Writing Right with Dmitri: Atmospheric Elements
It was a dark and stormy night…
Okay, that's a giveaway. But how about this one?
Wuthering Heights is the name of Mr. Heathcliff’s dwelling. ‘Wuthering’ being a significant provincial adjective, descriptive of the atmospheric tumult to which its station is exposed in stormy weather. Pure, bracing ventilation they must have up there at all times, indeed: one may guess the power of the north wind blowing over the edge, by the excessive slant of a few stunted firs at the end of the house; and by a range of gaunt thorns all stretching their limbs one way, as if craving alms of the sun.
Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights.
We sort of get the idea that there's a lot of weather going on, right? That's a good start on the Yorkshire atmosphere. Those moors are practically a character in the story, so it's best to get the weather in at once. You see what we're driving at. This is October, the spookiest month of the year, especially for writers. We've got to take the time to build up some atmosphere.
The weather's a good topic, particularly if you're British and talk about it all the time. Besides, rainstorms, snowstorms, windstorms…heck, anything blustery and inclement, will do some of the broody work for you. But what about the indoor atmosphere? Can you do anything about that?
The paint and paper look as if a boys' school had used it. It is stripped off – the paper – in great patches all around the head of my bed, about as far as I can reach, and in a great place on the other side of the room low down. I never saw a worse paper in my life.
One of those sprawling flamboyant patterns committing every artistic sin.
It is dull enough to confuse the eye in following, pronounced enough to constantly irritate and provoke study, and when you follow the lame uncertain curves for a little distance they suddenly commit suicide – plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard of contradictions.
The color is repellent, almost revolting; a smouldering unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight.
It is a dull yet lurid orange in some places, a sickly sulphur tint in others.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Yellow Wallpaper.
This wallpaper, too, is pretty much a character in the story. And talk about a poisonous atmosphere…somehow, the nasty wallpaper seems to have a lot to do with the creepiness of the house, the mental state of the narrator, and even her ongoing feud with her spouse. Amazing how powerful cheap wallpaper can be, as Noel Coward might have said.
But mark something else about that wallpaper: the curves 'commit suicide'. Now, that's a subtle touch. At first, you're too busy laughing at this woman's fussing about the wallpaper in a rented house to notice – who is she, the interior decoration police? – but it sticks in the back of your head. And it tickles that sense you have, the one you use as a reader to scope out what's coming next. You begin to worry about this neurotic woman. She might be more disturbed – by her husband, her life, her lack of agency – than she's letting on to her friend, the one she's writing to. We'll have to read on to find out, of course.
Does it always have to be raining? Of course not. It can be a clear, sunny day. But you've got to throw in a sneaky detail or two to set the mood.
Within sound of the little melancholy clock almost from their birth upward, they had dwelt together, Nello and Patrasche, in the little hut on the edge of the village, with the cathedral spire of Antwerp rising in the north-east, beyond the great green plain of seeding grass and spreading corn that stretched away from them like a tideless, changeless sea. It was the hut of a very old man, of a very poor man – of old Jehan Daas, who in his time had been a soldier, and who remembered the wars that had trampled the country as oxen tread down the furrows, and who had brought from his service nothing except a wound, which had made him a cripple.
Ouida, A Dog of Flanders.
In this story, there's green grass and spreading corn. There are even church bells. But you know this isn't going to end well. There's 'melancholy'. There's suffering already, the wars are mentioned. As a matter of fact, this is the SADDEST story ever written. It will make a grown man weep buckets, and be ashamed. It's so sad, it should be illegal. That Ouida woman has a lot to answer for. Edgar Allan Poe once wrote that the saddest, most 'poetical' idea in the world was the death of a beautiful woman. Pah, phooey. It isn't. Beautiful women sing themselves to death in operas all the time. The saddest story in the world is about the death of a faithful dog. Survive that, and you can survive anything.
So it's just as well the story plays fair by setting the stage with an atmosphere that warns you: this story will rip your heart out. Beware. Read at your own risk.
Why am I nattering on about this? Because it's October, the pumpkins are getting ripe for the slaughter, and…you've got to write a spooky story for Create, now, don't you? Of course you do. It's expected. And whether you're aiming to make the readers' hair stand on end, or make them cry, or laugh, or groan, you're gonna need to set them up. Go get some atmosphere. Apply liberally, especially in the case of the spooky story.
The wind was a torrent of darkness
upon the gusty trees,
The moon was a ghostly galleon
tossed upon cloudy seas,
The road was a ribbon of moonlight
looping the purple moor,
And the highwayman came riding –
Riding – riding –
The highwayman came riding,
up to the old inn door.
Alfred Noyes, The Highwayman.
Yeah, that ghostly moon will do it every time. Paint your picture, set your scene. Sneak in a few hints here and there – is this going to be really scary, terribly bleak, a three-hanky tearjerker, or a bit of a send-up? Turn the fog machine on accordingly.
Of course, you could cheat. Let your atmosphere make itself.
The building was on fire, and it wasn’t my fault.
Jim Butcher, Blood Rites.
Yeah, but you know Harry Dresden. He's a lot cooler than those wizard kids. And he don't need no stinking atmosphere.