It’s getting on that spooky time of year, and with it I along with other writers I am sure begin to find our creative minds heading to the macabre. And so I couldn’t help but find myself thinking all about good horror stories. Specifically what makes horror and fears in a story really click, what makes our minds as readers fall readily into the nightmare. And at the same time what elements, can also completely ruin this effect. And for me I really couldn’t think of anything that affects a reader as much as mood and atmosphere. So this week I wanted to talk about mood and atmosphere as a writer. I wanted to explorer how I personally approach it, deliver some incite as a reader, and just remind people the importance its plays into the overall tapestry of good horror.
As writers (and even more so as readers) we often don’t let our minds dwell on what a massive task crafting a prose story truly is. Prose is unlike any other media, in the sense that we are supplying the reader with all sensory input, including how they should think and feel. And I am sure you are shaking your head and going “okay that’s sort of obvious” but terrifically so, we don’t dwell on how massive this is. We don’t usually think about how many moving parts go into making a story. For some writers its automatic. They can just throw all these things out in beautiful paragraphs but that’s rare and the product of a lot of experience. For most of us, as much as we would love to deny it, these are things we have to be consciously aware of. But that comes down to process. We all have our own, and we know what works for us. But one thing I often note is how this key component in writing often gets over looked. For a lot of writers especially those starting out, there is a lot of focus drawn on the characterization, and alliteration to immerse the reader’s mind, so we can deliver an experience. So much so that we neglect the parts of a story that might be quite transparent. That is developing a reader’s feelings and bringing them to a special place in their mind.
I don’t think I have to mention how important bringing out a reader’s emotions is in stories, specifically in horror. Things like: Invoking suspense, shocking readers with grotesque horror, creating empathy so the threats are real, are all important parts of crafting a strong and bone chilling story of fear. And yes some of these things can be done through alliteration and characterization, but inviting these things, and creating an experience where these things come to the surface require setting a scene in a manner that can bring these real feelings to the surface. Creating a scene of danger, carefully denying full detail of what lies beyond, an invoking isolation; are all very good ways to set atmosphere in the same way that an ill lighted set and creepy music does so in film. Atmosphere goes a long way into inviting these elements that you’ve brought forward with your other tools right to the surface.
Of course Atmosphere is only one part of the puzzle. Mood is just as important, if not vitally more so when trying to illicit a response. Of course to create mood, atmosphere is a large part of developing it, which is why these two elements are always mentioned together. You can have atmosphere without mood, but you can’t really have mood without atmosphere.
Creating mood, I feel can be as unique as the writer’s voice. There are as many ways to do this, as there are ways to write a character, and in fact most writers probably end up doing this without fully realizing it. But when you approach a scene, you should very well understand the feelings your characters have when walking on ‘set’. Because, more often than not you are going to want to replicate at least one of these characters (often more than one’s) feelings back to the reader.
I believe it is vital to have some sort of emotional guidance for a reader. When I read a story, I seek to understand what a character is going through. I want to be taken into someone’s mind and see this world as it’s supposed to be viewed. And if I don’t know how they feel, then I am naturally not going to exhibit any connection at all. And that as far as I’m concerned will make me quit turning pages faster than six page long dialog chain.
As I writer, when I look at generating mood, that is suspense, tension, pulse-pounding action, shock, sorrow and all their crazy sibblings—I often look at a few key components to assist me in affecting my readers. There are the obvious components of course, the alliteration and detail of a scene (lets face it a bright beach isn’t exactly going to frighten anyone), and explaining the situation as the protagonist currently views it. And these two components shouldn’t be over looked. But there are definitely other areas to look at. Sentence flow is a huge one for me. I know that as a reader (or even reading back my own writing) that the speed that sentences are digested will in fact create a sense of mood for me. Suspense, is often held rather well by longer and more verbose sentences. Where fright and gore can work out quite well with fractured sentence sizes.
I also often dwell on the characters senses. Eye sight is usually heavily used (especially among male writers), and if you tend to do that, in a setting of horror or fear what if this sense that is so readily there suddenly isn’t. And instead your reader is supplied with smells, strange sounds, the burning of sweat from pores. Shake your reader up, make your character vulnerable. This creates a tension that most readers aren’t expecting… and it goes unnoticed.
Obviously there are a lot of ways to create Atmosphere and Mood. Just reading horror stories, classic and modern, the ones that get you scared and looking at how they are constructed can do a lot of good. Borrowing devices that work in your writing will only amp up your ability to invite readers on a truly spooky journey into the darkest corners of your mind. Of course mood and atmosphere is not a horror only technique. It is a tool in your arsenal that can invite any emotion you feel. It is what they can use to connect to your characters on in fundamentally human way.