “trembling” and “hunted”), and even claustrophobia as it’s clear there’s no way out of this place.
Atmosphere or Mood?
While these two literary techniques are similar to one another, there are differences that should be noted. The atmosphere is a broader term than mood is. The latter is specific, focussing on the feelings a group of people or a single individual feels. It is about internal feelings while the atmosphere is focused on what the feeling of a particular place/time is.
Why Do Writers Use Atmosphere?
It’s incredibly important for writers to consider the atmosphere they’ve created in their literary work. Choosing an inappropriate atmosphere might throw off the reader’s entire experience of the book, poem, short story , or play. For example, if a writer is creating a piece of literature for children and wants to infuse the story with an important moral , they will also be concerned with maintaining a lighthearted and entertaining atmosphere for their young readers. If the atmosphere gets dark and scary, it’s unlikely the child is going to enjoy the book or focus on the moral lesson the writer was focused on conveying. If the atmosphere is correctly structured, then the reader will feel like the story is more accurate, realistic, and easier to connect to.
Related Literary Terms
- Mood : the feeling created by the writer for the reader. It is what happens within a reader because of the tone the writer used in the poem.
- Attitude : the tone, a writer, takes on whatever they are writing. It can come through in a character’s intentions, histories, emotions, and actions.
- Tone : tells us how the writer feels about the text, at least to an extent. All forms of writing, aside from the academic, have a tone of some sort.
- Bathos : a sudden, jolting change in the tone of a work. This could occur in a poem, play, story, or film.
- Watch: How to Write Strong Atmosphere
- Listen: Tone vs. Mood vs. Atmosphere
- Read: The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe
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Definition of Atmosphere
A literary technique, atmosphere is a type of feeling that readers get from a narrative , based on details such as setting , background, objects , and foreshadowing . A mood can serve as a vehicle for establishing atmosphere. In literary works, atmosphere refers to emotions or feelings an author conveys to his readers through description of objects and settings, such as in J. K. Rowling ’s Harry Potter tales, in which she spins a whimsical and enthralling atmosphere. Bear in mind that atmosphere may vary throughout a literary piece.
Difference Between Atmosphere and Mood
Many people use both terms interchangeably, as there is no concrete difference between them. However, in literature we find a mild difference. This is because atmosphere is a broader term, and may be set by a certain venue, such as a theater.
Examples of Atmosphere in Literature
Example #1: an unspoken hunger (by terry tempest williams).
“It is an unspoken hunger we deflect with knives – one avocado between us, cut neatly in half, twisted then separated from the large wooden pit. With the green fleshy boats in hand, we slice vertical strips from one end to the other. Vegetable planks. We smother the avocado with salsa, hot chiles at noon in the desert . We look at each other and smile, eating avocados with sharp silver blades, risking the blood of our tongues repeatedly.”
Example #2: The Vision (By Dean Koontz)
“The woman raised her hands and stared at them; stared through them. Her voice was soft but tense. ‘Blood on his hands.’ Her own hands were clean and pale.”
Example #3: The Raven (By Edgar Allen Poe)
“Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary, Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore – While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping, As of someone gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door – “Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door – Only this and nothing more.”
Example #4: A Tale of Two Cities (By Charles Dickens)
Function of atmosphere, post navigation.
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- Literary Terms
- Definition & Examples
- When & How to Write Atmosphere
I. What is Atmosphere?
Atmosphere is the overall mood of a story or poem. It’s usually something readers can’t quite put their finger on – not a motif or a theme, but a “feel” that readers get as they read. It’s very difficult to define, but you know an atmosphere when you read it. Atmosphere mainly emerges through description rather than action – it’s not what people do that creates an atmosphere, but the settings and environments that stage what they do.
II. Examples of Atmosphere
These two examples describe the same scene, but they create a very different atmosphere. Notice how they both end with similes describing the same sound in opposite ways:
Marilyn’s small apartment was bathed with light from the new floor-to-ceiling windows. Outside, the sounds of a balmy summer day floated up to her ears like the gurgle of a cool, clear brook.
Marilyn’s cramped apartment was roasting in the scorching sunlight that burned through her floor-to-ceiling windows. And if there was anything more oppressive than the heat, it had to be the constant din that bubbled up from the city street below like steam from a putrid stew.
III. The Importance of Atmosphere
Atmosphere basically determines the emotional experience that the reader will have. Are they going to feel hopeful? Depressed? Anxious? Curious? Adventurous? You set the mood through atmosphere, and it colors how the audience experiences the whole piece.
Certain genres are especially dependent on atmosphere. Horror, for example, is an extremely atmosphere-dependent genre: what would a horror story be without its atmosphere of creepiness and terror? To write a good horror story, you’ve got to be good at writing with atmosphere.
IV. Examples of Atmosphere in Literature
HP Lovecraft was one of the most atmospheric writers of all time. Just by reading the titles of his novels and short stories, you can tell exactly what kind of atmosphere he was trying to create: At the Mountains of Madness , The Crawling Chaos , The Dunwich Horror , The Whisperer in Darkness . Even without knowing anything at all about these stories, you know exactly what kind of atmosphere they’ll have.
“During the whole of a dull , dark , and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone , on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country, and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher.” (Edgar Allen Poe, The Fall of the House of Usher )
Here’s a highly atmospheric line, the opening of Poe’s famous Usher short story. Notice how Poe uses a string of carefully-chosen words, especially adjectives and adverbs, to create a heavy, forbidding atmosphere for his story.
V. Examples of Atmosphere in Pop Culture
The films of Hayao Miyazaki are famous more for their atmosphere than their characters or stories. Miyazaki’s films, including Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away have a unique atmosphere that combines awe (huge trees, powerful forest-spirits, epic monsters) with whimsy (childish dreams and imagination). All you have to do is look at a few images of Miyazaki’s animation and you’ll get a sense of his atmosphere.
The Fellowship of the Ring is noteworthy for the way its atmosphere changes dramatically as the characters move from place to place. In the Shire, the atmosphere is very cozy and comfortable; in Rivendell, it’s an atmosphere of elegance and nobility; in the Mines of Moria the atmosphere is grim and forbidding; and so on.
VI. Related Terms
Tone means roughly the same thing as “atmosphere,” but it has a more broad meaning. Whereas atmosphere is an emotional quality in creative writing, tone applies to non-emotional qualities like “formal” or “informal,” and it relates to both creative writing and essays .
List of Terms
- APA Citation
- Comic Relief
- Deus ex machina
- Double Entendre
- Dramatic irony
- Extended Metaphor
- Figures of Speech
- Literary Device
- Pathetic Fallacy
- Point of View
- Red Herring
- Rhetorical Device
- Rhetorical Question
- Science Fiction
- Self-Fulfilling Prophecy
- Turning Point
- Urban Legend
- Essay Guide
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Atmosphere Literary Definition: Genre Examples That Evoke Emotion
by Joslyn Chase | 0 comments
Atmosphere matters. You might be someone who will pay a premium to eat at a restaurant with a certain ambience or buy a house in a setting that supports a particular feeling. But how do you use atmosphere in your book? Learning the literary definition of atmosphere (with genre examples ) can help you write a better book.
In like manner, your reader won’t remember every word you wrote, but if you infuse the story with atmosphere, they will remember the way it made them feel.
But how can you weave atmosphere into your story without making it feel forced? How can your story's atmosphere evoke an emotional response and leave a lasting impression on your readers? How can you leverage this literary technique to enhance that feeling?
A strong sense of atmosphere figures into the works of William Shakespeare. Edgar Allan Poe mastered atmosphere in poems like “The Raven” and his haunting tales of suspense. J.K. Rowling managed it well in the Harry Potter series.
And you can learn it too.
There are many literary elements and devices of fiction a writer uses to impact the atmosphere of a literary work, including figurative language, word choice, similes, and personification. In this post, we'll examine how point of view and genre considerations help to set the mood and establish atmosphere.
Atmosphere Literary Definition
Literary atmosphere is all about emotion. As a literary term, it refers to the texture of the story—created by the careful selection of details—that provides the sensory palette through which the reader will experience story events.
Atmosphere , mood , and setting are inextricably bound together as literary devices, making it difficult to parse them out and treat each as a separate entity. Here's how I think about the difference:
- Mood is the target emotion—how you want the reader to feel.
- Atmosphere is the environment that evokes and supports that emotion through language , imagery, and specific detail .
- Setting encompasses both the mood of a story and atmosphere as well as providing the wider framework of geography, time period, historical background, culture, etc.
These three elements affect the type of emotion a reader feels, which makes them crucial in providing the kind of quality reading experience your reader will remember.
The Power of Atmosphere
Let's explore the power of Atmosphere. Which version of this scene is more evocative, more engaging, and more enjoyable to read?
Here's version one:
Amanda walked out of the front door of the hospital and sat on a bench. She was upset because her daughter, Sarah, had been in a car accident and was now brain dead.
And here's version two:
Amanda moved as if in a trance. Her feet felt detached, numb, as they transported her across the slick, shiny tiles of the hospital floor and spilled her onto a cold, iron bench at the entrance. Nausea rose, clogging her throat with a sour, painful lump and she bent over, pressing her head down between her knees. She blinked hard, trying to clear her mind, but the image of Sarah, all tubes and bandages, refused to go. One careless moment behind the wheel, a few seconds of inattention, and her little girl was gone. All that remained was an empty husk, run by machines and monitors.
Each piece of writing supplied basically the same information, but the atmosphere between the two could not be more different.
Point of View Creates Atmosphere
To be effective, a story is not delivered to the reader intravenously or surgically implanted.
Every word of a story should flow to the reader through the viewpoint character, imparted by that character’s sensory input, opinions, emotions, and thoughts. The way to create atmosphere and pull your reader deep into a story is by grounding them firmly inside the viewpoint character’s head , immersing them in the narrator's attitude and internal feelings.
Your characters inhabit a world, and they exist there for a reason. Make sure the dialogue and narration reflect their purposes, and make sure those purposes are often in conflict. Use foreshadowing to seamlessly weave in setups.
When I write a scene, I have the scene goal or purpose in mind. I “get into character,” then I live the scene—I see, hear, feel, smell, taste, think, and opine through what happens, letting it play out in my mind, and write it as authentically as I can.
Genre Shapes Atmosphere
As always, the type of story you’re telling will have a huge impact on the way you tell it, including the sort of atmosphere you want to establish for your readers.
When I worked for our local library system, I learned how crucial tone and atmosphere are to reader satisfaction. Readers crave certain atmospheres by genre, so it’s important to deliver what they’re looking for. Here’s a taste of some of the “flavors” suspense readers crave with examples of atmosphere pulled from masterful pieces of literature.
Readers want to feel intellectually challenged and the satisfaction of seeing justice served. Though the mystery genre is evolving and becoming increasingly difficult to define, there is always a puzzle of some sort to be explored. So, the atmosphere is one of expectation, secrecy, and curiosity, sometimes fraught with danger.
Here’s an example from Straight by one of my all-time favorite mystery writers, Dick Francis.
During the evening I failed to both open the green stone box and to understand the gadgets. Shaking the box gave me no impression of contents and I supposed it could well be empty. A cigarette box, I thought, though I couldn’t remember ever seeing Greville smoking. Perhaps a box to hold twin packs of cards. Perhaps a box for jewelry. Its tiny keyhole remained impervious to probes from nail scissors, suitcase keys and a piece of wire, and in the end I surrendered and laid it aside.
Francis creates rampant curiosity here as reader and character together pick up the challenge and attempt to open the mystery box and deduce its significance.
Readers want to feel that delicious thrill of uncertainty and tension, not knowing who to trust or where to turn. All is not as it seems, something sinister stirs beneath the surface, and the atmosphere has a nightmarish quality. Peril threatens, madness lurks, and there is often a slow burn of anxiety which builds to a wrenching climax.
Getting the atmosphere right is critical, so I turned to one of the masters, Mary Stewart, for an example from her novel This Rough Magic .
A ripple rocked me, nearly turning me over. As I floundered, trying to right myself, another came, a wash like that of a small boat passing, rolling me in its wake. But I had heard neither oars nor engine; could hear nothing now except the slap of the exhausted ripples against the rock. Treading water, I looked around me, puzzled and a little alarmed. Nothing. The sea shimmered, empty and calm, to the turquoise and blue of its horizon. I felt downwards with my feet, to find that I had drifted a little farther out from shore, and could barely touch bottom with the tips of my toes. I turned back toward the shallows.
The atmosphere fairly screams with menace. Something is happening, something disturbing and unseen, and we are out of our depth, at the mercy of the waves. Stewart uses words—ripple, rocked, floundered, exhausted, drifted—to create a feeling of uncertainty and vulnerability.
Readers want to feel—obviously—thrilled. They want an adrenaline rush, to experience intrigue, danger, and trepidation. Frenetic and larger-than-life, thrillers encompass an atmosphere of large-scale peril. Comprising elements of the Adventure, Suspense, and Horror genres, the tone of a thriller is one of desperation and constant movement.
I’m using an excerpt from J.M. Dillard’s adaptation of The Fugitive as an example.
Amazingly, the train’s forward momentum slowed but did not stop. Kimble heard rather than saw it, just as he heard the shuddering explosion that vibrated in the ground under his shackled feet. At the soft, breathy, ominous whoosh , he glanced over his shoulder and saw flames streaming down the sides of the train. Incandescent red-orange against the backdrop of night, the fire illuminated the railroad crossing like daylight, revealing the injured guard lying safely on the opposite bank. All this Kimble saw in a millisecond, and as he continued to look, never slowing, there was another eardrum-shattering squeal of metal on metal as the flaming locomotive veered off the tracks—away from the guard, directly toward Kimble.
The atmosphere is one of constant peril and multi-directional attacks so that reader and characters are barely able to keep ahead of certain, ultimate disaster. Fast-paced and thrilling.
Readers want to feel heroic, purposeful, and daring. The atmosphere will be one of peril and risk, of being on a quest, and may include a sense of “foreignness” which highlights the danger as these stories tend to take place outside the character’s ordinary world.
