Writing Atmospheric Descriptions

Published by audenjohnson on

I’ve said this before, I love atmospheric horror. I prefer stories that use setting to enhance the chills.

I looked upon the scene before me- upon the mere house, and the simple landscape features of the domain…with an utter depression of soul which I can compare to no earthly sensation more properly than to the after-dream of the reveller upon opium (Poe The Fall of the House of Usher)

How do you create amazing scenes like this outside of horror?
Writing Atmospheric Descriptions
Be Yourself
Do not try to write like Poe. It won’t turn out well. Remember, you have your own style, voice and experience. Use passages you love as an example, only.
This one is important. Read, a lot, and study the story. The text will become ingrained in you. Soon, you’ll find yourself creating delicious imagery using your own style.
This goes hand-in-hand with studying the text. If you come across a word you don’t know, look it up and write down the definition. You don’t have to memorize the word or even the definition. It will get ingrained in your head. You’ll start spitting out amazing words you didn’t even know you knew. I’ve had many a moment when I used a word in my story that I felt was right, but I didn’t know exactly what it meant. I looked it up. Turned out, I used it properly.
Be Creative
In a story, I called the sun a “pernicious yellow beast.” Think about what you’re describing and try coming up with different ways of saying the same thing. How many ways can you say darkness or night, for instance. I don’t mean synonyms either. I once called night the “blinding devil.”
That being said, don’t go overboard. You’ll end up making your readers gag. The story will become bit hard to understand. There are times when the sun is just the sun. Use that writer’s instinct. Know when to dress up a description and when not to. Reading and studying helps you get better at this. 
Have Patience
These lovely little descriptions aren’t going to just flow off your fingertips. Don’t try to do it in your first draft. You may be able to, but don’t put too much pressure on yourself. Crafting gorgeous descriptions takes time and several revisions. 
Images Help
I’ve mentioned this before, I’m a visual person. I can describe things better if I see them. For one of my stories, my characters were traveling at twilight. I was having trouble describing the scene, so I did a Google Image search for twilight landscape. And, this is what happened:

“The sun sank behind the cloud, creating a striking array of colors. The sky was on fire. Deep orange sat atop black and flowed as the clouds moved. The black and dark gray flitted into the flames and dragged the scenery further into shadows.”

Here are some stories that helped me with my descriptions.
Tales of Mystery and Imagination- Edgar Allen Poe
Great Ghost Stories
Dracula- Bram Stoker
Adrift on the Haunted Seas- William Hope Hodgson
Waking Up Screaming: Tales of Terror- H.P. Lovecraft


Kelly Hashway · July 1, 2013 at 11:41 pm

Great tips, Auden. You really do have to read the greats and then find your own voice from there.

    Auden Johnson · July 2, 2013 at 8:58 pm

    And we have to read a wide variety of things not just books in our genre. Thanks Kelly 🙂

Unknown · July 2, 2013 at 5:24 pm

I'm glad "Be Yourself" is first on this list, because to me that is so important in getting the rest on the list, and it's the hardest to tackle (in my opinion).

    Auden Johnson · July 2, 2013 at 9:02 pm

    I agree. I was going to put "Read" first until I thought about it. I stuggled with "Be Yourself" too always comparing myself to the greats, trying to write like them.

William Kendall · July 12, 2013 at 12:39 am

It's been awhile since I read that one by Poe…

Your remarking on images as a help strikes a chord. I used a lot of images as visual references when writing my MS. Scenes inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Dome of the Rock, or on the Masada for instance. And I used a visual tour from the Israel Museum to write a whole sequence set in the shrine where the Dead Sea Scrolls are displayed.

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