by John Bowers
One of the great things about reading a good adventure book is the atmosphere in which the story takes place. If the author is good, you are transported to whatever setting he describes, and wish you were actually there as events take place. Atmosphere is critical to a good novel, but how hard is it to create?
There are many kinds of atmosphere. Initially we think of the setting, like a cool autumn day where the trees blaze with color and a delicious little wind stirs the leaves around your feet; or a sunny beach where the sun bakes you brown and the surf crashes loudly while circling seagulls screech overhead-but atmosphere can be more than that. Atmosphere can be a pall of gloom that settles over a city under siege, a joyous giddiness that infects the guests at a wedding, or a cold dread that stalks the streets where a serial killer remains at large.
You can develop an exciting plot, colorful characters, and lots of action, but without atmosphere, your novel is missing a key ingredient.
So How Does It Work?
Writing atmosphere can be tricky, but it doesn’t have to be difficult. The most important thing you don’t want to do is stop the story in its tracks while you describe everything in sight. This will cause most readers to turn on the TV and most editors to reject your novel before the reader ever sees it. There has to be a better way-and there is.
Building atmosphere is like building a house. You start with a foundation, then you add the pieces in layers; when you get done, you have a fully developed atmosphere.
In other words, it’s okay to lay the groundwork of atmosphere with a sentence or two, as you establish the setting. But let the story continue to play out, adding bits of atmosphere as you go along. Here’s a sample from The Fighter Queen-the scene takes place in a Sirian prisoner of war camp, and the reader is already aware that Col. Landon and Capt. Easton don’t like each other very much:
The barrack room was filled with tobacco smoke; fifteen soldiers sat or lounged around in various states of undress. A naked slave girl lay on a nearby bunk, resting on her elbow as she watched a crap game in progress. Capt. Easton had the dice, shook them vigorously, and tossed them against the wall. A shout went up from some of the men, a groan from others, and money changed hands.
The first paragraph takes a moment to lay the foundation, a crap game in progress, but the action isn’t interrupted. The next sequence introduces tension:
Landon stepped through the doorway with a bottle of Lightning in his hand, and stood silently. The noise began to abate as the infantrymen noticed him, and finally Easton twisted around to look over his shoulder.
“Private party?” Landon asked casually.
Easton glanced about the room. “Well, there goes the neighborhood!”
The men laughed uneasily.
No matter what happens next, the atmosphere is in place-a smoke-filled room, naked slave girls, a crap game, two officers in conflict, and nervous soldiers caught in the middle-the stage is set for a showdown:
“Are you expecting me to salute, Colonel? I’m a little busy right now.”
“Actually, I was more interested in having a drink.” Landon held up the bottle so all the men could see. Several pairs of eyes glazed in anticipation of a shot of alcohol.
“Well, goddamn!” Easton rose to his feet, pushed a soldier off a chair, and turned it around for Landon. “Welcome to the party, Colonel!”
Now the tension has eased a bit, but the stage is still set. Anything at all might happen.
Atmosphere doesn’t have to be established all at once. It can build over several pages, or even several chapters. You can build it in small increments without slowing the pace by a single word. You can even build atmosphere with dialog, as in this segment from Star Marine!:
The vidphone remained dark – the caller was on voice only. Nancy Webb’s aqua-blue eyes narrowed as she listened.
“Listen carefully,” the muffled male voice on the other end said. “There’s no time to explain, but you’re about to encounter an intruder. His name is Orville Sutton, and he’ll be in Space Force uniform. He’s a subspace operator for the Polygon, but he’s also a Confederate mole.”
“Who is this!” Sgt. Webb demanded, feeling her pulse quicken. She quickly waved another security officer toward her station.
“My name isn’t important. But wartime security is at stake, so you’d better believe what I’m telling you.”
The scene opens with no atmosphere at all. Nothing has been described. But the conversation itself introduces tension, an air of urgency.
Webb tried to keep the man talking.
“How do I know this message is genuine?” she asked.
“That’s all I have to say, lady. Do your job, or face the consequences!”
And the caller was gone.
Nancy Webb stared at the other guard with stark eyes.
“What do you think?”
“Might be a hoax, but we can’t hardly risk it, can we?”
“No. Go get Charlie and Art. Put them in the stairwells, in case this guy tries to rabbit. He’ll have to pass by me to get into the subspace office, and when I spot him I’ll seal the lifts.”
“Where do you want me?”
“Your usual spot. And be cool. We don’t want to spook this guy.”
Even at this point, nothing physical has been described, but the reader knows something big is about to happen. Tension = Atmosphere.
Writing atmosphere can be fun, and your novel is not complete without it. If any of this seems daunting, the next time you visit a carnival, a seaside resort, or a mountain lake, take note of the atmosphere-the sights, the smells, the sensory perceptions-and when you get home try describing them. Write a short little scene and see if you can fit everything in without stalling the action. If it doesn’t work the first time, try it again, and again if necessary. Work atmosphere into all your stories, and you’ll be surprised how much more compelling your writing becomes.
Not to mention how much fun you’ll have.
John Bowers is a very prolific science fiction author. His first published science fiction novel, A Vow to Sophia, became a 5-story series called The Fighter Queen Saga. He then published the 3-book Nick Walker, UF Marshal series followed by the 5-part Starport series.
He’s also published a mid-grade novel, Joseph Lexxus and the Drug Runners of Altair.