Here’s a slice of atmosphere from Jon Cleary’s novel High Road to China .
At 12,000 feet they leveled off, sat like eagles in the shining galleries of sky. The air was much cooler up here and Kern was glad of his flying suit. He felt the weariness slide off him with the sweat that had swamped him on the ground. But it was more than just the air that was invigorating him. He had felt like this on other mornings, but now the feeling was heightened, there was almost a sexual edge to it.
Cleary used details like the shining galleries of the sky, the weariness sliding off with the sweat, and an almost sexual tension to convey an atmosphere of conquest and adventure.
Readers want to feel like they’re painlessly learning something about history as they experience tense and exciting moments from the past.
These stories take the reader back in time and must do so convincingly, with accurate detail and reconstruction of events. The atmosphere varies widely, depending on the subject, and can range from a romantic view of the period to a brutally stoic one.
Here’s an example from Jeffery Deaver’s suspense-packed novel of Berlin in 1936, Garden of Beasts .
Another man sat in an ornate chair, sipping coffee, his legs crossed like a woman’s: the clubfooted scarecrow Paul Joseph Goebbels, the state propaganda minister. Ernst didn’t doubt his skill; he was largely responsible for the Party’s early, vital foothold in Berlin and Prussia. Still, Ernst despised the man, who couldn’t stop gazing at the Leader with adoring eyes and smugly dishing up damning gossip about prominent Jews and Socis one moment then dropping the names of famous German actors and actresses from UFA Studios the next.
The reader is pulled into the historical scene, learning factual details while absorbing the flavor of the moment through the details Deaver chose to include: clubfooted scarecrow, adoring eyes, name-dropping, and damning gossip.
Readers want to feel a chill, a sense of menace and supernatural terror. Atmosphere is key, and must permeate the story with a sense of foreboding and unease as readers await the unexpected. Create the ominous and macabre for the reader, with a crucial element of surprise and sometimes an unresolved ending as the horror lives on.
I’m using a short example from Edward D. Hoch’s story ”The Faceless Thing.”
It was steamy here, steamy and hot with the sweat of the earth. He flipped on the flashlight with trembling hands and followed its narrow beam with his eyes. The place was almost like a room in the side of the hill, a room perhaps seven feet high, with a floor of mud and ooze that seemed almost to bubble as he watched.
Reading this description, hot and steamy with the sweat of the earth, a little room buried in the hillside, makes it feel as if we are being swallowed by a malevolent earth monster, and the floor of mud and ooze bubbles in our minds as we wait for something horrific to emerge from it.
Satisfied Taste Buds Makes an Entertained Reader
What I gave you above is just a tiny sampling of the atmospheric possibilities, but let me emphasize how important the right flavor is to readers.
Determine the atmosphere you want to create—the type of emotional experience your reader desires—and deliver it through the senses, emotion, and opinions of your POV character.
By doing this, you’ll help your reader enjoy the kind of reading experience they yearned for when they picked up your book, and that’s a deal you can both be happy with.
Do you crave a certain atmospheric flavor in the books you read? Tell us about it in the comments .
Let’s infuse a scene with atmosphere. Use your novel or short story in progress or choose one of the scenarios below and let the atmosphere come alive as I did in the hospital example above. Use plenty of sensory detail and don’t forget to express character opinion and emotion.
- Jim runs a 10K race. It's his first race since his open-heart surgery and he's glad to be running again.
- Mary Beth drives down the highway. She's been too restless and upset to stop since her husband of twenty-eight years told her he wanted a divorce.
- The storm blows torrents of water into Brandon’s boat, swamping it. Brandon is horrified to realize the boat is sinking, six miles off shore.
Let the atmosphere shine through! Write for fifteen minutes . When you are finished, post your work in the practice box and be sure to give feedback for your fellow writers, too.
Enter your practice here:
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Any day where she can send readers to the edge of their seats, prickling with suspense and chewing their fingernails to the nub, is a good day for Joslyn. Pick up her latest thriller, Steadman's Blind , an explosive read that will keep you turning pages to the end. No Rest: 14 Tales of Chilling Suspense , Joslyn's latest collection of short suspense, is available for free at joslynchase.com .
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What’s the difference between tone, mood & atmosphere?
Many readers think that tone, mood and atmosphere are one and the same.
That would make things a lot easier, but unfortunately, they’re not.
And unlike ‘ personification, anthropomorphism and pathetic fallacy ’, or ‘ paradox, oxymoron and antithesis ’, ‘tone, mood and atmosphere’ aren’t as easily avoidable if you’re a lit student, because these three terms tend to show up as the exam question itself (i.e. ‘Describe the tone/mood/atmosphere of this passage’).
On the contrary, one can usually choose not to analyse the use of anthropomorphism or paradox in a text.
In this post, then, let’s untangle this brambly triptych.
