Critic’s Corner: Setting the mood: The importance of atmosphere


Suzanne Collins chose internal monologue. Shakespeare chose dialogue. Tolkien chose narrative. Emily Bronte chose description of landscape. All writers have a specialty by which they choose to tell a story.

Yet, none wcan escape the shadow which lingers behind each choice: atmosphere.

Why do we react more emotionally when watching a movie in the theatre than we do at home, in the light of an ordinary day? We’re placed inside the narrative. Why do we feel different when watching a battle scene from “Lord of the Rings” than when watching a battle scene from “Dunkirk?” It’s the world which the director or author has created which strikes you in such a way that you feel like you’re either in a fantasy land or historical France.

In movies, the director does this by setting, music, sounds and the method of cinematography. In books, the author does this by the only thing allotted to him: words.

Words have the same power as all those things previously mentioned put together. Of course, listening to epic music while reading a battle sequence can certainly help you get even more “in the zone,” and I highly recommend this practice when you’re at an epic scene; however, the story doesn’t need music to wield the power of atmosphere.

Virginia Woolf’s fascinating novel “Orlando” paints the landscape of the story as it unfolds with the atmosphere of the age. Each chapter represents approximately a century in English history, which Woolf characterizes by some unique physical phenomenon or peculiarity.

As the years go on and the culture loses its foundation of faith and turns instead to worship enlightenment as a god of reason, colors become darker and the atmosphere grows colder.

Woolf presents London in the nineteenth century, for example, as being overshadowed by a thick and dark cloud which brings about a great dampness. This dampness she then uses to justify the taking up of many English customs during that century, such as change in men’s fashion of facial hair to the beard, the covering of tables, the invention of the muffin as a comfort food and the adaption of fashion.

One peculiarity of C.S. Lewis’ “Chronicles of Narnia” series is the strikingly different atmosphere of every book. Despite the fact that some of the characters appear in multiple books, the tone completely alters from one book to the next. There are many theories on this, my personal favorite being that each book represents one of the medieval planets, but the point is that Lewis, as a master storyteller, wields the power of atmosphere so well that if not for his idiosyncrasies, such as a few favorite words and his sense of humor, a reader might not notice that the series was written by the same person.

Simply employing words, Lewis creates seven striking atmospheres in which to develop his characters so that they can tell a story.

Another example is Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible,” which played in Anathan Theatre the last two weekends. Miller masterfully demonstrated the power of atmosphere in shaping people and events. During the first half of the first act, when Miller sets the reader or viewer into the midst of the town, the frenzy of the start of a witch hunt gets into not only the characters’ bones, but the viewer as well. By the dialogue and the many characters present, Miller makes everything seem dangerous, crowded and worthy of concern.

However, as soon as the scene shifts to the simple home of John Proctor, the viewer realizes how foolish he or she was to get caught up in the momentum of a witch hunt, when all is calm and reasonable in the outside world. Everything in town is removed, absurd and not worth the strain of stressing about.

So the power of atmosphere shines out with the light of truth. It’s one of the most unconscious elements of literature and yet the one which influences us perhaps the most.

Atmosphere shapes the very air in which we walk through a novel or television screen, and without it we could never have the full experience. Just as the world would be incomplete without the often unnoticed shadows that accompany every object and person, so every story would be incomplete without its atmosphere.