In my previous post, I discussed how the appropriate atmosphere can enhance a story and connect readers emotionally to your story.
But mood has another purpose besides contributing to the setting, and that’s in making things harder for your characters.
The best, most effective use of atmosphere is when it’s laced through the story and contributes actively to the plot. A simple example can be drawn from almost any Dean Koontz thriller, where he will use weather to heighten difficulties for his protagonist. Often he will have his characters discussing the story problem or planning a difficult course of action fraught with potential risk while outside a colossal storm is raging. In a Koontz story, it’s never a mild patter of raindrops on the window glass. Instead, it’s nearly gale force, with the wind howling and gusting, torrents of rain pouring down so that visibility is poor, and lightning crashing violently. It makes readers worry about the characters more because solving their story problem is going to be severely hampered by the intense weather.
In the Koontz novel, SERVANTS OF TWILIGHT, the heroine, her child, and her friend are trying to flee the villains in a prolonged chase. They’re traveling on foot cross country in deep snow. The tall drifts and the cold take their toll physically on the protagonist, making readers worry more about whether she can survive and save her child’s life.
Beyond these simple applications of using weather as both a mood-setter and a physical hindrance, a far more subtle example of atmosphere used as pressure can be found in Agatha Christie’s superb novel, AND THEN THERE WERE NONE.
In this story, a group of ten individuals is tricked into spending the weekend on a remote, isolated island accessible only by boat. One by one, the guests are dropped off. They are surprised to find their host is absent. Other than a pair of servants to serve them dinner, they’re alone on the island, unable to leave until the boat returns. The house is a rambling, gloomy place full of awkward passages. The beach is bleak. There’s no phone service or TV, and even electricity is iffy at times, supplied by a generator. Dinner is so-so, and it’s not exactly a hospitable place. Then the guests–none of whom know each other–start to be murdered systematically, one by one. As their fear and mutual distrust grow, the atmosphere of this grim setting adds to the pressure. They’re trapped, with nowhere to go and nowhere to turn. And their desperation contributes to the dark, edgy mood even more.
When you’re creating ambiance, ask yourself if
1) it fits the genre of your story;
2) it’s in contrast to your protagonist’s expectations (for example, the guests in the Christie story arrive happy, expecting to have a fun weekend);
3) it can contribute toward making the story problem harder to solve.
Put it to work for you in crafting a stronger, more compelling story.