Definition--General Atmospheric Value of Fiction--Tone of

Story--Preparation of Reader for Climax--Examples--The

Story of Atmosphere--Short Story--Setting--Slight Dramatic

Value of Type.

Atmosphere--as the term is used by the writer of fiction--is a most

indefinite word; it may be well to preface discussion of what it stands

for by a definition. And in defining it is often conducive to clearness

to state what a thing is not before stating what it is.

In the first place, atmosphere is not setting, although the setting of a

story may aid in producing its atmosphere. The frozen wastes of a

sub-arctic region or the man-made squalor of a slum may operate

powerfully to produce on a reader of a story placed therein an

impression of desolation or of misery, but that impression will derive

from something other than the setting, and will merely be reinforced

thereby. If a slum story is essentially cheerful and light-hearted in

content, its reader will not be oppressed by the setting, however

truthfully touched in, unless the writer deliberately makes his people

seem miraculous in point of their capacity to avoid the contagion of

their surroundings. The young girl in "The Dawn of a To-Morrow" is an

instance of what is meant by the qualification.

Atmosphere is not setting, nor is it anything at all that is in a

story. It is not the quality of the environment; it is not the general

quality of the people or their acts; it is not the quality of the theme

or plot. What is it? It is the general emotional impression made on a

reader by the whole story. It is nothing that is in a story; it is the

emotional effect produced by the story on a reader. Just as a scene, an

event, or a person, unless very commonplace, will have some emotional

effect on an observer, any story that is told so as to create the

illusion of reality will have some emotional effect on a reader. As

Stevenson said to Balfour: "I'll give you an example--'The Merry Men,'

There I began with the feeling of one of those islands on the west coast

of Scotland, and I gradually developed the story to express the

sentiment with which the coast affected me."

A distinction should be noted here. "The Merry Men" is a strict story of

atmosphere; its author, as he implicitly states, started with an

emotional effect, or "sentiment," and devised only such persons and

action as would deepen on a reader the emotional impression initiated in

this case by the setting. But, as has been stated, any story told so as

to create the illusion of reality will have some totality of emotional

effect on a reader, apart from its specific emotional effects in various

parts, unless the fiction is very commonplace. That is to say, the

strict story of atmosphere, which has been touched on briefly in

discussing story-types, subordinates its action and its people to its

totality of emotional effect; in the normal story, whether it stresses

personality or event, atmosphere, or totality of emotional effect on a

reader, is a subordinate consideration, resulting from the necessity

that an observer of persons and events be affected thereby in some

general way. At least it is true that the writer of a story of

complication of incident or of character cannot permit any

consideration of atmosphere to interfere with the events in the first

case or the persons in the other. Whatever totality of emotional effect

may reside in his work will be inherent in the conception, as it would

be inherent in such a spectacle for an observer, if the story should

happen in actuality.

The sensible--because the most profitable--way for the writer of fiction

to fit the matter of atmosphere into his general artistic philosophy is

to disregard it entirely, except where it constitutes a primary

consideration, that is, except in relation to the strict story of

atmosphere. The reason for this cavalier treatment of the matter has

been brought out. If any story is told so as to create the illusion of

reality, some general emotional effect will be produced on its reader,

will be inherent in the conception, as it would be inherent in the

spectacle, if actual. It all comes down to this: by telling his story

justly as a course of events involving real people in a definite

environment, the writer will produce on a reader whatever totality of

emotional effect is inherent in the conception. If there is no totality

of emotional effect inherent therein the writer cannot produce it except

by changing the whole conception and writing a different story. In the

case of the strict story of atmosphere the writer's attitude is

different. He sets out, not with a story, but with an emotional effect,

and devises people and events and setting to produce it.

The point can be made clearer by more specific discussion. Assume that a

writer has conceived a story with a definite plot, involving definite

people, set in a New England village. Anybody who knows New England or

has read Alice Brown or Mary E. Wilkins Freeman can testify that such a

story, justly told, will have a definite and peculiar atmospheric value.

But its atmosphere, its totality of emotional effect on a reader will

be inherent in its setting and people, perhaps even in its events. The

story itself will determine its atmosphere, which can be only the

peculiar impression that a New England village, its people and their

lives, produce on an observer. By choosing to write such a story, or by

choosing to write any definite story, a writer debars himself from

creating any atmosphere not involved in the story selected for writing.

