This is helped by lighting and sound, along with set design. For example, a dim light and scary music produces an eerie feeling even before the actors speak, and they intensify the mood in the delivery of lines.
As the writer, you have to do everything yourself. You need to show the atmosphere by the way you use words. And we should be able to recognise the mood of the dialogue without being told what it is.
Consider these two examples:
The place was silent. “Is anyone there?” Jack said quietly.
Jack tensed in the silence. “Is anyone there?”
In the first, we are told the place is silent and that he spoke quietly.
In the second, we know he spoke quietly because he tensed in the silence.
See the difference? The first is telling, the second is showing.
Next we consider description, which you need to evoke atmosphere. What you don’t want is to dump a load of information about the environment right in the middle of the action. Don’t stop to describe. Weave your description into the action.
You need only describe what is seen by the character whose head you are in – at any given moment. Get that? We’re back to moment by moment.
Consider what you do when you walk into an environment you’ve never been in before. Do your eyes travel minutely over the whole area, taking in every little detail? No, what you do is make a sweep of the area, taking in what you need to know right then. Later, you might take time to look at details.
If your character is in the middle of action, he’s not going to stop to check how many chairs and tables are in the room. He’ll take in enough not to trip over something (unless you want him to – good trick as he missed seeing that item). And he’ll be looking for specifics. For example, the nearest window so he can get out, or something to hide behind.
We left Jack in a warehouse in an earlier post:
“Jack dropped and rolled. The bullet flew wide. Jack kicked out, connecting with an ankle. Then he was up and running. Out of the light. Making for cover behind the warehouse shelves.”
We will already know he’s in a warehouse. Now we know there is shelving and not a lot of light. Once Jack is safe, he can peer out to see where his attacker is, and we need to describe what he sees from there:
“Jack scanned along the steel pillars, squinting to see if his quarry had ducked behind the stacked boxes lying under the single naked bulb.”
The description here is brief, but it keeps the action going and moves the story along, and also generates atmosphere with the single naked bulb. Jack is keeping the mood going by scanning and squinting rather than simply looking.
This should work well with children as they are naturally succinct and don’t go much for description. Once they know how to make it work for them like this, they get quite canny at holding atmosphere and mood.
Coming from professional theatre, Elizabeth Bailey taught drama for many years alongside her writing career. Multi-published, she now writes full time, both her own novels and ghostwriting, as well as critiquing for other writers. Find out more at www.elizabethbailey.co.uk