Thursday, August 03, 2006

The Gripping Beast

A characteristic of Viking art is the sinuous interlace of a stylized beast or beasts which grip themselves or each other.
A fitting visual for writing, it seems to me, this ancient and highly sophisticated motif.

When we attempt to carve out the qualities that construct a piece of prose, we are faced constantly with how these qualities flow and morph and twine into and with each other.
Boundaries and exclusions cannot be set with clarity.
An attempt to exclude and analyze any particular element becomes, on occasion, like reaching into the woven maze of an ouroborian snake-pit.

So it is with that element called "atmosphere."
What is atmosphere anyway?
And is it separable?

Reaching for my handy-dandy pocket guide: Glossary of Literary Terms, I found that atmosphere is described as the mood prevading a piece of work that sets up the reader's expectations.
This mood or atmosphere can be, however, augmented in various ways: by dialogue ( terse, nervous dialogue at the beginning of Hamlet is cited) landscape or setting (thinking of The Fall of the House of Usher here >Poe), description creating superstitious terror (Lovecraft), character ( Hardy> the brooding Egdon Heath> Return of the Native.)
Seems atmosphere may be applied either to the whole or the part: the entire work or particular scenes.
But at the end of this specific entry, I observed: See Setting.
Well now. A clue.
Seems setting is considered an important basis for realizing and emphasizing the appropriate atmosphere.
And another, I conclude, are those toscined, tumbreled, ci-devant parts of speech presently guillotined - adjectives.

Is atmosphere really one of those indefinable, inseparable terms that force us to say: "Er...We know it when we see it..." ?
What do you think?

Thanks to Miss Write for this zoomorphic.


EA Monroe said...

Hi, Bernita. For me, Atmosphere is story. It's all those things you listed; it's the storm lashing the landscape, the wind banging the shutters; it's the gleam of malice in the villain's eyes, the tremor of fear; it's the artifact (object, etc.) that the hero says, "Cast it (object) away before it ruins us all!" It's emotion, prescience; it's the unknown -- twisted, warped and forged by imagination.

Now it's back to work and the smell of ink and paper! Thanks for the new thought of the day!

Anonymous said...

I do think atmosphere and scene are two different concepts. Atmosphere is the frame of mind you're in which colors everything you see and experience. Atmosphere is the reason two different people can stand in the same place and perceive the moment differently.

Scene is the hard facts. Atmosphere is the emotion.

Bernita said...

Well said, and I'm inclined to agree with you both.
But the question remains: how, as writers, do ( or can?) we separate this emotional effect from its cause?

MissWrite said...

Thanks for the plug, Bernita. That's basically what I was trying to get across yesterday. I love your style in doing things though. What a great touch. The Viking art is so appropo.

While atmosphere, and setting can be seperate entities, in many, many ways they are not. For instance, when you talk about fine dining, and you think atmosphere, what exactly creates such a feeling? The ambiance is in the surroundings. It's the static, and the kinetic. It's in the stationary items such as the table cloths, lighting, cleanliness, or lack-thereof, and in the mood set by the people in the area--perhaps a violinist, or waiters in tuxedos, as opposed to a cashier asking 'do you want fries with that?'.

Whichever setting you choose, however, it's vitally important that you use each one to its best advantage to make the story breathe.

The characters make the story, but if they live in a flat world it won't be nearly as interesting.

Ric said...

I don't think we're supposed to separate the two.

Her house was nestled into the neat subdivision of identical boxes. Parking on the street, he nearly tripped on the cracked sidewalk, stepped gingerly over the rotted board on the porch, paint chips grazed his finger as he pushed the doorbell, which produced no sound.


He found her house, indistinguishable from the ones around it. He pushed the bell and waited.

The second example does nothing.

The first immediately makes you wonder about her - why doesn't she fix things? Is there a reason she lives in a state of disrepair? What happened that let the house fall apart? A divorce? A mad-dog lawsuit? A death? Depression?

Atmosphere. Can be setting. Could this have been done over the phone? Would be harder, I think.

MissWrite said...

Beautifully done, Ric.

Bernita said...

Yes, indeed, Ric!
Seems then that choice of details of the setting = atmosphere - at least for scenes.

kmfrontain said...

Some books I've read give you nothing but setting in some scenes. What I mean is that the author steps back from the character, far enough back that the reader gets only description. You see what the character is doing, and anything that colours the setting at this point is purely whatever atmosphere the reader puts there, the reader's expectations.

Pure, stark scenery. Not much in the way of adjectives, and only used to clarify fact, not colour the mood. Passages written in pure omniscience, no emotional overlay, no emotions from the character. The style works particularly well for mystery or horror novels, because a mysterious character becomes this blunt object that we watch, and we don't know what the character will do next. The starkness of the writing becomes the atmosphere, because we expect more, and we add more, but it's usually what we add ourselves.

When you go tight third person, you pretty much have no choice but to colour a scene with the character's feelings, and there you have his atmosphere. The little story of the sundial maker I posted yesterday is exactly like that, tight third person, the atmosphere a mix of place and character, no additions through author's voice (another way atmosphere can intrude on otherwise clinical writing.) It's very difficult to separate character feelings from setting when you employ tight third, but it is one of the better styles for making an atmosphere that suits a character.

(And thanks for complement, Bernita. :D)

Scott said...

Seems to me that atmosphere comes with the territory. I hardly doubt that an author of any stripe would fail to create a feel through character reactions and setting.

Dennie McDonald said...

