Creating Atmosphere

May 10, 2014  Prompt #9

IMG_0983Here’s one of my favorite kids/science nerd jokes:

Q. Why did the restaurant on the moon go out of business?
A. Because it had no atmosphere!

Like a good restaurant, good writing needs atmosphere, which I loosely define as the mood, tone, or feel of the piece. What contributes to a work’s atmosphere? At least four elements (I’m sure there are more) including word choice, writing style, details and, what we’ll focus on here, setting.

Imagine, for instance, the same conversation in a noisy Chicago diner, a near-empty, small-town Laundromat, or inside a rattling blue truck on a foggy rural road. How would these different settings reinforce the conversation or play counterpoint to it?


For this two-part writing exercise (more tomorrow), choose a location from the first list and a quality of light from the second list. If none of these choices inspire you, make up your own.

Location: kitchen • basement • attic • bedroom • den • sun room • living room • baby’s room • patio • driveway • hallway • laundry room

Quality of Light: dim • dusk • dark • filtered • blazing sun • gloomy • warm • cold • dawn • partly cloudy • glaring

With your location and quality of light chosen (for instance, dawn on the driveway), write your phrase on a fresh piece of paper. Write for 10 minutes, setting the physical scene.

Tips for Creating a Memorable Setting

  1. Include specifics. Is a car parked on the driveway? Does a child’s bike lie on its side? Has a recent rain washed away half a chalk drawing? Is there a long crack in the drive, always meant to be repaired?
  2. Include sensory details. What color is the sky? Is the driveway  cool or hot? Do blooming lilacs scent the air? Or is it the smell of garage, not picked up for weeks.
  3. How does your location and quality of light work together to set the tone?
  4. Don’t include characters, actions or dialogue yet. Focus on the setting the mood.

How This Prompt Can Strengthen Your Writing

  • Encourages you to observe and imagine as you combine elements.
  • Creating a strong setting adds complexity and layers to your writing.

Further Writing and Considerations

  1. Choose a different location and quality of light.
  2. Choose the same location, but a different quality of light.
  3. Choose the same quality of light, but a different location.
  4. Does the style of your writing change depending upon the setting your choose?

Variations for Writing Groups

  1. On index cards, each member writes down a location and kind of light. Or choose another variable, such as time of day, season, or weather. (Just don’t start with “It was a dark and stormy night.”)
  2. Put the index cards in two piles.
  3. Each member chooses one card from each pile and writes for 15 minutes.
  4. If possible, have members share their work. Listen for a sentence or phrase that impressed or puzzled you. Write it on the top of a fresh sheet of paper.
  5. Write in response to it for 15 more minutes.

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