Atmosphere and setting
Atmosphere and setting are vital components of a piece of fiction. The atmosphere or setting of a story can be shown explicitly or implicitly.
This Revision Bite covers:
Something that is explicit is out in the open, clear and obvious. Explicit meaning is the easiest to pick out from a text. Sometimes a writer wants it to be obvious that the atmosphere or setting of a text is good, bad, dangerous, happy, sad, and so on.
Look at the extract from Floella Benjamin's autobiography, 'Coming to England'. She is describing the family home in Trinidad, in the Caribbean.
While you are reading the extract, think about what impression you get of the room and how the writer creates this. Some phrases have been put in bold to help you.
This room was my mother's pride and joy. Its brilliant white curtains always smelt fresh and the mahogany furniture was always highly polished, as was the wooden floor. My sister and I spent many hours polishing that room from as far back as I can remember. We had to do the polishing before we left for school each day. The comfortable wooden chairs in the room were draped with crisp white headrests and the round table, which we ate from on Sundays and other special occasions, had a doiley in its centre, on which sat a glass of glorious fresh flowers.
'Coming to England' - Floella Benjamin
We can tell straight away that this is a special room. It is described as her mother's "pride and joy". It sounds clean and smart, with "crisp white headrests" on the chairs and a "doily" on the table.
The room is also pleasant and attractive to be in, with its "comfortable wooden chairs" and "glass of glorious fresh flowers".
Take a look at the extract below from Tricia Holford's book, 'Fly Away Home'. The extract describes a pair of lions in two settings, their natural home in Africa and in captivity at a rooftop bar in Tenerife.
The two lions lay on their backs in the shade of an acacia tree, their massive paws limp and relaxed. We had been watching them for 20 minutes when the male slowly stood up, stretched, and padded over to a clearing. He began to roar. It was a deep, heart-stopping roar which echoed along the ancient African Valley. It was an announcement that he, Raffi, had arrived and it was his territory now. Slowly he turned to his mate and lay peacefully beside her. It was quiet once more.
It was a dramatic contrast to my first encounter with them on a Tenerife rooftop in 1994. That image of two thin, grubby lions pacing back and forth in their tiny cage is forever etched on my memory. The corrugated iron roof turned the cage into an oven. Without a water bowl in sight, the only features in the cage were an old rubbish bin and narrow sleeping shelves with nails sticking out. For five years Raffi and Anthea had mentally survived in these conditions – how? I never believed I would one day see them in their ancestral home.
'Fly Away Home' - Tricia Holford
Explain the differences between the two lions':
in the wild and in captivity.
Try to use quotations to support your ideas.
|Explain, using quotations...||At the bar in Tenerife||Back home in Africa|
|The lions' behaviour||Very stressed and unhappy. 'Pacing back and forth' and barely surviving.||Relaxed and peaceful. Lying in the shade and roaring to mark their territory.|
|Where they are living||In a 'tiny cage' with no water, a rubbish bin and 'narrow sleeping shelves'.||In an 'ancient African valley', their natural habitat.|
|The atmosphere||Stressed and horrible. The lions are cruelly treated and are 'thin' and 'grubby'.||Relaxed, peaceful and natural. Very quiet.|
Something that is implicit is inferred - it's suggested, but not openly stated. Implicit meaning can be harder to figure out than explicit meaning. Writers like to be clever and draw you into their text. It's up to you to make your mind up about a setting, in just the same way that it's up to you what to make of a new place you visit. Writers often use language in clever ways to build up a sense of atmosphere and setting.
Take a look at the following extract from Robert Westall's novel, 'Urn Burial'. Ralph has been captured by an alien race...
This was the worst nightmare yet. He was standing with his back pressed against a smooth wall cold as ice. The cold nibbled at his buttocks and legs; it ran up and down the knobbles of his spine, making him shiver; it invaded his lungs so he could hardly breathe; he felt he had been shivering a long time.
'Urn Burial' - Robert Westall
In the extract, the writer intends to create a very creepy, sinister atmosphere. The way that he describes Ralph's imprisonment makes it sound very unpleasant. He is "pressed" against a wall that is "cold as ice" and the cold is creeping into every part of his body, making him shiver. Ralph also feels as if he can "hardly breathe" because of the cold.
The writer also uses figurative language. The simile; "a smooth wall cold as ice", helps the reader relate to Ralph as they will know what ice feels like. The writer also uses personification; the cold "nibbled" at Ralph, it "ran up and down" his back and "invaded" his lungs. This makes the cold sound as if it were alive, running over and into Ralph, trying to eat away at him. This adds to the feeling that he has been overpowered and is in danger.
Now's your chance to see if you can spot implicit meaning. Read the following extract from a short story by HG Wells.
what sort of atmosphere Wells was trying to create
the way he used figurative language to do this
Make at least two points about each. A few words and phrases have been put in bold to give you some clues. When you have finished, click on the 'Check ideas' button to see our ideas.
The long, draughty, subterranean [which means underground] passage was chilly and dusty, and my candle flared and made the shadows cower and quiver. The echoes rang up and down the spiral staircase, and a shadow came sweeping up after me, and one fled before me into the darkness overhead. I came along the landing and stopped there for a moment, listening to a rustling sound that I fancied I heard; then, satisfied of the absolute silence, I pushed open the baize-covered door and stood in the corridor.
'The Red Room' - HG Wells
What sort of atmosphere is Wells trying to create and how does he use figurative language to do this?
The writer is trying to create an atmosphere of fear and tension in the extract. He describes the passage as being "draughty" and mentions that it is underground. This makes it seem creepy and ghostly. The fact that the character only has a candle to light his way makes the story seem old-fashioned, and also creates drama because we know that the draught could blow it out! The way the echoes "rang up and down" and the fact that the man stops because he thinks he hears a sound, adds to the ghostly effects.
