A while ago, I wrote a post about setting, stating that most times, setting can be- perhaps should be- viewed as another character. I still feel that way. But lost in that post was the importance of atmosphere and what that element does for a story.
Setting is a place. Those of you who have read my work know I’ve placed stories on the Navajo Nation Reservation in northeastern Arizona. I’ve also used Waukesha, Wisconsin as “home” to my main characters. For those of you who have never visited either location, I painted a picture in my writing that places you there. In Arizona, you have to brush the red dirt off your shirt or jeans. You smell desert. You see buttes and mesas. In Waukesha, you see a mostly sleepy suburban city much like any other suburb. You feel the rain on your skin. You witness the seasons. You watch high school basketball. You sit down to eat with the Evans family and listen in as they tease one another. At night, you listen in on heartfelt conversation. You feel what they feel. You hear what they hear.
That brings us to atmosphere in a story. The fact that you can witness the conversation around the dinner table, the crowd noise during the basketball game, the intimacy of the characters sharing their heart with one another- that’s atmosphere. Atmosphere is necessary and important because it is in the atmosphere where the reader lives between and among the pages.
I write thriller/crime/mystery. That’s my chosen genre, my wheelhouse. That is where I feel most comfortable. Yet, there will always be a place and portion for human drama in my writing.
When I read, just as when I write, I’m looking for connections between characters. I want to know them. I want to understand them. It is their story. Whatever mayhem and destruction occur in my stories, occurs because of the characters. If I cannot create believable, genuine characters the reader can’t connect with, no matter how many bullets or explosions occur, the story will fall flat.
I’ve said this before, echoing Stephen King (badly, I’m certain), that characters make the story. Their yearnings. Their desires. Their successes. Their failures. Their hopes. Their dreams. The protagonist has to want something bad enough to keep him or her going after it. It might be just out of reach, and that’s a good thing. Because you, the reader, will cheer them on. Success, or not, will come eventually. Enter the antagonist who will do all he or she can to prevent the protagonist from obtaining whatever it is he or she is after.
That interplay between antagonist and protagonist is the “stuff” of atmosphere.
Here is a snippet from my book, Spiral Into Darkness. I’m using is to show atmosphere, as well as setting, and the interplay between the two. I apologize ahead of time because the cut and paste sometimes gets messed up.
George, Brian, and Momma stayed on the house side of the driveway
almost but not quite in the woods. With George in the lead and Brian
trailing, they remained in a crouch and moved slowly. Momma stayed
between the boys and the driveway. She focused on the woods across the
way, which was where Brian stared. He had his safety off and his finger
near the trigger, but not on it. He was too good a hunter to make that
George held up a hand and got down on one knee. Brian did the
same. Momma bared her teeth, but there was no sound. She, too, was
good a hunter.
The highway stretched out just beyond the lip of the driveway. No
cars were seen or heard, not on this night. The snow had gotten heavier,
the flakes bigger, wetter. The night still. Cold, but not freezing. Not yet.
The freeze would come after the clouds disgorged their contents upon
George stood up, and they walked to the intersection of the driveway
and highway and stood by the mailbox.
Momma whimpered and threatened to run to the car. Neither
George nor Brian recognized it, but both thought it belonged to the cop
sent by Jamie to protect them. Snow covered the vehicle in a ten-inch
layer so that its color, make, and model was not recognizable.
George trusted his feelings, and he did not have a good one. As he
approached the front of the car, Brian, down on one knee, trained his
rifle on the woods watching, listening, and covering George’s back.
Momma crept forward, head low, tail down, teeth bared, and eyes
on the woods.
“Brian, come here!” George hissed.
Without taking his eyes off the woods, Brian broke into a hunched
trot, rounded the front of the car, and joined George who had the door
open. George leaned his rifle against the back door.
George felt for a pulse and said, “He is still alive, but there is a lot
of blood.” He had recognized him as being one of the cops from the
alley where he and Brett had walked the crime scene where Michael
Staley had been shot.
Brian glanced in the car, and then quickly looked away. He felt he
needed to focus on the woods because that is where Momma stared.
George took out his cell and dialed.
“9-1-1, what is your emergency?”
“My name is George Tokay …” He went on to give the address. “A
policeman has been shot twice, once in his chest and once in his
shoulder. There’s a lot of blood. We need an ambulance.”
“I’m dispatching an ambulance, but it will take time because of the
storm. Do you know first aid?”
George glanced at the cop and then at Brian and said, “Yes, but there
is no time. I’m driving him to the hospital. I will have my flashers on.
When I see the ambulance, I will flash my lights. Tell them.”
“No, George, you need to stay where you are. Apply first aid.”
“There is no time.”
“Do you know who shot him?”
George glanced at the woods where Momma stared and said, “No,
but the shooter is nearby.”
“How do you know?”
Frustrated and angry, George said, “Because I know. I am hanging
“No, don …”
“Brian, cover me,” George ordered as he brushed snow off the
windows and hood of the car with his arm. He brushed off both
headlights and then ran to the back of the car and brushed off the
taillights. He felt his phone vibrating nonstop, and he expected that. It
was the 9-1-1 dispatcher trying to get him to remain where he was.
The two boys moved the unconscious cop to the passenger side as
gently and quickly as they could.
When that task was completed, Brian whispered, “George, are you
sure about this?”
“He will die if I wait any longer.” He placed his hand right hand on
Brian’s shoulder and said, “Listen to me, Brian. You cannot let whoever
shot this man near the house. You cannot.”
Brian nodded. He knew what George was telling him without
coming out and saying it. It was clear what George had expected of him.
“Call Brett and tell him what we are doing. I will call Detective
Brian said nothing but nodded once.
George smiled tentatively and in Navajo tongue said, “Yá’át’ééh.”
Brian stepped around the back of the car and knelt next to Momma
and called Brett. When the call ended, he gave Momma a hand signal
and whispered, “Heel and protect.”
George drove away with headlights on and flashers blinking,
leaving Brian by himself with his rifle and Momma for protection.
The characters take center stage in the setting, in the atmosphere. An atmosphere that is built in suspense and mystery, and in the setting of a good ol’ fashion Midwestern blizzard.
Two fifteen-year-old boys. A dark night. A freezing, snow-blinding storm. A killer wandering nearby. This is atmosphere.
Hopefully, as you read this brief passage, you felt the worry both boys felt. You experienced the doubt Brian had as George got in the police car and drove away with lights flashing. And hopefully, you experienced the prospect and dilemma Brian faced as he was about to defend his home and family from an unknown killer. This is atmosphere.
Link to the Book Trailer for Spiral Into Darkness:
Link to Spiral Into Darkness on Amazon: