I. What is Atmosphere?
Atmosphere is the overall mood of a story or poem. It’s usually something readers can’t quite put their finger on – not a motif or a theme, but a “feel” that readers get as they read. It’s very difficult to define, but you know an atmosphere when you read it. Atmosphere mainly emerges through description rather than action – it’s not what people do that creates an atmosphere, but the settings and environments that stage what they do.
II. Examples of Atmosphere
These two examples describe the same scene, but they create a very different atmosphere. Notice how they both end with similes describing the same sound in opposite ways:
Marilyn’s small apartment was bathed with light from the new floor-to-ceiling windows. Outside, the sounds of a balmy summer day floated up to her ears like the gurgle of a cool, clear brook.
Marilyn’s cramped apartment was roasting in the scorching sunlight that burned through her floor-to-ceiling windows. And if there was anything more oppressive than the heat, it had to be the constant din that bubbled up from the city street below like steam from a putrid stew.
III. The Importance of Atmosphere
Atmosphere basically determines the emotional experience that the reader will have. Are they going to feel hopeful? Depressed? Anxious? Curious? Adventurous? You set the mood through atmosphere, and it colors how the audience experiences the whole piece.
Certain genres are especially dependent on atmosphere. Horror, for example, is an extremely atmosphere-dependent genre: what would a horror story be without its atmosphere of creepiness and terror? To write a good horror story, you’ve got to be good at writing with atmosphere.
IV. Examples of Atmosphere in Literature
HP Lovecraft was one of the most atmospheric writers of all time. Just by reading the titles of his novels and short stories, you can tell exactly what kind of atmosphere he was trying to create: At the Mountains of Madness, The Crawling Chaos, The Dunwich Horror, The Whisperer in Darkness. Even without knowing anything at all about these stories, you know exactly what kind of atmosphere they’ll have.
“During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country, and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher.” (Edgar Allen Poe, The Fall of the House of Usher)
Here’s a highly atmospheric line, the opening of Poe’s famous Usher short story. Notice how Poe uses a string of carefully-chosen words, especially adjectives and adverbs, to create a heavy, forbidding atmosphere for his story.
V. Examples of Atmosphere in Pop Culture
The films of Hayao Miyazaki are famous more for their atmosphere than their characters or stories. Miyazaki’s films, including Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away have a unique atmosphere that combines awe (huge trees, powerful forest-spirits, epic monsters) with whimsy (childish dreams and imagination). All you have to do is look at a few images of Miyazaki’s animation and you’ll get a sense of his atmosphere.
The Fellowship of the Ring is noteworthy for the way its atmosphere changes dramatically as the characters move from place to place. In the Shire, the atmosphere is very cozy and comfortable; in Rivendell, it’s an atmosphere of elegance and nobility; in the Mines of Moria the atmosphere is grim and forbidding; and so on.
VI. Related Terms
Tone means roughly the same thing as “atmosphere,” but it has a more broad meaning. Whereas atmosphere is an emotional quality in creative writing, tone applies to non-emotional qualities like “formal” or “informal,” and it relates to both creative writing and essays.