How To Create Atmosphere & Mood In Your Writing To Engage Your Readers

By Ashley Austrew

Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone
The Haunting of Hill House (1959), Shirley Jackson

After reading that opening, we bet you’re wondering what happens next. The best authors and writers always find a way to draw their readers in, get them invested in the work, and leave them desperate to read the next sentence, the next paragraph, the next page.

How do they do this?

Writers have many tools in their toolboxes to make their work compelling, but a huge part of what draws us into stories is atmosphere and mood. Authors like Shirley Jackson use language, descriptions, and other devices to pull readers into a different world. Through atmosphere and mood, authors establish a tone for their work, create ambience, and evoke emotions. Keep reading to learn how the pros establish atmosphere and mood in their work, and to get some tried and true strategies for creating this magic in your own writing.

What are atmosphere and mood?

Atmosphere is “the dominant mood or emotional tone of a work of art, as of a play or novel.” If you think of your story, essay or other writing as a room, what does your reader feel upon walking into that room? That’s an easy way to consider the overall atmosphere of your piece. While the importance of atmosphere is commonly associated with poetry and fiction, it is also vital to adding depth to personal essays and other types of nonfiction writing as well.

Mood is a part and parcel of atmosphere, but they aren’t necessarily the same thing or always in lock step. Mood describes “a state or quality of feeling at a particular time,” and the mood of a story, poem, or essay can shift depending on the events, characters, setting, or changing information.

Atmosphere and mood work together, but they aren’t always in agreement. A story may have a suffocating or foreboding atmosphere, but within that atmosphere, readers can still experience feelings of joy, wonder, sadness, or hope.

The ultimate mood setter in writing used to be “It was a dark and stormy night.” Learn the history of the phrase.

Examples of atmosphere and mood

Now that you understand the basics of what mood and atmosphere are, let’s look at a few examples to see how atmosphere and mood work in action.

1. “The Raven” by Edgar Allen Poe

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore –
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of someone gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door …

Why it works

In just a few lines, Poe creates an atmosphere of suspense for the reader. It’s late at night, there’s a strange knocking at the door, and it’s reasonable to suspect something mysterious or even dangerous is waiting on the other side. In this example, the atmosphere is created not only by the setting, but also by the language used. Words like dreary, weary, curious, and lore help to create an atmosphere that feels spooky and mystical. And the rhythm of the poetry also gives the lines an intriguing musicality. The end result is the reader wants to know who is knocking just as much as the main character does.

2. “Shipping Out” by David Foster Wallace

“I have now seen sucrose beaches and water a very bright blue. I have seen an all-red leisure suit with flared lapels. I have smelled suntan lotion spread over 2,100 pounds of hot flesh. I have been addressed as ‘Mon’ in three different nations. I have seen 500 upscale Americans dance Electric Slide. I have seen sunsets that looked computer-enhanced. I have (very briefly) joined a conga line.”

Why it works

In this non-fiction travelogue, David Foster Wallace is talking about his experiences on luxury cruises. He opens by placing the reader directly onto a cruise ship. In the span of a paragraph, the reader experiences awe, curiosity, amusement, disgust, wonder, and excitement. Yet Wallace uses formal language (“I have seen”) and repetition (there’s that anaphora for you) to ironic effect. This creates an interesting juxtaposition of the elements of a tall tale with a bit of anthropological distance. This example, in particular, shows how mood can function independently from the atmosphere, and how both can change abruptly with the use of language.

Why atmosphere and mood matter

Atmosphere and mood are important because crafting an engaging story or essay involves more than just retelling events or facts in order. In order to draw readers in and get them invested in your writing, your work needs dimension. Atmosphere and mood work together to create that by:

  • Communicating important details that place the reader in a scene.
  • Making characters feel more real.
  • Reinforcing themes and tone.
  • Communicating genre elements.
  • Solidifying world-building, or the fictional universe in which a story or poem takes place.

And, perhaps most important, atmosphere and mood are both tools for getting readers invested in the plot or details of a piece of writing. Mood helps them identify with characters in fiction, and atmosphere helps them become immersed in the narrative or information. Both are essential to writing something people want to read.

Tips for establishing and creating atmosphere in your writing

When you sit down to write, here are some important things to consider to help you easily add mood and atmosphere to your piece.

Choose your words carefully.

Think about how you want readers to feel when they read your work. What language and descriptions can you include to evoke those emotions? While you’re in the process of examining your language, try your best to avoid clichés. “It was a dark and stormy night” has been used so many times that it won’t do much to draw your reader into a scene. In fact, cliché phrases can sometimes even pull the reader out of the work and distract them. That’s not what you want!

Deploy strong imagery.

“Show, don’t tell” is probably among the most repeated pieces of writing advice, but that’s because it works. If you just say a house looks old, that may not pull the reader into the house. Instead, talk about the mossy, rotting floorboards and the peeling wallpaper. Use imagery to build a world around the person reading.

Be detailed.

If you’re writing a story or poem, offer specific details about the setting and time period. Drop careful hints about what is coming to build tension and anticipation. If you’re working on an essay, make sure each detail is thorough and succinct. Most importantly, make sure any main component of your story or argument is thoroughly fleshed out to paint the clearest picture possible for the reader.

Incorporate literary devices.

Similes, metaphors, alliteration, hyperbole, and other literary devices can be especially helpful in developing atmosphere and mood. Of course, if you’re writing a more formal essay, you should use your judgment as to whether or not literary devices are a good fit for the piece, but a well-placed metaphor can go far in helping you make an important point.

Introduce yourself to even more poetic and literary devices right here!

Make use of your characters and dialogue.

Atmosphere and mood aren’t only created in descriptions of the setting. You can also use character descriptions, their words, and their actions to add to the mood or atmosphere you’re trying to create. For example, if you’re writing a horror story, you might describe your character’s shaky dialogue and uneven breathing. Perhaps they’re even pale with fright or have wide eyes. Readers can easily experience the atmosphere through characters.

Ashley Austrew is a freelance journalist and writer from Omaha, Nebraska. Her work has been published at CosmopolitanScary MommyScholastic, and other outlets. For more by Ashley, read: “Teacher” vs. “Tutor”: Why Most Kids Need Both | Your Student Can Take Middle School By Storm With The Right Vocabulary | Make Your Writing The Star Of National Grammar Day With These Tips | How To Plan Out And Plan Ahead For Your Final Project | How To Write A Great Hook That Grabs Your Audience Hook, Line, And Sinker!

We have more writing tips ready, starting with this look at writing a superb hook!

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