The Atmospheric

“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.” ― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit

“Through the shredded black clouds a fire moved like a dying star, falling back to earth —
the earth, that is, of the Discworld —
— but unlike any star had ever done before, it sometimes managed to steer its fall, sometimes rising, sometimes twisting, but inevitably heading down.
Snow flowed briefly on the mountain slopes, when it crackled overhead.
Under it, the land itself started to fall away.  The fire was reflected off walls of flue ice as the light dropped into the beginnings of a canyon and thundered now through its twists and turns.” – Terry Pratchett, Carpe Jugulum

“The noise was ended now.  The smoke drifted like thin, gray wisps of fog above the tortured earth and the shattered fences and the peach trees that had been whittled into toothpicks by the cannon fire.  For a moment silence, if not peace, fell upon those few square miles of ground where just a while before men had screamed and torn at one another in the frenzy of old hate and had contended in an ancient striving and then fallen apart, exhausted.” – Clifford Simak, Way Station.

“In the year A.D. 400, the Emperor Yuan held his throne by the Great Wall of China, and the land was green with rain, redying itself towards the harvest, at peace, the people in his dominion neither too happy nor too sad.” – Ray Bradbury, The Flying Machine.

Look at those openings above. They’re obviously not “these people” because except for the first — and it’s not exactly people — there are no people to be “these”.

Is there action?  Well, sort of.  I mean things are happening.  But if those are the main characters of your novel they’re kind of weird, consisting of a hole in the ground, a light in the sky, noise and apparently the Emperor Yuan.

Of course these are atmospheric beginnings.

Atmospheric beginnings are hard to do.  It’s easy to get lost in writing about things in general, but will they capture the reader?  And while you — well, okay, I — can go on forever about the beautiful landscape, the wretched times, the strange events in the neighborhood, what good is that if your reader yawns and gently closes the book and goes to sleep?

To carry off an atmospheric beginning, too, you need impeccable wording, coherent, clear, and well… intriguing.  If that’s what your book calls for, a touch of the poetic doesn’t hurt either.  And the true fact of the matter is that while some of us were born with chips of the blarney stone in our fingers (yeah, it’s painful, why?) and spin off words that are beautiful in and of themselves by default, even those of us who do that (It’s no great brag, it’s the most common gift of writers, and the one worth least, as it carries a trap within it) don’t necessarily apply it to any purpose, and beautiful words for no reason are cloying, like a surfeit of sweetness in a cake.

So am I saying don’t do it?

Hell no.  Look at those openings above.  Don’t they just about drag you into the story?


So, there are reasons to write an atmospheric beginning.  I’ve discovered three.

One – When there is stuff about your background you need to convey, and the character won’t necessarily be thinking about it.

Two – When your people/characters will appear incredibly mundane in their first appearance, and you want to convey the magic/science/history behind the seemingly ordinary events.

Three – Both of the above combined.

Tolkien’s is sort of one, because, well, he needs to convey there is such a thing as a hobbit, and how better to do it than prosaically telling us about hobbit holes?

Pratchett’s is two.  We need to know something strange and special happened.

Bradbury is one – he’s situating us in place and time and taking advantage of his advantage, i.e. that while words might be the most common gift of any writer, Bradbury had it to an uncommon degree and could write rings around us with half of his vocabulary tied behind his back.

Simak’s is three – he is (hopefully you guys don’t mind minor spoilers) introducing his character’s background in the civil war and at the same time bringing in one of the themes of the story: war.  Humans fight.  Other intelligent creatures will probably fight also.

I use atmospheric beginnings for my Shifter Series with Baen, because if I didn’t the opening scenes would seem to be hardly science fiction/fantasy at all.  (It’s a long story, but it’s science fiction disguised as urban fantasy and even I didn’t know it till book 3.)  So I often start with a Colorado weather report told  in the most interesting terms possible (of course, our weather is interesting) then segue to something supernatural/odd.  Take Draw One In the Dark (Free in the Baen Free Library!)