On the other hand, if a writer desires to put together a story of

atmosphere, he starts with an emotional effect as the basic conception,

and then casts about for a setting, people, and incidents that will

produce such emotional effect. It all depends upon what the writer

starts with. If he starts with an emotional effect, he may narrate any

course of events, and draw any sort of people, and place the tale in any

sort of setting, provided only that events, people, and setting be such

as to produce the desired atmosphere or effect. But if the writer starts

with a definite story, the only atmosphere he can create thereby is the

atmosphere inherent in the conception.[P]

Though it is true that a writer may and should disregard the matter of

atmosphere in writing a story which he has conceived as a definite

course of events involving definite people, since any atmospheric

possibilities of the fiction will be inherent in the conception and will

be realized by telling it justly as to people, events, and setting,

nevertheless a qualification must be stated. No story is conceived as

definitely as it is written; the writer first grasps the plot or main

situation, perhaps also the characters, and then expands the outline

into a congruous presentation of a phase of life by filling in details

as to environment, people, and events. This filling-in process may and

should be performed partly at least before writing, but even if the

writer postpones it until he is wrestling with the problem of execution,

he must remember one thing. Any story has a general tone, largely

determined by its climax or main situation. This tone or key of a story

is not its atmosphere strictly, perhaps, but the dividing line between

the two matters is very faint. The atmosphere of a story is its general

emotional effect upon a reader, and its tone is very nearly the same

thing, being the result of its writer's having justly performed his

selective task by transcribing only such matters as harmonize with the

main situation, tragic or comic. And a writer must regard the matter of

the tone of a story in developing and writing it, if it is to have the

significant simplicity and unity which alone can give the fiction

maximum power and effect.

The practical problem can be stated most simply thus: a reader's

intelligence and sensibilities must be prepared for the crisis, climax,

or main situation by incorporating in the story only such matters of

environment, personality, or event as harmonize with the emotional

character of the main situation. The necessity is most stringent, of

course, in the case of the short story, but it is a consideration to be

borne in mind in writing any type of fiction. It is merely another

aspect of the general question of preparation, which has been touched

upon before. The situations of a story must be prepared in a mechanical

sense, that is, the writer must prepare to place his people where each

situation demands that they be placed; the people themselves must be

developed and individualized, that the situations may have full dramatic

value; and the mind and heart of a reader of the story must be prepared

for the climax, which is the whole story in little.

If the main situation of any story is essentially tragic, it will never

do not to hint the fact until the climax is reached, when a reader will

be overwhelmed, rather than upborne and stimulated, by the torrent of

battle, murder, or sudden death. The opening scene of "Macbeth" presages

the lurid character of the whole play, and serves to key reader or

spectator for murder. Likewise, in the case of a story essentially light

and happy in content, the purpose of the writer is to develop and

present one of life's many attractive phases, and that purpose will be

defeated or at least hampered if woebegone people and unpleasant

situations are given place in the fiction.

Considerations of contrast may lead the writer to incorporate in his

story matter out of keeping with its general tone and main situation,

but the effort is really to emphasize the general tone by striking a few

discordant notes. Contrast is too delicate a matter to be discussed with

any profit; whether or not the device shall be employed in any story is

a problem that only the artistic sense of the writer of the particular

story can answer.

It is very easy to say that a story should be told so as to prepare a

reader for the climax, that he may accept it, yet, in a sense, the thing

can be achieved only by adequate practice of the whole art of fiction.

The general necessity is to make the whole course of events seem real

and actual; the more specific necessity is to give a reader a definite

clue to the nature of the story, that he may not be shocked into

disbelief by the climax. This must be done unobtrusively, as every other

technical device must be employed, under penalty of failing in its


A quotation showing effective employment of the device will not be

useless. Stevenson's short story "Thrawn Janet" leads up to an encounter

with the devil, and the author loses no time in preparing a reader for

the entrance of his satanic majesty. The story begins thus:

"The Reverend Murdoch Soulis was long minister of the moorland parish of

Balweary, in the vale of Dule. A severe, bleak-faced old man, dreadful

to his hearers, he dwelt in the last years of his life, without relative

or servant or any human company, in the small and lonely manse under the

Hanging Shaw. In spite of the iron composure of his features, his eye

was wild, scared, and uncertain; and when he dwelt, in private

admonitions, on the future of the impenitent, it seemed as if the eye

pierced through the storms of time to the terrors of eternity. Many

young persons, coming to prepare themselves against the season of the

Holy Communion, were dreadfully affected by his talk. He had a sermon on

1st Peter, v. and 8th, 'The devil as a roaring lion,' on the Sunday

after every seventeenth of August, and he was accustomed to surpass

himself upon that text both by the appalling nature of the matter and

the terror of his bearing in the pulpit. The children were frightened

into fits, and the old looked more than usually oracular, and were, all

that day, full of those hints that Hamlet deprecated. The manse itself,

where it stood by the water of Dule among some thick trees, with the

Shaw overhanging it on the one side, and on the other many cold, moorish

hill-tops rising towards the sky, had begun, at a very early period of

Mr. Soulis' ministry, to be avoided in the dusk hours by all who valued

themselves upon their prudence; and guidmen sitting at the clachan

alehouse shook their heads together at the thought of passing late by

that uncanny neighborhood."