Previously, I wrote a short post on how to describe tone as it applies to literature. My conclusion there is quite simple –
figure out the speaker’s attitude towards the subject, and the word for said attitude is most likely also the tone.
This may be easy enough to understand, but if we examine ‘tone’ alongside ‘mood’ and ‘atmosphere’, things get a bit muddier, since they all relate to emotions, and so the distinction between them can be quite subtle.
What are ‘tone’, ‘mood’ and ‘atmosphere’?
According to le dictionnaire –
Tone : the tone of a piece of writing expresses the writer’s attitude towards the subject or the reader Mood : the mood of a work of art/literature is the emotional features of it, or the way it makes you feel Atmosphere : the mood or feeling produced by a work or art/literature
On my scale of usefulness, this is a 5/10. At most.
For starters, the definition of ‘mood’ (“the way it makes you feel”) and that of ‘atmosphere’ (“the mood or feeling produced by a work of literature”) sound virtually the same.
Instead, let’s try this:
Tone: the way a writer / character speaks Mood: the way a literary text makes you (the reader) feel Atmosphere: the way a place or setting makes you (the reader) feel
Notice, then, that while ‘tone’ is more concerned with the production of a text (i.e. the writer and characters), ‘mood’ and ‘atmosphere’ depend largely on the reception of a text (i.e. the reader).
So if your task is to analyse the ‘mood and atmosphere’ of a text, the first thing you should do is to ask yourself how you feel after reading a passage (just don’t write ‘bored’).
You’ll also notice that the difference between ‘mood’ and ‘atmosphere’ hinges on ‘a literary text’ and ‘a place or setting’, but both are about how they make you – the reader – feel.
‘Atmosphere’ comes under ‘mood’, because it concerns how places and settings make us feel, while ‘mood’ is about how the passage or text as a whole creates a certain feeling, and a passage in its entirety often includes more than just places and settings, but also characters and themes.
So perhaps it’s more helpful to think of these terms as ‘atmosphere and mood’, instead of ‘mood and atmosphere’ (despite the order in which these terms usually appear), as we often need to ascertain the atmosphere of a specific scene/setting before we can determine the mood of the whole passage.
This is also why ‘atmosphere’ tends to be more relevant in descriptive passages (rather than dialogue-based ones); there must be a larger environment for the writing to breed any sort of atmosphere.
Here’s a quick example to illustrate:
The moment I stepped foot into the cavernous hall, I felt the onslaught of innumerable eyeballs, as droplets of sweat travelled down the bridge of my nose, cushioning themselves in my quivering philtrum while my stomach tied up in knots. All at once, the walls seemed to close in on me; the glaring light of the projector in the distance made a menacing search of my face. I felt the stage slipping away in that instant, my feet levitating and my head woozy as I sauntered over to the podium. Why did I decide to do this in the first place?
In this short passage, the tone is markedly different from the mood and atmosphere, despite them all being related.
‘I’ am paralysed by stage-fright, and my tone is clearly nervous , intimidated , and incredulous about having agreed to deliver a speech in front of a crowd.
But to the reader, the mood conveyed is suspenseful and anxiety-inducing , as we want to find out if the character manages to overcome her fear, or if she passes out before she even makes it to the podium.
From the descriptions of the wider scene about the hall, we see that the atmosphere is oppressive , overwhelming , and to an extent, suffocating (from all the lights and stares).
You will notice, then, that the words for the ‘tone’, ‘mood’ and ‘atmosphere’ of this moment are all slightly different, but meaningfully so.
And this nuance, while sometimes challenging to spot, is nonetheless important if you wish to write sophisticated analysis.
Check out this short video in which I summarise the difference between tone, mood and atmosphere:
Introducing Frankenstein, the Gothic and why it’s such a mood-y genre
Among the many genres in art and literature, the Gothic lends itself particularly well to discussions of mood and atmosphere.
Unlike, say, modernist or feminist literature, the essence of gothic literature is rooted in its setting and environment.
Without strange places, ghostly mansions, or stormy weather, a work can’t really lay claim to being ‘gothic’, whereas a novel may fit in the ‘modernist’ camp if it features ‘stream of consciousness’, or on the ‘feminist’ shelves if it thematises women’s rights (caveat: this is speaking in broad brushstrokes; generic boundaries are usually more porous than this).
My point though, is that the atmosphere doesn’t have to matter as much for these genres.
One of the most iconic works of Gothic writing is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein , which contains many ‘atmospheric’ passages, and provides us with a great specimen for looking at the intersections between tone, atmosphere and mood.
In fact, Frankenstein itself was written under highly atmospheric circumstances.
In the summer of 1816, Mary Shelley and her lover (soon-to-be husband) Percy Bysshe Shelley stayed near Lake Geneva, where they became friends with Lord Byron, who lodged at a nearby house called the Villa Diodati.
