Atmosphere is greater than setting

On Monday, Pamela Oberg started off a new month’s theme here–atmosphere–with a great post. And in the comments, loyal commenter 3 no 7 (aka Barb) said this: “…atmosphere is the umbrella of the elements that make up the story.”


As writers, we have to focus on a lot of things: setting (where does your story take place), character (who is there), dialog (what do they say and how), action (what happens), plot (how it happens), and tone or “voice” (that magic thing that no one can really define but we all know it when we hear it).

All of those things together make up atmosphere. But I want to focus specifically on setting vs. atmosphere. Because both are sensory things that make you feel the story. The best way I can illustrate the difference is to look at two books. Or rather two authors: Hank Phillipi Ryan and Dennis Lehane.

Both Hank and Lehane write books set in and around Boston. Same setting, right? Oh, they may have different parts of Boston in their stories. After all, Boston is a fairly big place and certainly not homogeneous. But I’m sure if I did a scene-by-scene analysis, there’d be some overlap in places.

Hank’s Boston (to me) is dangerous, but not ominous. Lehane’s city, on the other hand, bleeds danger and dirt. What’s the difference?

For Hank, Boston is a busy place. Lots of things going on, people everywhere. It’s businesslike. You’ve got Jake, doing his police thing. Jane, running around trying to get the scoop on her latest story. The settings are bright, professional. Crisp. The characters, in the main, are professionals who talk like professionals. I feel danger, but danger is not necessary darkness.

Lehane, on the other hand, has down and dirty characters. He spends a lot of time in the alleys. A lot of time at night. In bars. The characters aren’t professionals–except maybe professional criminals. They are of a lower economic and educational class and they talk like it. I once read that you could cut yourself on Lehane’s dialog, it’s that sharp. And it’s not merely a crisp sharpness. It’s a dangerous sharpness. At any moment, on any page, of a Lehane book, someone could get hurt, and it’s not going to be pretty.

This, to me, is atmosphere. It’s not just the setting, Boston. It’s the way the writer describes the setting, the characters and how they react to the setting. Are they scared? Nervous? Business-like? Bored?

It’s the words and sentences the author writes – short, powerful, long, a little wordier, the use of slang (or not). And it’s the way the action is related. Lehane’s violence is almost matter-of-fact, no matter what happens. Hank’s is awful, to be sure, but the characters are repelled by it, which leads the reader to be repelled.

That’s atmosphere. Lehane takes you to the gritty underbelly of the city. Hank skates along the upper crust (yes, peeling it back in places, but never to the point of repulsion). Only the most obtuse reader wouldn’t sense the difference, even if they can’t describe it.

And while I love both writers, I know whose Boston I’d rather visit.

And now a moment of self-promotion: Want to hear from me on a more personal level? Sign up for my newsletter; the form is right on the homepage of my website. You’ll hear about any publishing news I have, plus information on what I’m writing and what’s going on with me. I won’t spam you. Promise!

Readers: What have you read lately that really takes you under that “umbrella” and what really made you feel the atmosphere of the story?

Liz Milliron | @mary_sutton73


Author: Liz Milliron

Liz Milliron has been making up stories, and creating her own endings for other people's stories, for as long as she can remember. She survived growing up through reading, cutting her mystery teeth on Agatha Christie, Mary Higgins Clark and, of course, Nancy Drew. As an adult, she finds escape from the world of software documentation through creating her own fictional murder and mayhem. She lives near Pittsburgh with her husband and two teenage children, and fantasizes about owning a dog again - one of these days.

9 thoughts on “Atmosphere is greater than setting”

  1. Great post. What wonderful comparisons. Two authors always do it for me. Harlan Coben and Polly Iyer. Both bring so much realism to their books that there have been times I’ve looked up startled not to be in the settings from the book. When you can draw a reader in that way, you’ve got the atmosphere thing down pat.


  2. I am able to visit both Bostons because the authors take time to make each one dynamic, alive, and multi-faceted. That is what a great story needs. If I want to know Boston without the atmosphere, I’ll read the AAA guidebook. The Boston of the guidebook may well be where I will choose to visit with my feet, but the Boston of the books is where I will visit with my mind. (And it’s WAY safer that way.)

    Thanks to all you fabulous authors who melt atmosphere and geography to make compelling books.


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