I think I haven't had coffee yet so... I do think Atmosphere is intertwined w/ the writer's voice - the way they spin a sentance, a scene lends to the whole overall feel of the work - I think you have to have both to make the story work. You can give two authors the same set-up which will tell what the atmosphere SHOULD be and if one's voice is weaker the scene will be weaker, but if they both have strong but different voice the scene will have different feels i.e. atmosphere y'know... okay it's too early to have thought that hard -

Elizabeth said...

Ahhhh, setting! My favorite subject!!

The Viking art is perfect, and therein the answer lines. Our emotions are driven by all mixed up kinds of things, much like our writing and reading experiences.

Atmosphere, to me, is a feeling, a mood, created by all kinds of elements in the scene or story. Setting is place, time, weather, noise and the mood all these things create, and in some cases, the metaphors the setting itself creates. The two overlap, but aren't necessarily the same. Two scenes can take place in the same location - say a rocky beach on the coast of Maine -- but one scene takes place in a summer-time fog, and the other on a blustery winter day. Two different atmospheres.

Or same foggy spring day, but two different dialogues. One mysterious and erotic, the other terrifying. Two different atmospheres.

Is it really important to separate the emotional effect from its cause? Can't they just be all mixed up?

Bernita said...

Good points, Karen.

I learn best by examples, I suspect. I've learned a lot just reading your stuff.

Yet some stories are more notable than others, Scott, because of what is termed "atmosphere."

Wondered about "voice," Dennie. You suggest that atmosphere is partly an instinctive choice for what is there and what is not there.

Since writing is part conscious creation and deliberate application of technique, Elizabeth, thought the topic might bear examination.

Bonnie Calhoun said...

I think you need both atmosphere and scene. I think the 'whole' is contingent on its 'parts'.

I mean an axe murderer in an ice cream store with people laughing and having a good time, just doesn't work. But...

An axe murderer cursing and screaming at his computer monitor because Blogger has lost the post that it took an hour to construct and last three comments he made to other blogs seems perfectly acceptable...LOL...ya' see what I mean!

Bernita said...

Don't mean to laugh about a computer problem, Bonnie, but you crack me up.
You know very well the Devil is in the details...

Let's see, Karen pointed out that POV can facilitate atmosphere.

Elizabeth, in describing a number of factors very well, comments how emotional hot-buttons may suggest atmosphere.

And Bonnie maintains that scene creates atmosphere.

We's doin' good!

Candice Gilmer said...

I have to agree with Karen on the atmosphrere. I think the character's POV determines a lot of the atmosphere...

For example, in Caleb Carr's The Alienist, the mood is pretentious and almost snotty toward the main protagonist, who is searching for a seriel killer in the late 1800's. While the sequel, The Angel Of Darkness, shows a much different perspective, including revealing that the narrator in The Alienist was a drunk (although you get hints to that in the first book, the narrator doesn't ever come out and say he's a drunk, what drunk would?).

So in that respect, I think the tone reveals a lot in the way of atmosphere, becuase it combines the emotions and the setting, and colors it with humanization, giving a setting for the world to see.

Bernita said...

How would you describe the "atmosphere" of the frist book, Candice?

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ali said...

Everyone else has come up with some explanation for what it is, but I just can't. I know it when I see it, but...I couldn't pull out what creates it. It's the mixture of everything, and probably also how I'm feeling at that moment - if I'm bored and tired, I'm not going to get the same sense of atmosphere as I would at a different time.

Bernita said...

Have been chewing this over myself, Ali.
While I once read that short stories may be conveniently categorized according to whether their dominant thrust is plot, character, setting, atmosphere or theme, this somewhat simplistic classification may not apply to longer works.
Obviously, novels may not exude an over-all "atmosphere", though, just as obviously, scenes within the work may be heavy with it.

Am also wondering if the main cause of "atmospheric" effects is simply vocabulary - the selection of loaded words.

bookfraud said...

really interesting stuff, which makes me think, which makes my head hurt.

nothing especially original to add, except that i've found film vocabulary a good place to examine atmosphere.

camera angles, perspectives, colorations, different types of focus, etc. create a tangible atmosphere on screen. you can film the same scene a 100 different ways, and you will get 100 different atmospheric effects.

in fiction, the idea is the same, except the reader has to paint his or her own picture in their brain. there are plenty of books that are atmosphere heavy (take crime and noir) and plot-ridiculous, and others that have little "feel" or "atmosphere" but have full characters and plot.

personally, the best emotional effects are usually organic from scenes. dramatize, dramatize...

S. W. Vaughn said...

Setting: the kitchen of a house in a rundown neighborhood situated in an ethnic community of a large city.

Atmosphere: a haze of cigarette smoke settling over said kitchen table, at which a drug dealer's extended family has gathered for an evening of poker, and the accompanying disparity of said family atmosphere to the lifestyle of the character around which it revolves.

Or something like that. :-)

Candice Gilmer said...

Bernita, I would say the atmosphere was a rather pretentious view of the world... like the 1st person POV just didn't illustrate the world cleanly, maybe? that everything was foggy and "unimportant," something....

My mind keeps flittering back to a "pretentious" view..

Jaye Wells said...

Bernita, interesting topic. I wonder how much a writer's voice comes into play?

Bernita said...

Beginning to make my head hurt too, Bookfraud.
A vote for emotion-evoked from setting.

A sordid scene, Sonya...

Candice found a character-created atmosphere.

Think it may, Jaye, particularly if the "voice" compels an emotional response by way of image making words.