Thriller writing 101: Creating an atmosphere

Every successful thriller begins with a distinctive atmosphere. The thriller writer must establish an atmosphere at the beginning of the story, to ground the reader in the story’s place and time.

Note: Atmosphere, while related to setting, is not the same thing as a setting! The atmosphere is what draws the reader in until he or she has time to engage with the characters and plot.

As an example of atmosphere, let’s say your story starts off at a hotel. Is the hotel located along the strip in Las Vegas, is it a no-tell motel along I-95 in South Carolina, or is it a beachfront motel in a party town in Southern California? Each locale would provide an opportunity for a completely different atmosphere. It’s your choice as the writer to create an atmosphere according to the needs of your story.

What works: Trilateration (I have no idea where I came up with this term; probably Star Trek)

One check list I use when creating atmosphere is the five senses. Of the five senses, writers tend to seriously overuse sight and hearing. We forget all about smell, taste, and touch. When creating atmosphere, it’s helpful to roam back through your paragraphs, weaving in references to the other senses. That’s what I call trilateration.

For what it’s worth, here’s a link to an ehow article about creating atmosphere.

What doesn’t work: Generic settings, laundry lists, overdescription

Introducing characters with description dumps is boring, and so is introducing settings with laundry lists of description. You need to bring the setting alive by infusing it with mood, in the same way that you inject your characters with life and attitude (For the how-to about that, see Robert Gregory Browne’s post about bringing characters to life).

So I’d love to know, how do you go about creating atmosphere in your thrillers? What techniques or tricks of the trade can you share with us today?

11 thoughts on “Thriller writing 101: Creating an atmosphere

  1. Nice post, Kathryn. And so true that all the senses are there as tools for the writer to use. The problem I see with beginning writers is that when they do use them, they overuse them. In other words, if the sense of smell is used to create atmosphere, don’t use multiple references to the smells of the location. Doing so tends to dilute them all and make them non-effective.

    I try to pick one that has the most meaning to me–perhaps a smell or taste from my childhood that immediately recalls memories. Hopefully, it will have the same effect on the reader as well.

  2. Nice post, Kathryn. When I was first starting, one of my great Light Bulb Moments came when I realized that the narrative voice can simultaneously communicate all elements of a story: plot, character, setting, atmosphere, the shebang.

    As an example, let’s start with a dead body in a no-tell motel, and two approaches an author could take.

    1. The rookie rested his hand on his holstered pistol, partly to be prepared, but mostly to keep the trembling a secret from the manager. As he pushed the door open, the stench took his breath away.

    “Stay here,” he said to the manager.

    “My ass,” the manager replied, and he took off down the hall.

    The rookie inched his way into the room. With its flowered wallpaper and industrial carpet, the motel was a place from his youth. It triggered memories of endless car trips that doubled for vacations back in the day. He always ended the day feeling nauseous then, too.

    2. Malloy could smell the rot from the hallway. He pointed to the lock and barked at the manager, “Open it.” He wondered how long the old guy could hold his breath before he keeled over from oxygen starvation.

    The lock turned. “Now get lost,” Malloy said, and the guy disappeared. He smiled. I hope I can move that fast when I’m a hundred and thirty, he thought.

    Oh, Christ. This wasn’t rot. This was three weeks of cheese in the sun. As if this ancient bedbug farm wasn’t moldy enough already.

    If I did that right, each description of the scene conveyed more or less the same images, but with characterization thrown in at the same time.

    It’s one of very few tricks that I know how to do.

  3. Those two examples are fantastic, John! I laughed out loud when I got to the smelly cheese! Very well done, and shows how you can show virtually the same scene to opposite character effect by using narrative voice. We want more, more in a blog post! Joe,I think you’re right about too much sense-triangulation being a danger as well as too little. Like a powerful spice, we have to sprinkle in just the right amount, when needed!

  4. I love these useful posts, Kathryn et al. A couple weeks ago a publisher pointed out to me some of what Joe said about overdoing the sensory perception.

    I had an opening chapter that started with a captured Marine in Somalia about to be tortured. The way I had written it there was too much stress to soon. Publisher said the stress threshold was taken too high too fast, senses overloaded, too tired to continue to next chapter.

    I like John’s use of narrative to build the senses too. Very good tool.

  5. Oh, and speaking of senses. Once for a play I was doing, that later became a short story, I wanted to find out what it was like to be in an artillery barrage…without getting blown up that is.

    We had a fireworks show coming to town so I went to it and stood directly under it with my back against the wall of a building so the shock waves would hit my body full on. Out of that experience I got almost all I needed. Ringing ears, upset stomach, headache, singed sinus from the cordite. I also went around after that and smelled several kinds of dirt both at the surface and beneath the surface, since a bombardment tends to put the dirt on the wrong side of the person. Add to that the smell of blood, vomit and feces and the sound of screaming men and we have an artillery barrage.

    Later folks said the play, and short story, seemed to real they thought I was there but couldn’t figure out how a 35 year old Alaskan described WW1 so accurately. Of course, I could barely hear their compliments…my ears are still ringing.

    sorry if that’s too long…I seem to be suffering from logorhea this morning

  6. John’s point (and example) is right on. I always want to know the inner emotion/attitude of the POV character and create descriptions consonant with that.

    Joe reminds us that one telling detail is better than a stack. It’s the 1 + 1 = 1/2 rule Sol Stein taught.

    Stephen King’s opening in “All That You Love Will Be Carried Away”, esp. the last line, tells us about the character even before we meet him:

    It was a Motel 6 on I-80 just west of Lincoln, Nebraska. The snow that began at midafternoon had faded the sign’s virulent yellow to a kinder pastel shade as the light ran out of the January dusk. The wind was closing in on that quality of empty amplification one encounters only in the country’s flat midsection.

  7. Basil, you really went the extra mile for verisimilitude! Lucky you’re still in one piece. James, I can think of few more depressing atmospheres than a Motel 6 in the midwest. But when King threw in the snow-filtered virulent yellow of the sign, you’re right, now we’re talkin’ atmosphere. Love it!!

  8. I don’t write from an outline – my first draft is a “prose outline.” That is, it moves the characters around, sets the basic scene and conflict, etc. My final chapters tend to be about 10 pages long on average and the first draft is usually only 5 pages long. So you can see, a bunch more stuff needs to go into the re-write to flesh out the scene. And that’s when I look at the note taped to my monitor that reads:


    It’s the senses that bring out the full potential of a scene. Let the reader smell the scene; taste it. Use all those senses and the scene will come alive.

  9. Great post Kathryn, I agree with the sensory needs – they are the key to atmosphere. Of course as a writer of historicals I also need to transport readers back to another time as well as place so I focus ont he richness of the sensory details I can supply about the time period. I spend many hours researching but I think it’s the visceral reaction in a reader that really helps sustain atmosphere.

  10. Clare, I’ve been reading about Linclon’s hat. It’s been put on display, I think at the Smithsonian? I’m dying to go see it. Somehow I think that just by seeing his hat, I could get get a better sense of who this great man was. It was something he touched and wore. I’m sure you must always be absorbing those types of details for setting up atmosphere in your historical mysteries.

  11. And Mark, I’m with you on the usefulness of attaching Post-It Notes–my screen is surrounded by a forest of them, waving at me! Only I tend to get way too cryptic on mine. For example, right now I have a the following written on a Post-It Note: “Codswallop and Grockle.” What did I want to do with that? It’s lost on me now. So frustrating.

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