There, the three and others would discuss literature, philosophy, chemistry, galvanism and notions of the supernatural, all while storms, rains and floods whirled about them in violent force.
It was a particularly bad year in terms of climate (apparently because of a volcanic eruption in Indonesia in 1815), which happened to give Mary Shelley the perfect backdrop for a story like Frankenstein .
The novel was borne out of a nightmare Shelley had about a “hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine show signs of life and stir with an uneasy, half-vital motion”, which, for a dream, is suitably dramatic to serve as creative inspiration.
Let’s now close read one of the key moments in the novel, with a specific eye to the way Shelley fashions the character’s tone, and the passage’s mood and atmosphere.
Reading Frankenstein for tone : “Dear Mountains!”, “Alas!” and all that histrionic jazz
In Chapter 7, Victor Frankenstein receives devastating news from home – his younger brother, William, has been murdered, and he must rush back to Geneva to be with his family in mourning.
Frankenstein is pained, but also alarmed, as he knows that it was his monster creation who had committed this brutal act. On his journey home, the scientist is wracked with guilt and grief, which are intensified by the sublimity of his surroundings –
The road ran by the side of the lake, which became narrower as I approached my native town. I discovered more distinctly the black sides of Jura, and the bright summit of Mont Blanc. I wept like a child. “Dear mountains! my own beautiful lake! how do you welcome your wanderer? Your summits are clear; the sky and lake are blue and placid. Is this to prognosticate peace, or to mock at my unhappiness?”
What can we say about Frankenstein’s tone here?
First, it changes. As he approaches the Jura Mountains and Mont Blanc, the grandeur of the Alps overwhelms him, and he weeps.
Partly, this is because he’s so moved by the arresting visuals, but equally, he doesn’t think he deserves to witness such beauty while being responsible for his brother’s death (especially when he’s created something so ghastly).
His apostrophe to “Dear Mountains! My own beautiful lake!” starts on a melodramatic register, only to become increasingly lamentful and agonised when he questions if the good weather – the “clear… summits”, the “blue and placid… sky and lake”, are all “to prognosticate peace” – be a sign of positive developments, “or to mock at my unhappiness?” (As a side note, this is also an example of pathetic fallacy , more of which you can read about here .)
At this point in his narrative, Frankenstein pauses to address his listener, the polar explorer Robert Walton, and says –
I fear, my friend, that I shall render myself tedious by dwelling on these preliminary circumstances; but they were days of comparative happiness, and I think of them with pleasure. My country, my beloved country! who but a native can tell the delight I took in again beholding thy streams, thy mountains, and, more than all, thy lovely lake!
Frankenstein’s earlier, anguished tone now shifts, and becomes apologetic, nostalgic and even patriotic.
He’s apologetic because he realises that by lyricising about nature, he goes off on a tangent in his main narrative and as such, distracts Walton from what’s most important (the origins of and his occurrences with the monster).
But he can’t help gushing over the natural beauty of his homeland, and now that he’s stranded at sea and far away from home (at the point of him telling Walton this story, they are travelling in the Arctic Ocean), the memory of it all overtakes him with nostalgic sorrow.
Once he returns to his account, the gloom and doom from before his aside sinks back in, and escalates to a sort of self-flagellating remorse –
Yet, as I drew nearer home, grief and fear again overcame me. Night also closed around; and when I could hardly see the dark mountains, I felt still more gloomily. The picture appeared a vast and dim scene of evil, and I foresaw obscurely that I was destined to become the most wretched of human beings. Alas! I prophesied truly, and failed only in one single circumstance, that in all the misery I imagined and dreaded, I did not conceive the hundredth part of the anguish I was destined to endure.
Note that there’s quite a lot of hyperbole going on here, as seen in the superlatives and intensifiers of phrases such as “the most wretched of human beings”, “in all the misery I imagined and dreaded”, and “the hundredth part of the anguish I was destined to endure”.
This exaggerating tone, of course, highlights the extent of Frankenstein’s pain and regret over having created such a destructive force – and his frustration over not being able to retract what he’s done, now that the monster is on the loose.
The exclamatory “Alas!” encapsulates the motley of feelings which beleaguer Frankenstein’s mind at this point, and suggests to the reader that the rest of this tale is unlikely to bode well .
Reading Frankenstein for atmosphere and mood: Darkness, lightning and stormy skies – oh my!
As Frankenstein continues to relate his travels back to Geneva, he describes in detail the dark, stormy landscape that surrounded him on the night of his return –
It was completely dark when I arrived in the environs of Geneva; the gates of the town were already shut; and I was obliged to pass the night at Secheron, a village at the distance of half a league from the city. The sky was serene; and, as I was unable to rest, I resolved to visit the spot where my poor William had been murdered. As I could not pass through the town, I was obliged to cross the lake in a boat to arrive at Plainpalais. During this short voyage I saw the lightning playing on the summit of Mont Blanc in the most beautiful figures. The storm appeared to approach rapidly, and, on landing, I ascended a low hill, that I might observe its progress. It advanced; the heavens were clouded, and I soon felt the rain coming slowly in large drops, but its violence quickly increased.