The shadows also help to create a sinister atmosphere as they flicker around and make it even harder for the man to see what's ahead. The writer uses figurative language such as personification to describe them. He says that they "cower and quiver", come "sweeping up" and that they "fled". All of this makes them sound alive, or perhaps like ghosts. The words used are all linked with fear, so that even the shadows seem to be afraid of what's in the corridor. This is very eerie and helps to create a very tense atmosphere.
As well as having lots of ideas, you need to explain them clearly. An effective way of doing this is to PEE. PEE stands for:
Evidence (a quotation)
Read through the following extract. How does the writer create an atmosphere of cold and loneliness?
Dark spruce forest frowned on either side the frozen waterway. The trees had been stripped by a recent wind of their white covering of frost, and they seemed to lean towards each other, black and ominous, in the fading light. A vast silence reigned over the land. The land itself was a desolation, lifeless, without movement, so lone and cold that the spirit of it was not even that of sadness. There was a hint in it of laughter, but of a laughter more terrible than any sadness - a laughter that was mirthless as the smile of the sphinx, a laughter cold as the frost and partaking of the grimness of infallibility. It was the masterful and incommunicable wisdom of eternity laughing at the futility of life and the effort of life. It was the Wild, the savage, frozen-hearted Northland Wild.
'White Fang' - Jack London
Check your ideas against ours.
The extract describes a cold, empty landscape.
The text states that the trees have been "stripped by a recent wind of their white covering of frost".
The land is described as "desolate" and it contains "a laughter more terrible than any sadness".
This suggests that the place is completely isolated.
The fact that it seems to be full of terrible laughter suggests it is a very cruel area, which would be hard to explore.
If you are going to use quotations from the extract in your answer, remember to set them out properly. Here are some points to remember:
Use quotation marks.
Quotes of three words or less can be used in the sentence you're writing - for example ...when the writer talks about the "futility of life" he means...
Longer quotations need to be included on a line of their own and with a space before it (known as an indent) - for example ...the writer describes the landscape as a "desolation, lifeless, without movement, so lone and cold" he creates a picture that...
Short, well-chosen quotations are better than long, vague ones.
Also remember that certain words and phrases are especially helpful when you're explaining an idea in detail. They can be particularly helpful if you are commenting on implicit meaning. The following wordbank shows you some of those phrases, and you might be able to add some more:
which gives the impression that
this indicates that
Some other words and phrases that may be useful are those that help move your argument on. These are called connectives. Here are some examples:
as well as
Ray, the main character in this extract, has stolen a motorbike and caused an accident that killed someone. He has told nobody, but knows that he can't hide for much longer. He is about to get on a bus, but realises that the one person who can link him to the crime is the conductor of that very bus. Before he can run off, he bumps into Mrs Fitzroy, his best friend's mum.
Answer the question below and then check your ideas against ours. Write one paragraph for each bullet point.
He hung back, groping wildly for some excuse to prevent him getting on, but the bell rang and the engine increased its impatient rumble and his legs carried him upwards on to the platform, and he felt Mrs Fitzroy clamber on behind. The bus began to move. He turned towards the stairs, but she caught hold of his arm.
"Let's go downstairs. I don't like the smoke." Again he felt her hand guide him, and he ducked his head and began to walk along the aisle. "Yeah".
"This'll do," she said, and he turned back and sat beside her - the less fuss he made, the less obvious he was, the better. As he settled, he kept his face bent low, aware of the conductor walking towards them. He brushed past, and, noticing things with a total clarity, Ray saw the dark blue uniform that he was wearing and noted the heaviness and thickness of the material. He heard him clumping up the stairs, and he wondered, absurdly, if he was wearing heavy boots, too.
Mrs Fitzroy was opening the bag which she had on her lap, and Ray felt in his pocket for his fare. If he had the right change, he could just hand it to the conductor without looking up. Yes, he had a ten and two pence piece. He glanced at Mrs Fitzroy and saw to his dismay that she was taking out a pound-note from her purse. That would mean a delay while she got her change - plenty of chance for him to be recognised. Could he offer to pay her fare? It would seem strange, but anything was better than being seen.
'Collision Course' - Nigel Hinton
What kind of atmosphere does the writer create in this extract and how do they do it?
You should refer to:
In this text, the writer creates an atmosphere of fear and tension. Ray's thoughts and actions at the start of the passage show that he is under a lot of pressure. He tries to think of an excuse to 'prevent him getting on' the bus, but knows that this will just make Mrs Fitzroy suspicious. When he tries to go upstairs, she insists they stay downstairs. Nothing seems to be going his way, and this leads us to believe he may well be spotted by the conductor.
As the conductor approaches, Ray's fears increase which creates more tension. He keeps his face 'bent low' to avoid being recognised, and also notices things 'with a total clarity'. This shows that he is very scared and alert, ready for something to go wrong. When he realises Mrs Fitzroy has no change, he feels 'dismay'. The reader is kept on the edge of their seat waiting for the conductor to come along.
The writer uses language, as well as events, to create tension. The phrase 'groping wildly for some excuse' shows Ray's panic and gives the impression that he feels he has no control over events. The way he notices the 'heaviness' of the conductor's uniform, and wonders if he was 'wearing heavy boots as well' might mean that he is afraid of the man. Ray asks himself 'Could he offer to pay her fare?'. This shows he is tense; he is running through possibilities in his mind. The writer uses Ray's fears to create an atmosphere of tension for the reader.
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