The July night sprawled, warm and deep blue over Goldport, Colorado. In the distance the mountains were little more than suspicions of deeper darkness, a jagged outline where no stars appeared.

Most of Goldport was equally dark, from its slumbering suburbs to the blind silence of its downtown shops. Only the streetlights shone, at intervals, piercing the velvet blackness like so many stars.

At the edge of the western suburbs that climbed—square block after square block—into the lower slopes of the Rockies, the neon sign outside a Chinese restaurant flickered. Three Luck Dragon flared, faded, then flared again, and finally turned off completely.

A hand with nails that were, perhaps, just a little too long turned over a sign that hung on the window, so that the word “closed” faced the parking lot.

After a while, a sound broke the silence. A flapping, noise, as though of sheets unfurling in the silent night. Or perhaps of large wings beating.

(You see what I mean about the limits of my own wording ability compared to the masters?)  This scene ends in a gathering of dragons.

The next scene, the beginning of the book proper, with the characters proper, is almost painfully prosaic:

Kyrie was worried about Tom. Which was strange, because Tom was not one of her friends. Nor would she have thought she could care less if he stopped showing up at work altogether.

But now he was late and she was worried. . . .

She tapped her foot impatiently, both at his lateness and her worry, as she stared out at the window of the Athens, the Greek diner on Fairfax Avenue where she’d worked for the last year. Her wavy hair, dyed in multicolored layers, gave the effect of a tapestry. It went well with her honey-dark skin, her exotic features, and the bright red feather earring dangling from her ear, but it looked oddly out of place with the much-washed full-length red apron with “Athens” blazoned in green across the chest.

Outside everything appeared normal—the winding serpentine road between tall brick buildings, the darkened facade of the used CD store across the street, the occasional lone passing car.

She looked away, disgusted, from the windows splashed with bright, hand-scrawled advertisements for specials—souvlaki and fries—$3.99, clam chowder—99¢, Fresh Rice Pudding—and at the large plastic clock high on the wall.

Having done it and for a durn good reason, I can give you my rules for an atmospheric beginning.  Remember these are my rules for myself.  You guys much shift according to your lights.  There are no immutable rules in writing fiction, only those that are immutable for a particular writer.  That said, yours might bear some resemblance to mine.


1- Because it’s expensive in polish and care, use sparingly.

2- If you must use it, keep it brief and segue into something more interesting (often one of the other hooks) as soon as possible.  So above, I segue into “these people” with people coming out of their houses, summoned by a dragon, before I drop into the seemingly mundane protagonist’s life.

3- If you’re doing all that work, make it do double work: imbue it with a special feel that you want for the novel, even if you’re not going to keep the wording at that level; fill it with the theme of the novel that you want to draw attention to; have it reveal a facet of the character’s personality that won’t otherwise be obvious.

And that’s it.  Only you can decide if you need atmospherics!

Next and last post: a general guide on what opening to use for what type of novel.

43 thoughts on “The Atmospheric

  1. Silver-grey mist threads rose over the river, twining and shifting between plates of white-blue ice. A warm breeze from sea-ward teased over the frozen river-banks, luring Kai out of her den. She sniffed the wind. Life-smell beckoned, hiding the cold-smell. Her blood sang, and the rich scent of mud and green things and red-blooded things teased. Kai looked around, taking in the ice-moving stream, and she rested one forefoot on the rock-cold dirt just above her den. Not yet, but soon, soon she would test her wings and see what had come in the death season.

  2. He crouched in the darkness, and waited for a hint of sound. But he heard nothing. The hammering of his heart, and his own shaky breathing were much too loud, but there was no other noise. Not even the sounds of insects. Nothing to give any sort of form to the sense of terror that had seized him.

  3. When the boss says take the elevator down to Cold Town to meet a client,
    that’s what you do. You do, anyway, if you want to keep your job.

