Wednesday, July 22

Atmospheric Pressure: Employing The Four Seasons To Enhance Atmosphere

And hey, I’m not talking about these guys
By Bonnie Randall

Special Guest Author 

Frankie Valli alone can’t establish a mood in your novel—but the literal four seasons just might.

First, though, let’s consider what comprises atmosphere. Certainly the five senses play a leading role, but real richly atmospheric pieces also play off a reader’s presentiment to a location, their innate responses to it. Consider, for example, Barbara Michaels (aka Elizabeth Peters). Michaels loved setting her Gothic mysteries in sprawling old mansions with closed off wings and dusty rooms. BOOM! there’s your atmosphere; all of us can immediately appreciate the sense of dread, fear, mystery (maybe even doom) when faced with an old building like this. Or how about SE Hinton’s Outsiders? Tell us about a 1950’s greaser and we immediately envision leather jackets and blue jeans, smell diner fries, and can hear the Big Bopper, deep in our ear. Atmosphere. The 1950s were full of it.

These great storytellers have taught us that memorable fiction is so much more than just a well-paced plot and compelling hero’s journey. Resonant writing paints a world of sights, sounds, and smells that evoke a mood we call atmosphere, and our four seasons—spring, summer, fall, winter—can direct said atmosphere in subtle yet powerful ways.

But how?

First, Consider the Seasons

Each season is a natural transition period. Birth, growth, reaping, and death are inherent in spring, summer, autumn, and winter respectively (and are all, incidentally, common literary themes, too. Hmmm). Knowing this, you can be assured that your reader will have reflexive and automatic impressions, feelings, and associations conjured by the mere mention of a season. Here are a few very obvious ones, and I’d encourage you to add to your own to each list.

Know this: the season within which you set your story and the images you share will automatically be tapping into the innate impressions your reader already has of that season. Hence, what your readers already connote with a specific time of year will essentially do some of the work for you in generating the atmosphere you’re striving to build, and the associations implicit within each separate season will in turn allow you to layer both images and feelings, a subtle underscore your reader will feel and which will enrich the atmosphere you are building in your book.

Now, how to employ it:

Consider Your Theme

In my paranormal romantic thriller, Divinity &The Python, the prevailing themes were secrets, secrecy, and how menace operates under the cover of darkness. Because of this, I set it in the dead of winter (in Edmonton, Alberta, no less—Canada’s most northerly city) in order to evoke a sense of deep darkness, deep chill, and in an effort to further convey how isolated and trapped my heroine Shaynie is in her circumstance.

Conversely, my current novel, The Summit’s Shadow, has a near-diametrically opposite theme, that being the uncovering of secrets and shame. I set it in summer, a time when we experience maximum illumination (the sun dissolving all shadows in our lives; no more hiding, no more secrets, no more darkness). A time when long days conquer short nights, when sunlight and heat outweigh the oppression of darkness.

Now consider your project. Can its theme link to the seasonal connotations we’ve established above? Maybe your theme is one of victory through adversity. Consider setting it as Winter passes into Spring (death àto à life) Or loss of innocence. Perhaps have the action in your story move from Spring (newborn) à Summer (mature). Disillusionment? Employ the arc within the season of Fall; from its brilliant golds and oranges to its gray, brittle, empty trees (beautiful to ugly). Or maybe your theme involves releasing an old identity / accepting a new one? Spring is the time of new beginnings.

In short, use the backdrop of seasons to underscore theme, and watch it amplify the atmosphere and mood in your novel.

And don’t forget to—

Consider Your Plot

Stephen King is a master at employing seasonal connotations to drive his plot forward while simultaneously building atmosphere. The Shining, for example, plays out as Fall transitions into the dead of Winter, and as that occurs we see the desperation of the characters evolve along with the seasons. This plot employs all the grimmest associations we have with Winter; the Torrances are trapped and isolated due to snow, cold, and perpetual blizzards. The urgency and atmosphere grow increasingly dark (much like winter itself) as the novel progresses.

Then there’s ‘Salems Lot. In this classic vampire tale, townsfolk die in droves—much like the leaves on the trees surrounding them as it’s set in fall, a time when everything dies (and is then sometimes reaped as something new—from crops we get wheat, from dead townsfolk we suddenly have vampires). Insidious? Yes. Effective? Oh, absolutely.

So reflect on your plot. Is it a madcap mystery whose zany circumstances are mostly lighthearted? Perhaps summer conveys the carefree atmosphere you’re aiming for. Or maybe you have a dark suspense tale. Why not use the backdrop of Autumn, with its proximity to Halloween, to inject more mystery and ambiguity into the mood? Or do you have characters overthrowing the government, planning a coup? Spring sets an excellent tone within which to emerge from the mud Winter’s left behind and grow into something brand new.

Use the seasons. Evoke their moods to coincide with the tale you are telling. And, as you’re crafting, lastly—

Use Rich Seasonal Images

Consider the mood evoked by each of the following vignettes:

1. Sharp crayons and stout packages of paper. Orange school buses the same shade as the leaves on the trees.

CONTRAST WITH: Barren branches beckoned like gnarled fingers in October’s race toward twilight.

2. The whole landscape was beach balls, sand castles and squint-bright sunlight.

CONTRAST WITH: A choke of mosquitoes was second only to air so thick with wet heat every breath was a gurgle.

3. Ducklings like fuzzy bits of sunshine marched toward newly open water.

CONTRAST WITH: Mud. An acre of it. And the manure pile, unfrozen, sent stench into the air thick enough to make his eyes water.

4. Sunlight on the snow turned the hills into a glittering diamond mine.

CONTRAST WITH: The blast of December bit her face and the traffic did little but crawl, stiff from cold and treacherous on all the ice buried under the slush.

My point? The seasonal images you’ll paint with will cast your tone—so choose the strongest ‘stage props’ to capture the mood you’re wanting your reader to sit in as they read your story.

And so to close, The Four Seasons (sorry Frankie Valli)—they may appear incidental, irrelevant, or even nit-picky. They need not be. When hired by theme and plot the seasons can become one of the most powerful atmospheric vehicles in your story.

Bonnie Randall is a Canadian writer who lives between her two favorite places—the Jasper Rocky Mountains and the City of Champions: Edmonton, Alberta. A clinical counselor who scribbles fiction in notebooks whenever her day job allows, Bonnie is fascinated by the relationships people develop—or covet—with both the known and unknown, the romantic and the arcane.

Her novel Divinity & The Python, a paranormal romantic thriller, was inspired by a cold day in Edmonton when the exhaust rising in the downtown core appeared to be the buildings, releasing their souls.

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  1. Excellent thought provoking post! Thanks

    1. You're very welcome! Glad you enjoyed :)

  2. Excellent post! I actually did this in my novel. The first half of the story takes place during the "ending celebration" where over the course of three days, all the leaves fall off the trees. On the fourth day, the kingdom wakes up to a fresh blanket of snow symbolizing a new beggining. Kinda like new years.
    I love the examples you gave and hopefully i will get the chance to think about them and apply it to my WIP.


    1. Your novel sounds like the best possible example of this concept! Love that!

  3. Thanks -- Fascinating. The summer in my WiP needs to be emphasized!