Atmosphere and imagery are two vital aspects of my writing style, and, if not absolute musts, then at least enormous checks on the ‘pro’ side in my taste for fiction. More than a mere facet of setting, atmosphere is a tool that can be used to set the tone of a piece, to foreshadow, to suggest, to energize the plot, and to evoke emotions like fear and relaxation and everything in between—and that’s but scratching the surface of its functions. Atmosphere is often so important it can become a trademark, a part of the branding for books, video games, and movies alike.
Think of the Silent Hill franchise. Eek! No! Anything but that! you might cry. But why is that?
What’s the very first thing that comes to mind? Is it the miserable characters? The graphic story? The twisted, mangled monsters, evoking at once horror and disgust and occasionally even pity?
Or is it the rolling, all-consuming fog enrobing the brick facades of an abandoned ghost town, the air raid siren wailing in the distance, the scream of metal on metal erupting from everywhere and nowhere at once to grind away at your peace of mind and replace it with an ominous, ancient, almost nameless sense of foreboding and dread resurrected from the very core of you?
In Silent Hill’s case, the town, the setting, is a character in and of itself, perhaps the most important in terms of story, conflict, and plain old impact on the watcher/player/reader. It’s a goal I strive to achieve in all my work, short story, novella, and novel alike; one I think will prove at least a valuable exercise for any writer, if not an everyday fixture in their toolbox.
The easiest way to make your setting more than a setting is to look at it and treat it like a character in your development stage. How do you create your characters? Do you use profile templates? Do your describe how they look? Do you write paragraphs on paragraphs of backstory? Do the same for your setting. And by setting, I don’t mean your world—I mean your setting. In The Quaking Aspen, my setting is Pando Forest, a single-organism aspen colony forest that seems to, and may very well be, alive (and not so nice). In The Lighthouse of Loom, it’s the cursed, near-uninhabited island of Loom, with its rolling fog, poison gas, red moss, and murderous seas. In Two Tastes, a short story barely scraping over 4,000 words, it’s the Moth and Flame bar that has a mind of its own, never occupies the same space and never, ever looks the same, inside or out.
I use something I like to call the root image. The root image is an imagery tool that not only helps me establish my atmosphere (and, by association, my setting, tone, and theme), but also helps me start a story (or scene) in general. Sometimes, a story creates itself and builds itself around this single, first image, threads of plot and character sprouting a spiderweb of scenes with the root image as, well… its root.
The root image is the most potent, clear image you can form in your head at the beginning of a story or scene.
In The Quaking Aspen, the root image was a lone firewatch tower standing sentinel in the middle of a wind-and-rain-lashed nighttime forest. For LoL, it was, naturally, the lighthouse, shrouded in creeping red moss, rising from the fog swathing the tall northern coastal cliffs. And for Two Tastes, a case in which the root image gave birth to the story itself, the root image was a stunning woman, long-haired and red-cocktail-dress-clad, cross legged and sipping a Manhattan in a smoky, classy, and (most importantly) empty bar.
The root image serves as your foundation for the house your story will become; each scene a brick, or a wood plank, or a stone in its walls—thatch in its roof—paintings and kitsch inside its rooms. When in doubt, close your eyes, and try to find that picture. It is the core of what you’re about to write and the catalyst for the feelings you wish to stir in your reader.
Because, at the end of the day, reading a book isn’t just reading words on a page—it’s seeing a story as it plays out, the characters as they skin their knees, and the spectacular world around them as time presses ever onward.