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Creating Mood or Atmosphere

My evening class is hilt deep into their short story assignment (rough drafts are due next week).  This is an intro to creative writing class, so I'm supposed to introduce poetry, the short story, and creative non-fiction in 18 weeks, one meeting a week.  There's a real "argh!" factor at work as I hit the high points in these three genres.  On one level, it's totally ridiculous to think I'm going to do anything significant with the topics in so little time.  On the other hand, it's liberating to keep reminding myself that the class is called "Introduction to Creative Writing."  I'm not supposed to do anything in depth.

At any rate, I have a bunch of mini-units to talk about aspects of short story writing.  One that we covered last night was mood or atmosphere.  I gave them a tip sheet that looked like this:

  • Decide what the atmosphere is supposed to be, then set every word to supporting that effect.
  • Scenic details do much to establish mood and atmosphere.  A cemetery can be cheery, just as a wedding can be horrifying, depending on the the details the writer includes.
  • Pay attention to the connotation of words to establish mood.
  • Appropriate similes and metaphors can establish mood.
  • Sentence length and rhythm can change mood or atmosphere.
Then I give them these two examples of descriptions that work really well to establish a mood or atmosphere in stories.  I'm not sure that the whole lesson isn't an excuse to give them these examples.

From The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream.  Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more.  Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and what ever waked there, walked alone. 

From "The Veldt," by Ray Bradbury

The nursery was silent.  It was empty as a jungle glade at hot high noon.  the walls were blank and two dimensional.  Now, as George and Lydia Hadley stood in the center of the room, the walls began to purr and receded into crystalline distance, it seemed, and presently an African veldt appeared, in three dimensions; on all sides, in colors reproduced to the final pebble and bit of straw.  The ceiling above them became a deep sky with a hot yellow sun.

George Hadley felt the perspiration start on his brow.

"Let's get out of the sun," he said.  "This is a little too real.  But I don't see anything wrong."

"Wait a moment, you'll see," said his wife.

Now the hidden odorophonics were beginning to blow a wind of odor at the two people in the middle of the baked veldtland.  The hot straw smell of lion grass, the cool green smell of the hidden water hole, the great rusty smell of animals, the smell of dust like a red paprika in the hot air.  And now the sound: the thump of distant antelope feet on grassy sod, the papery rustling of vultures.  A shadow passed through the sky.  The shadow flickered on George Hadley's upturned, sweating face.

"Filthy creatures," he heard is wife say.

"The vultures."


( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 25th, 2008 10:06 pm (UTC)
Great examples. Now I want to go read "The Veldt" again. I'd also love to see what your students could come up with "make a cemetary cheerful, make a wedding horrifying" as an exercise.
Mar. 26th, 2008 04:56 am (UTC)
"The Veldt"
What an incredible story! Love it every time. I also use "The Pedestrian" and "All Summer in a Day" for a mini-unit with my juniors when we are reading contemporary literature. It's nice to escape the classical canon and read alternate literary styles with some meat to them.
Mar. 28th, 2008 02:06 am (UTC)
Ahhhh, "The Veldt." I need to re-read that one. It's been a long time.

This is a great post! Because it's a great post, I've added it to my "Writer's Toolbox" (link: http://kathleenmckiernan.typepad.com/writers_toolbox/writers-toolbox-goodposts.html). I'm collecting useful posts and resources that are helping me on my journey, hoping they will help others, too.

Thanks again!! (smile)
( 3 comments — Leave a comment )