Pick an emotion, something intense and specific. In 500 words, have a character interact in an environment and try to convey that emotion utilizing each of the senses and/or character actions.
Often we rely on telling the writer what to feel when it comes to generating atmosphere. “There were a lot of people on the dance floor and she felt cramped and uncomfortable as she crossed the room,” versus, “She squeezed between sweaty bodies, narrowly dodging jabs from elbows and feet stomping her toes as the beat throbbed in her skull and the sweltering heat choked her.”
What helps generate atmosphere is to pick an emotion to convey, giving every bit of description both weight and purpose. As you write, focus on words that have more meaning. Avoid empty or neutral words (e.g. sad, happy, big, small, beautiful, pretty). Since this is just practice, overdo it. Stretch out your creative senses and flood your passage. Don’t worry about whether it’s too much.
A Quick List of Emotions –
- Do NOT use your emotion directly. Never state it in your passage. Convey it through your description using specific word choices, colors, sensations, but never directly.
- Utilize your character’s chemistry with their surroundings, how they react with their environment. Does their spine tingle because they hate their stepfather’s house so much? Do their sinuses sting with pollen in the spring air? Do their clothes stick to their bodies with sweat because of the heat wave?
- If you’re stuck with trying to describe what your character feels, ask your character why they feel that way. If they’re scared, why? Is it because the mist of the night loomed too close and too blinding? Is the silence so heavy that the ears ring? Did something happen to your character before this that triggers them?
- Express the physicality of your environment, how it feels through all of the senses, and avoid words such as “feel” or “felt”, “see” or “saw”, “hear” or “heard” as described in this post under “distancing phrases”.
- Be specific. What does “the beautiful flowers” mean? What makes the flowers “beautiful” to your character? What does the “calm breeze” mean? What makes the breeze “calm” to your character?
- Avoid cataloguing details. “The bright, vivid, blinding colors of the flowers” doesn’t say as much as “the garden looked like a box of crayons had upturned all over the ground and sprouted waxy petals.”
- Adjectives and adverbs are nice—sparingly. Use only adjectives and adverbs when no other single word can do your description justice.
- Try to focus on what’s important to the scene and the character. Pick an element that really possesses the atmosphere and follow its ripples outward like rings around a planet, emphasizing the gravitational pull of your central element. As an example, the apartment the character is checking out makes them feel uncomfortable—why? Because the apartment feels empty, but not disowned, and the character can sense the presences that used to occupy the rooms. The ripples are the stains on the floor and the marks on the walls and the stale, almost-warm temperature of the air like heat that lingered in the sheets long after the bodies were gone.
- Avoid clichés, which is also mentioned in this post. Also avoid turn-of-phrases. Anything trite or overused loses its efficacy unless redone with a fresh and unexpected take.
- Sometimes we have to write out everything that comes to mind before we settle on the lines that matter most during the revision process. Give yourself all the freedom you need to spill your creativity, go over the 500 word limit if you have to, but then revise just as heavily. Keep only the most original, most telling pieces of description.
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