I quitted my seat, and walked on, although the darkness and storm increased every minute, and the thunder burst with a terrific crash over my head. It was echoed from Salêve, the Juras, and the Alps of Savoy; vivid flashes of lightning dazzled my eyes, illuminating the lake, making it appear like a vast sheet of fire; then for an instant every thing seemed of a pitchy darkness, until the eye recovered itself from the preceding flash. The storm, as is often the case in Switzerland, appeared at once in various parts of the heavens. The most violent storm hung exactly north of the town, over the part of the lake which lies between the promontory of Belrive and the village of Copêt. Another storm enlightened Jura with faint flashes; and another darkened and sometimes disclosed the Môle, a peaked mountain to the east of the lake.
Like the tone shifts we’ve seen in the previous section, the atmosphere also changes as Frankenstein moves from arriving in Geneva, to crossing the lake on a boat.
By telling us that “it was completely dark”, and “the gates of the town were already shut”, Shelley establishes a sense of mystique and insularity, as if Geneva has become a cold stranger to the man for whom this place is supposedly home.
As Frankenstein walks on, he’s engulfed in a symphony of lightning, rain and storm, and perhaps the best word to describe the atmosphere here is ‘sublime’.
This term, as defined by the philosopher Edmund Burke , refers to a dimension of experience that is beyond the everyday, and is capable of exciting our passions in a way that terrorises but also leaves us in awe –
Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling. […] The passion caused by the great and the sublime in nature, when those causes operate most powerfully, is Astonishment; and astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror.
While overpowering, thunderous, stormy, dark, mysterious, threatening, violent, dramatic etc. are all adjectives that apply to this moment, these qualities are rendered sublime for the dangerous, but awe-inspiring, nature that Shelley attributes to the “darkness and storm [which] increased every minute”, “the thunder [which] burst with a terrific crash over my head”, and the “vivid flashes of lightning [which] dazzled my eyes”.
To juxtapose Frankenstein against a violent storm is a great example of irony , too, because it suggests that notwithstanding the scientist’s incredible, almost godlike, ‘achievement’ of creating a sapient being, he remains at the mercy of Nature, which is a force infinitely greater than his.
There’s a sense that the violence of the lightning is punitive, as if it’s an angry message from the heavens, striking down on Frankenstein for pushing the limits of human knowledge and aping God by creating a half-Adam, half-Prometheus.
So, if the atmosphere is dark, threatening and sublime , then what is the mood?
How does reading this passage make you, the reader, feel?
It’s probably fair to say that the mood is both terrifying and terrific , with the storm’s violence clearly being a force of danger against Frankenstein, but equally a cause for wonder and a source of humility for both character and reader, as we marvel at the personified majesty of the lightning bolts and stormy skies.
We could also say that this moment conveys a foreboding mood , as we know that whenever authors feature stormy weather, it’s usually a sign that something unpleasant will follow.
Another possible mood descriptor here would be chaotic , which is implied by the dizzying and cacophonous extremes between light and dark, silence and noise.
Of course, the distinction between atmosphere and mood isn’t an exact science, and there’s definitely room for the two to overlap.
Ultimately, though, it’s important to remember that the site of focus is different: with atmosphere, we’re looking at how a place, setting or environment is portrayed; with mood, we’re considering how we as readers feel about how the writer has portrayed a specific moment.
Confused about other literary terms? Check out my other posts below:
- What is imagery ? Reading Virginia Woolf’s ‘Mrs Dalloway’ and “To the Lighthouse’ to find out
- What is foreshadowing ? Reading Oscar Wilde’s ‘A Picture of Dorian Gray’ to find out
- Symbolism vs motif – what’s the difference? Reading William Golding’s ‘Lord of the Flies’ to find out
- Form vs structure – what’s the difference? Reading Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s ‘Sonnet 29’ and Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’ to find out
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Looking for all Articles by Kirsty Logan ?
Five things: creating an atmosphere in your writing
Kirsty Logan's top tips for creating an atmosphere
Last updated: 21 May 2021
Use sensory detail
All five senses – sight, sound, touch, smell and taste – can be effective in creating a strong atmosphere. All you have to do is make sure you're using the most effective sense for the feel you want to create.
Want to give a creeping sense of unease? Think of the taste of rot as you bite into a strawberry or the sudden, cloying scent of blood when you're daydreaming on a packed bus. Or maybe a sweet, magical feel? Think of the golden gleam of sunlight catching in your eyelashes when you blink, or a song familiar from childhood just at the edges of your hearing. How about a melancholic ghostliness? Think of a quick channel of freezing water as you lie back in a hot bath.
You don't have to go through a laundry list of details for every description – pick a few well-chosen details, and sprinkle them through your writing. It's all about creating a vivid world for the reader to inhabit.
Hold an image or word in your head as you write
I love creating story mood boards – in Ye Olden Days of the 2000s I did this with scraps cut from magazines and newspapers and pinned onto a corkboard, but now it's 2015 and we have Pinterest (this will open in a new window) . When I sit down every morning to work on a story, I have a quick scroll through my mood board to get myself in the right frame of mind ( here's (this will open in a new window) my mood board for The Gracekeepers ).
If you don't think in visuals, choose another sense: a song, word, phrase, scent or memory that evokes the atmosphere you want to create. There's no need to describe the image or use the word: it's about holding it in your head as you write.
Inhabit your imaginary world in your daily life
As much as you can, choose the media you consume as you're writing. You're not doing this to directly take any plot elements, characters or details – you're trying to keep yourself in the right head-space, so that when you sit down to write, the atmosphere of your story feels strong in your imagination.
If you write to music, make sure it fits the tone of your story. Perhaps pin some relevant pictures to your desk, or change your desktop background to an image that creates the right feel. If it's possible to choose your physical surroundings – for example, to walk on a deserted beach as you write about isolation, or wander in a museum as you write a historical story – then do take a day or even your lunch hour to do this. You'll only be able to create a strong atmosphere for your reader if you can feel it yourself.
It isn't always possible to have control of our listening or viewing material when we have to consider the choices of our family, friends or workmates, but even small things can help.
Limit your imagery
One minute you're comparing something in your dystopian world to a rotten apple; the next minute there's an industrial pipe; then a labyrinth, and an insect, and a sunbeam, and a temple, and reality TV, and a stovepipe hat, and – you get the point. Piling on visual metaphors randomly will give a muddled, inconsistent feel when you really want a strong, coherent atmosphere.
Choose two or three themes or ideas that seem relevant to your story – for example, perhaps it's a story of redemption and so you'd like to use ideas of religion and portals. Or it's a love story and you'd like to explore ideas of discovery and old-fashioned sea voyages. Try to ensure that your visual details and word choices are in some way connected to these central ideas. This can become cloying if it's overdone, but used subtly it's an incredibly effective way to build atmosphere. (By the way, you might not be able to choose your themes before you start writing, as your story will develop as you write – don't worry, as your word choices can be changed and your imagery streamlined when you edit).
Focus on the language
Atmosphere isn't only about description. Consider carefully every word you write to create the atmosphere of your story.
Trying to create a sense of unease or confusion? Play with syntax, vary sentence length, use more unusual word choices, pepper in some sentence fragments. Want the reader to feel soothed and happy? Use more straightforward sentence structures, and – while never resorting to cliché – stick to more traditional word choices.
Pay attention to the lengths of your words, sentences, paragraphs and chapters. All of these can affect the pace and feel of your story. It's all about experimenting: play around with your language to see which matches the atmosphere you want to create.
Some of these suggestions might seem odd, but give them a try! Choose one technique from this list for the next story you write. And let me know how it works for you.
Author Kirsty Logan
Kirsty Logan is a writer of novels and short stories. Her latest work is the Audible Original The Sound at the End.Her other books are Things We Say In The Dark, The Gloaming, The Gracekeepers, A Portable Shelter, and The Rental Heart & Other Fairytales. Kirsty received a New Writers Award in 2010.
Atmosphere is a literary technique that is concerned with the feeling readers get from the elements of a narrative. It is influenced by the setting
Atmosphere (AT-muh-sfeer) is the feeling or sense evoked by an environment or setting. Writers develop a story's atmosphere with description and narration
A literary technique, atmosphere is a type of feeling that readers get from a narrative, based on details such as setting, background, objects
When working with a novel, a short story or really any form of fictional text, you might be asked to analyze the atmosphere - or if you are
Some examples of atmosphere in literature include how Herman Melville introduces readers to the character's internal thoughts in Moby Dick or
Atmosphere is the overall mood of a story or poem. It's usually something readers can't quite put their finger on – not a motif or a theme
A strong sense of atmosphere figures into the works of William Shakespeare. Edgar Allan Poe mastered atmosphere in poems like “The Raven” and his haunting tales
What are 'tone', 'mood' and 'atmosphere'? · Tone: the tone of a piece of writing expresses the writer's attitude towards the subject or the
Mood in literature is another word for the atmosphere or ambience of a piece of writing, be it a short story, novel, poem, or essay. The mood is
All five senses – sight, sound, touch, smell and taste – can be effective in creating a strong atmosphere. All you have to do is make sure