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?