Atmosphere is a literary technique that is concerned with the feeling readers get from the elements of a narrative. It is influenced by the setting, foreshowing, objects, background, and the character’s past experiences. The atmosphere is often directed in accordance with the mood of a particular piece. Some possible atmospheres include fearful, suspenseful, lighthearted, and joyful.
Definition of Atmosphere
The atmosphere is the feeling a particular work conveys to readers. It includes the emotional aspects of any place, time, or event. More often than not, the atmosphere changes in a piece of literature. In the first chapter, it might be lighthearted, but by the tenth chapter, it might be incredibly dark and dreary. If a writer has successfully created an interesting atmosphere, the reader will easily become involved with the story and find themselves caught up in the actions of the characters.
Elements of Atmosphere
When considering how to write or analyze the atmosphere in a particular work of fiction, readers and writer should consider the following elements:
- Setting: when and where the story takes place. Includes the time of day, weather, and more.
- Point of View: the narrative voice and its reliability. Consider, for example, the narrator in ‘The Raven.’
- Imagery: descriptions that cater to the sense. These tap into sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell.
- Foreshadowing: especially effective when it is ominous. Characters and readers will know something bad is about to happen.
- Figurative Language: use of devices like similes, metaphors, and allusions. Help to create imagery and atmosphere.
- Theme: the story’s purpose. Can direct the atmosphere down a particular path.
- Diction: refers to the vocabulary the writer uses and how they arrange the words.
Examples from Literature
Of all the poems that Edgar Allan Poe wrote throughout his life, ‘The Raven’ is perhaps his most atmospheric. Throughout the poem, readers should feel suspense, fear, and concern for the speaker, who is undoubtedly in a very strange position. There is a great deal of mystery in this poem, and it can be felt in almost every line. For example:
And the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
Thrilled me—filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;
So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating
“’Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door—
Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door;—
This it is and nothing more.
In these lines, Poe uses words like “rustling,” “terrors,” “late,” and “sad” to help build the atmosphere in these lines. Readers should walk away from them feeling as though they, too, were in the room with the speaker and are just as haunted by the sound of knocking and the raven.
Read more Edgar Allan Poe poems.
The Chorus sets the tone for Romeo and Juliet in these first lines and provides an atmosphere for the events that follow. Here are the first few lines of the play:
Two households, both alike in dignity
(In fair Verona, where we lay our scene),
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-crossed lovers take their life,
The author lets the audience know about the disastrous events to come but doesn’t provide them with all the details. This creates an atmosphere of suspense and expectation. A viewer might also experience dread at the thought of “star-crossed lovers” taking their lives.
Explore William Shakespeare’s poetry.
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
There are some wonderful and incredibly dark examples of the atmosphere in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Consider these lines that should help the reader feel exactly what the characters feel:
He walked out in the gray light and stood and he saw for a brief moment the absolute truth of the world. The cold relentless circling of the intestate earth. Darkness implacable. The blind dogs of the sun in their running. The crushing black vacuum of the universe. And somewhere two hunted animals trembling like ground-foxes in their cover. Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it
Using words like “Darkness implacable” and “crushing black vacuum of the universe” leaves little the imagination in regard to what it’s like in this world. There is darkness, fear (seen through words like “trembling” and “hunted”), and even claustrophobia as it’s clear there’s no way out of this place.
Atmosphere or Mood?
While these two literary techniques are similar to one another, there are differences that should be noted. The atmosphere is a broader term than mood is. The latter is specific, focussing on the feelings a group of people or a single individual feels. It is about internal feelings while the atmosphere is focused on what the feeling of a particular place/time is.
Why Do Writers Use Atmosphere?
It’s incredibly important for writers to consider the atmosphere they’ve created in their literary work. Choosing an inappropriate atmosphere might throw off the reader’s entire experience of the book, poem, short story, or play. For example, if a writer is creating a piece of literature for children and wants to infuse the story with an important moral, they will also be concerned with maintaining a lighthearted and entertaining atmosphere for their young readers. If the atmosphere gets dark and scary, it’s unlikely the child is going to enjoy the book or focus on the moral lesson the writer was focused on conveying. If the atmosphere is correctly structured, then the reader will feel like the story is more accurate, realistic, and easier to connect to.
Related Literary Terms
- Mood: the feeling created by the writer for the reader. It is what happens within a reader because of the tone the writer used in the poem.
- Attitude: the tone, a writer, takes on whatever they are writing. It can come through in a character’s intentions, histories, emotions, and actions.
- Tone: tells us how the writer feels about the text, at least to an extent. All forms of writing, aside from the academic, have a tone of some sort.
- Bathos: a sudden, jolting change in the tone of a work. This could occur in a poem, play, story, or film.
- Watch: How to Write Strong Atmosphere
- Listen: Tone vs. Mood vs. Atmosphere
- Read: The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe