From Film to Novel: Atmosphere

Not long ago, I attended a conference in which there was an evening session. Over ice cream and in our pajamas, authors watched a series of romantic comedy film clips to reinforce the story arc essential in romance novels.

I came to realize just how much movies influence my story telling, and how much writers can learn from film. Yes, it is always important to read as well, but movies and shows can teach us just as much. Throughout the coming weeks of 2021, I’ll focus on a particular aspect of film that can translate to better writing.

This week’s focus, ATMOSPHERE.

This is one that I find is often overlooked in romance novels. For one, the heart of romance is that—the romance. But atmosphere can add value to any story. Think of a horror movie that stuck with you. Was it the cheap jumps that made it so terrifying? While that adds to the terror, the best horror films create a sense of atmosphere beyond the easy scare. It may be using duller colors in the setting, as in The Ring (2002) or tighter camera angles to create a sense of claustrophobia, as in The Lighthouse (2019).

How can we use this knowledge to add atmosphere in our writing?

  1. Color in setting, props and clothing

Think Bridgerton here.

The Featheringtons tended to be the sore thumbs in society, standing out for all the wrong reasons. They wore more vibrant colors like yellows and greens, which were also reflected in their home. Those colors gave you a sense that they were loud, boisterous, and trying too hard, which was self-defeating. This atmosphere adds to the sense of uncontrollable chaos they carry with every decision they make.

The Bridgertons on the other hand donned plenty of blues and whites, also reflected in their home, and they easily fit into society. The color white often represents purity, the message parents wanted to send out for their daughters at the time. While the Bridgertons were embroiled in just as much drama as the Featheringtons, their drama felt calmer and more controllable—that everything would be okay.

Color is an easy one to either overlook completely or overdo. While we don’t need to know the color of the MC’s aunt’s boyfriend’s shoelaces, we also don’t want the MC at an important dinner without knowing the colors—black tie, white linen napkins? Does she show up and everyone is wearing team colors and she didn’t get the memo?

  1. Time of day and weather

Jane looked out the window. The late afternoon’s gray clouds fizzled rain, layering dampness on every blade of grass, stone and trodden sidewalk.

Jane looked out the window. The morning’s parting clouds allowed the sunlight to sparkle off the dew on every blade of grass, stone and trodden sidewalk.

In the first line, the atmosphere is dismal. We feel it drab and dreary, and poor Jane is headed for a dark evening. In the second line, the atmosphere is light and airy. We feel hopeful for Jane’s prospects of the day, and may even subconsciously let our guard down from the security the light and morning give us. 

  1. Sounds

Circling back to horror, the greatest horror movies mastered sound. Quick, what’s Halloween’s theme song? Exactly. But how does creepy music in horror movies translate to atmosphere in novels?

As a drastic example:

Jane entered the bar, the crowd of drinkers either ignoring or reveling in the twangy broken-hearted country song from the jukebox.

Jane entered the bar, the crowd of drinkers either ignoring or reveling in the loud screams of death metal blaring from the jukebox.

Sounds are an easy way to define atmosphere, and lack of sound can be just as telling as presence of it. Perhaps people only whisper in a certain room in the house, or that beat-up car your MC drives gets louder whenever going up the hills in her small town, or the elevator ride is laden with a Kenny G version of Britney Spears every time your MC makes the walk of shame the night after returning to that lousy guy she can’t seem to finally dump.

Of course, these are only some of the features we notice in a film’s atmosphere that can translate to our writing. Can you think of any others? Feel free to add in the comments.

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