Sunday, April 10, 2011

Palpable Pressure

As a narrative begins to unfold the writer's choices of motivations and settings will ultimately dictate the atmosphere of the piece.

There are a multitude of avenues for an author to indirectly reflect the atmosphere within a piece whether it is the mental state of the characters, the state of an environment or just a consistent pressure on the characters through events. The atmosphere of a narrative can determine whether the narrative is a page-turner or a casual read. 

The mental state of a narrative's characters can be instrumental in establishing the atmosphere in a story. Viewing the world through the eyes a character with a bleak outlook will inherently bring an oppressive and dark atmosphere to the narrative. Just as well, a character that is unstable can add a sense of instability and uncertainty to the piece. 

The choice of settings and the general state of those environments can serve to engross the audience with an almost palpable atmosphere. Are the characters interacting at a casual coffee shop that easily vanishes into the background? Visiting the standard fare of iconic landmarks?  Settings that only serve as a stage for the scenes and easily vanish into the background. Or are your characters in a weathered old boathouse? A secluded small town locked away in the wilderness? Environmental settings that add to the overall tone.

Events within a narrative follow a steady rising flow like a wave that will eventually come to crashing end with the audience. It's the intervals of those events that can determine the pressure on the characters. A lengthy space between events can create a strong tension while short spaces and rapid pacing can establish a sense of urgency. 

The strongest examples of indirectly building atmosphere include Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere, Stephen King's The Shining, Dean Koontz's Phantoms and even TV shows like the X-Files or Twin Peaks. Each of these excelled not only because of design but the subtle and indirect approach to building atmosphere. 

Establishing an atmosphere directly can be extremely difficult based upon the chosen genre. In many Urban Fantasy pieces the author will choose dark settings and lace the story with numerous deaths but the atmosphere seldom rises to consume the piece and envelop the audience. In most instances it is a failure for the events to have a sense of weight. In many instances of directly establishing atmosphere it almost always depends on the overt setting.

The atmosphere of a narrative should be almost palpable. It should consume the audience to the point that they feel they are living in that world.


Amber said...

Very true! I know that I prefer to read a story that I feel like I'm right in there with the characters. Those are usually the one's I don't want to put down, or stay up late finishing.

Atmosphere, for me, is very important in what I write. It becomes a huge part of the story, pulling it together.

Great references, too! :)

PW.Creighton said...

Amber, thanks. Yeah in each of those you could almost taste the atmosphere. Also in each of those the reader was absolutely consumed by that atmosphere. King selects secluded locations in Maine not just because he knows the territory but you can actually feel the isolation while still being part of the modern world. That sense of isolation never leaves you as you follow the characters especially in a secluded hotel in Colorado in winter. The suffocating isolation consumes you as it consumes the characters.

Michele Shaw said...

"consume the audience" I love that. And don't we want ALL parts of our story to consume the audience...take them away into our world for a while? Another great post, and as always, a beautiful pic to accompany your words:)

Cheryl Reif said...

I like "Viewing the world through the eyes a character with a bleak outlook will inherently bring an oppressive and dark atmosphere to the narrative." It's true--when our narrator has a bleak outlook, that changes what he or she observes. This is a great thing to think about when writing (or re-writing, as the case may be!) Thanks for a great post!

PW.Creighton said...

Michele, thanks . We certainly do, I try to evoke an atmosphere with my blog between the tone and photos. Also there are some spectacular shots out there that can match the theme of a post. ;-)

Cheryl, thanks for stopping by. Our narrative flow and outlook will always color our words be it intentional or innate. It will always be there. good luck on the re-write.

Samantha Hunter said...

Yes, it's the same thing with a brightly lit contemp, romance particularly, and there you have to not just let the reader soak into a fictional world, but a world that in many ways is much like their "real world" -- worlds with jobs, family, kids, dogs, etc. I think when a book like that really sucks you in and takes you away, it's highly due to the identification with the characters, their careers, conflicts and lives, and their relationship to the place, couched in specific details, showing it through their POV -- very important.


PW.Creighton said...

Samantha, thanks for stopping by. That's exactly what I'm talking about. We encounter so many stories that are decent enough stories but they never really speak to us because there's not really any weight to the world. The atmosphere is like altitude sickness thin. You get the headaches and a fuzzy look at the world but constantly feel disconnected.

Jill Kemerer said...

Oh yes! Setting can fade away or it can be a key part of the scene. I love it when we aren't sure if we can trust the viewpoint character or not--but that works best in darker genres, not romance like mine!

PW.Creighton said...

Thanks for stopping by Jill, great example. Ah but what about dark romance? The uncertainty can also play really well with a character caught in a love triangle.

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