Intricately linked to setting, ambience draws in and prepares the reader for the story to come. Also known as mood or tone, it develops surroundings and characters and engages the senses. What can the protagonist see, feel, hear, smell and taste? In writing about the supernatural the sixth sense is often pulled in to play. Mention intuition, an odd coldness, a shiver up the spine and the mood is set. An unsettled feeling warns the reader to sit up and pay attention as something isn’t quite right. Ambience in a short story may be more difficult to accomplish than in a novel as time is minimal and brevity a must. On the other hand, once set, it may be somewhat easier to maintain the tone of a short story.
Detailed descriptions can also create a particular feel to a ghost story but words need to remain concise to be effective. A few well-placed dark and foreboding references can cast just the right ominous pall over a tale. Likewise, the use of figurative language such as personification (shadows dancing, wind whispering, walls watching) or onomatopoeia (a rustle, a hiss, a murmur, a creaking door, a roaring fire) add further dimensions to mood.
A number of tools are at the writer’s disposal for creating ambience. Dialogue, exposition, figurative language, specific events, a sense of place (an abandoned house, the churchyard, a desolate road), the use of light, weather (fog, a storm), time of day (twilight, closing time somewhere, the dead of night, midnight, the witching hour) can all imbue a story with an immediate mood.
Consider the opening to The Tractate Middoth by M R James whereby a man visits a library at closing time. In a rush to secure a book, he requests the aid of a clerk. These first few facts instantly conjure up an image that any reader, bookworm or student can relate to. (Personally, it made me think of University of London’s Senate House library, particularly the sixth floor history stacks!) The scene is set. Near closing the time, the bells rung, the study carrels deserted, the lighting dim, the stacks desolate, and the dusty smell of old books somehow more potent in the dark vacant aisles than in the bright light of day. The reader is put on edge; the clerk must go back upstairs, alone. Something is going to happen. Atmosphere aptly created, the reader is drawn in, and so they read on.
Character action and dialogue can also help shape ambience. Consider here the effect that apostrophe may have—and by this I do not mean that pesky piece of punctuation that has given rise to many a rant about possession, omission and greengrocer's foibles! No, I am referring to the other apostrophe. From the Greek (ἀποστροφή) meaning 'to turn away', this rhetorical apostrophe denotes the digression or breaking away from the audience/readers/other characters in order to address an absent third party, be they a person, quality or inanimate object. This device uses the vocative case and is often introduced by exclamations such as ‘O’ or ‘Ah!’ It may be used to address someone who isn’t there, the deceased, a spirit, the Heavens, Fate, Fortune, God or gods or something more abstract. Useful in providing insight into the thoughts and emotions of a character, it would be interesting to see this device used in some of the short story submissions to Tales of Mystery, Suspense and Terror Anthology! I would think it could nicely lend itself to the madness of a character or to a desperate tone of terror.
This blog post was written in the spirit of the April 2014 A-Z Challenge whereby a post is written every day during the month of April (with the exception of Sunday). The theme of each post is meant to correspond with a letter of the alphabet in sequential order. Tomorrow's post will be on B. For details and to visit the A-Z Challenge website, click here.