Here Stevenson loses no time in keying his reader to the general pitch

of the story. It is a task that the writer of any story must undertake.

The general nature of the tale should be suggested as soon as possible,

and the story should not be allowed to falsify its introductory hints,

but should reaffirm them constantly, until all the divergent strands of

the fiction are knotted together in the climax, which will need no

interpretation. Take another instance from Stevenson, the beginning of

"Markheim," where Markheim murders the dealer in curios.

"'Yes,' said the dealer, 'our windfalls are of various kinds. Some

customers are ignorant, and then I touch a dividend of my superior

knowledge. Some are dishonest,' and here he held up the candle, so that

the light fell strongly on his visitor, 'and in that case,' he

continued, 'I profit by my virtue.'

"Markheim had but just entered from the daylight streets, and his eyes

had not grown familiar with the mingled shine and darkness of the shop.

At these pointed words, and before the near presence of the flame, he

blinked painfully and looked aside."

A little farther on:

"The dealer once more chuckled; and then, changing to his usual business

voice, though still with a note of irony, 'You can give, as usual, a

clear account of how you came into the possession of the object?' he

continued. 'Still your uncle's cabinet? A remarkable collector, sir!'

"And the little pale, round-shouldered dealer stood almost on tiptoe,

looking over the top of his gold spectacles, and nodding his head with

every mark of disbelief. Markheim returned his gaze with one of infinite

pity, and a touch of horror."

Note how strongly and withal how naturally the whole of this, and

particularly the last sentence, suggests that Markheim has come into

the shop to do murder. The story is keyed to tragedy at once, its reader

with it. His mind is prepared in advance, that the significant event,

when it is related, may be accepted without question.

As stated, this matter of keying the story and its reader to the pitch

of the main situation or climax is not precisely the matter of

atmosphere, but it has close affiliations therewith. It is even more

important to the writer of fiction. Any atmospheric value in a story

will be brought out by telling it justly as a course of events involving

real people in a definite environment, and preparation of a reader for

the main situation of a story is a part of just and adequate narration.

The writer's hints of the character of what is to come must be unforced

and natural, but they must be effective.

It is obvious, of course, that the more tense or strange the main

situation of a story, the greater the necessity that a reader be

prepared for it. If the main situation consists in commonplace

characters doing some commonplace thing, a reader will accept the

spectacle without artificial preparation, but if the main situation is

highly dramatic, the normally placid course of a reader's thought and

feeling must be agitated and stimulated in advance, or he will not rise

with the climax. In other words, the fiction will not have

verisimilitude emotionally. A story is both a physical spectacle and an

emotional progression; the author must write both for the reader's eye

and for his soul. If any story touches emotional heights, its reader

must be stimulated thereto by proper preparation.

It remains to consider the matter of atmosphere, as the term is used

with relation to the strict story of atmosphere, which emphasizes the

emotional value of the whole for a reader rather than the significance

of the events or characters.

The intrinsic difficulty to blend such diverse matters as people,

events, and setting or environment into an even emotional unity requires

that the strict story of atmosphere be a short story. Even if it is not

a short story in point of actual length, it will be a short story in

point of structure, that is, it will lead relatively few characters

through little diversity of setting to a single main situation, or

perhaps even to no main situation, in a dramatic sense. As noted in

discussing story types, the progression of the particular atmosphere to

the point of highest intensity gives the strict story of atmosphere much

of its story-character. The human element is incidental and subordinate.

However, the task of keeping people, events, and setting true to a fixed

emotional tone is so difficult that a writer cannot sustain the effort

for long. Many novels or relatively lengthy stories have high

atmospheric value; Hardy's Wessex novels possess the quality, as does

much of Joseph Conrad's work, "Almayer's Folly," for instance; but it is

generally true that the intrinsic difficulty of the story of atmosphere

tends to confine it within brief limits. It is certainly true that only

the skilled hand can compass the feat of writing it at all.

I have stated that the setting of a story is not its atmosphere, and

that is true. Nevertheless the setting is most often what determines the

emotional effect of the whole. A hundred instances might be cited--"The

Merry Men," "The Fall of the House of Usher," "Almayer's Folly," "The

Return of the Native." This results from the fact that setting or

environment is much more potent to produce a relatively definite

emotional effect on an observer than either a person or an event, the

two other elements of a story. A murder may produce a very definite

feeling of horror in an observer or reader, but the emotion, while

definite, is not linked inevitably to murder alone. Many other

spectacles will horrify. Likewise, a person may produce a feeling of

disgust in an observer or reader, but so will an infinite number of

other persons, all radically different from each other and the first.

