Hitting The Atmosphere

Okay, you've got your characters, your conflict, your McGuffin, your plot twists, and your denoument. So what's missing? Well, perhaps the time of day, the weather, your character's physical condition, the smell of lilacs (or the paper mill, or dead bodies) in the air, etc, etc.

We depend heavily on sensory clues to define our situation and guide our decisions. (Smell the powder smoke? Better be on guard!) Your characters have those same senses and will respond to their input, which is one of the key driving forces in plot development. (Trust me: you will respond to the stench of high-sulphur coal being burned at the local power plant, as will your protagonist.)

A well known truism in writing is that you should try to engage all your character's senses on each page. This is impractical at times (no sense reminding the hero that its raining cats and dogs every thirty seconds!) but bringing in various non-narrative input on a regular basis does wonders for the setting and the mood.

Think back to a scene in your life which struck you as especially moody. In my case I recall when I visited St Louis after many years and went to look up an old friend. It was winter time (A few days before Christmas). It was twilight, the sidewalks hadn't been cleared of snow, the temperature was bitter, the scene lit by Christmas lights which outlined the bare trees. I didn't remember the address, and couldn't recognize the house. I felt an air of being alone in a place both alien and oddly familiar. Take that setting and run with it as an exercise.

We 'autonomous biological systems' are complex critters controlled by powerful physical / hormonal / sensory response patterns. You can't avoid taking these drivers and their results into account when building your characters (at least if you want more than 2-dimensional cardboard). Some examples of these reaction drivers include:

Character: each of us has a unique mental makeup which affects how we respond to events. One person might greet a major crisis as an annoyance, while the next will come unglued over trivia. And you can't (shouldn't, anyway) presume that specific characters will always fill those roles consistent with their place in the story line. The minor character who steps up in a moment of crisis can be an interesting plot twist while even your Heroic POV has their limits.

Emotional state: depression is real. Writing it into a story takes serious creativity. Your characters might very well be depressed (whether temporarily or ongoing). You really can't ignore the possibility. For that matter, they might be caught up in an hysterical moment, with consequences they'll be appalled at later. Sudden mood swings can be a useful way of emphasizing a new plot point or even bringing in a sub-arc.

Physical condition: if your character has just had the snot beat out of him, he won't be in top form. I recall scenes from the movie 'Promethius' where the heroine fights a powerful alien, wrestles with the monster, runs, jumps, lifts weights, rappels down a rope - right after major abdominal surgery. Ain't gonna happen.

Environment: extremes of weather or the local environment will affect your character. If they are soaking wet, half frozen, baked and dehydrated in the desert heat, or choking on high sulphur coal fumes they will neither be physically up to par nor will they give a damn.

Exhaustion: going without food or water or sleep, or even peace and quiet, will leave your characters emotionally drained to where they will be hard put to cope with a crisis. Conversely it might drive them to some act of desperation which gets them killed, or proves to be just the thing needed to solve their problem.

In short, the atmosphere in your story (both internal and external) has a major impact on the plot and setting, on the characters' interactions, and on how the story arc evolves. You really cannot ignore these factors any more than you can ignore a freshly stapled abdominal incision.

Related Topics:

The Writers' Worksheet
The Virtuous Villain
Info-Dumpster Diving
Character Matters
Slinging Slang
Getting It Write
Setting The Pace
Hitting The Atmosphere

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