But the emotional effect of the west coast of Scotland is special and

peculiar to that setting; there is no single word in the language

characterizing it. That is why Stevenson had to write "The Merry Men" to

state it, just as Poe had to write "The Fall of the House of Usher" to

state the specific emotional effect of that particular house, and Hardy

had to write "The Return of the Native" to state the emotional value of

his Wessex moors.

Moreover, when the writer finds the germ of his story in a person seen

actually or in imagination, it is more than likely that the emphasis of

the completed work will be on character, and when he finds it in an

event or situation, it is more than likely that the emphasis of the

completed work will be on plot. But when a countryside or house or

stretch of sea-coast suggests a story, it can hardly result otherwise

than that the completed work will emphasize the emotional value of the


The setting of the strict story of atmosphere may determine its

emotional effect, but the emotional tendency of the setting must not be

affected adversely by the people or the events. That is why the setting

is not atmosphere, though it may determine the atmosphere. A gloomy and

terrific setting will have small emotional effect upon a reader if the

people and events of the story are not such as to deepen the impression

initiated by the setting, for the people and events cannot be

emotionally neutral. If they are seemingly real, that is, if the story

is well told apart from the matter of atmosphere, they will make some

impression on a reader. Unless their impression is of a piece with that

of the setting, the unity of emotional effect will be destroyed. And if

there is no unity of emotional effect, there is no atmosphere, in the

strict sense.

Confession is good for the soul; let me say that if there is a technique

of writing so as to produce a unity of emotional effect I am unable to

state it. The matter is exceptionally delicate, and only the broadest

sort of abstract statement can be made. One can state--as I have

stated--that the emotional effect of a story of atmosphere is usually

initiated by and dependent on the setting, and that the emotional effect

initiated by the setting must be reinforced by the writer's choice and

handling of people and events. But that is about all that can be said. A

specific story of atmosphere might be taken and examined in detail with

profit, if space were available; yet the devices employed by its writer

would not completely exhaust the resources of atmospheric writing, and

abstract statement of them here will not cover the whole technique.

Poe's technique in "The Fall of the House of Usher" is not identical

with Stevenson's in "The Merry Men," nor with Conrad's in "Almayer's


Fortunately, the strict technique is not of great practical importance.

Any story will gain in power by possession of an atmospheric quality,

but that quality will be present if the basic conception is not trivial

and feeble, and if the story is told adequately as to its three elements

of setting, personality, and event. Any emotional value inherent in the

thing will then be felt by a reader, as he would feel the emotional

value of the spectacle, if real. Any story that is lived vicariously by

its writer in the person of the character from whose viewpoint it is

told, and is written justly as a course of events involving real people

in a definite environment, will have all the effect on a reader

attainable by the particular conception. And as to the strict story of

atmosphere, it will be hopeless for the writer of fiction to attempt it

until he can handle the less artificial and less difficult forms with

some approach to real facility and adequacy.

One specific point of the technique of writing the strict story of

atmosphere should be noted, for it is important. The emotional effect is

usually initiated and determined by the setting, natural or artificial,

as a tropical island or a house. Characters and events must be

subservient to the particular emotional value. It results that there can

be no real dramatic opposition of characters and traits in the strict

story of atmosphere, for the moral nature of an individual has no

affiliation with the emotional quality of a countryside or any other

setting. Development of strict traits of character, which are essential

to drama, will not serve to deepen for a reader the emotional suggestion

of a setting. The writer of the strict story of atmosphere must seek to

invest his people with such traits as will reinforce the emotional

suggestion of the setting, and these traits cannot be strictly of

character. Rather they will be attributes of appearance, action, mind,

and soul. Insanity is an instance of such an attribute of mind, not

strictly of character. The point is difficult to state abstractly, as is

the whole of the technique of atmosphere, but a reading of either "The

Fall of the House of Usher" or "The Merry Men" will clarify my meaning.

The people of either story are less human beings than humanized

emotional abstractions, of the same stuff of gloom or mystery as the

house or sea. It is needless to state that the whole weakness of the

story of atmosphere as a fiction results from the necessary devitalizing

of its characters, for fiction primarily concerns man, his conflicts and

his loves.


[P] Of course, the initial conception of a story of atmosphere may limit

the writer's power to manipulate his material. Thus when Stevenson

pitched upon the emotional effect of the west coast of Scotland as that

to be produced by "The Merry Men," he debarred himself from placing his

story in any other setting, though he could pick and choose freely among

possible events and people. A general emotional effect, as of beauty, is

somewhat indefinite, and may be produced alike by stories differing

widely in their three elements of setting, people and events.

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