    The elevator takes four hours to reach the surface. Four hours in a three
    meter cube, packed with passengers heading for the surface. If you’re lucky,
    you’re traveling with humans, on their way to do business with the Kratonians. If
    you’re not, you’ll have to share space with a returning Kratonian. I don’t care
    what the engineer’s say. Their thermal protection suits leak, a sulfurous miasma
    that fills the compartment and clings to your very skin. You can seal your own
    cold suit which means either expending your own internal stores or hooking into
    the elevator system which leaves you tied to one spot for the journey.

    I rode with not one but three Kratonians. Sealed and tethered as the
    effective gravity gradually built from the near zero at Blythe station to the sixty
    three percent of standard at the surface. The thirty second warning sounded and
    I saw the other two human passengers hastily seal their own cold suits.

    The doors opened to a blast of cold. The engineers say the suits keep
    you at a comfortable twenty-three C, but I can feel the cold, leaking
    through, sapping my very life. Jets of the methane-rich nitrogen atmosphere of
    Kraton blew through as the compartment vented, dispersing the oxygen we
    humans breathed before it could become an ignition hazard.

    This was my third trip to Cold Town, each one made under protest. But
    when the twelfth richest man in the Terran Protectorate is accused of murder and
    screams for an investigator, he gets an investigator.

    He gets me.

    1. Just great. This was something I knocked off in five minutes or so going for “atmosphere”. So now I have to figure out what the story is–and since this opening implies a mystery I need a much clearer idea what’s going on than I usually do when I pants my way through a story. 😉

  4. The transition from quiet of space to shaking and rattling to the scream of atmosphere was always striking. No matter how well tuned the inertia sumps were they could never really cut down on the passenger cabin shakes and rattles. It was always a nerve wracking experience even for those that had flown orbit to surface repeatedly over their careers. This time it was worse then normal. The planet hadn’t been terraformed fully yet and was in a constant state of storms and wind shears.
    The pilots knew what they were doing though. Plenty of experience and survival of the inevitable hard landings that were barely less then a full on crash. Life on the frontier of the Confederation was rough and this was where you found the thrill seekers and those that were looking to get away from everything or everyone. James closed his eyes and tried to focus on that center of calm he used for cases such as this. Some months he cursed his job and calling as investigator for the Confederation.
    (figured I would try my hand at it)

  5. The tunnels were deeper and more extensive than most people realized. A janitor had once told Evelyn that every building on campus could be reached using those tunnels. Evelyn, however, knew that that wasn’t true: there was absolutely no way to get to the new campus center using the tunnels. Casterly Hall, the small house-like building where most of the French teachers had their offices, was inaccessible by tunnels, as was the Health Center. Other than those three, however, every other place on campus had some connection to the tunnels. Evelyn had used the tunnels to get to all of them and had explored the rest to enough to be satisfied that there was no way into the Campus Center, the Health Center, or Casterly Hall. Evelyn knew every inch of these tunnels, and it was a skill that had come in handy on many nights like tonight.

    Most of the other students in the department thought Evelyn was crazy for using the tunnels. Evelyn thought they were crazy for not using the tunnels. They whispered about ghosts and ghouls and various beasts from other worlds. Less superstitious students talked about dirt, rodents, diseases, and the possibility of getting lost. Evelyn wasn’t afraid of dirt and had never seen so much as a mouse in the tunnels; the only life down here were janitors, research students running errands for some of the labs on this level, and the occasional spider. There might be some microscopic disease down here, just waiting to pounce on a weak immune system, but all in all, walking outside through the cold and damp seemed more likely to make someone sick. As for getting lost…Evelyn was a born explorer who had grown up chasing friends through woods, caves, and abandoned mine shafts. A person who could handle all that wasn’t likely to get lost in orderly, man-made, concrete tunnels.

    1. Been to Kansas State University, have you? 😉

      (An emeritus prof from there told me that a first-year architecture student got lost in the passages and tunnels under the architecture et al building in the 1970s and they still have not found the remains. I think he was joking. Maybe.)

      1. Never been to K-State. There are a lot of schools that made contributions to the bizzarchitecture of that particular campus, but that’s not one of them. Though it seems to be a common feature of colleges. My best friend and I once joked about students who got lost in the library and never found their way out and eventually turned into cannibal tribes hunting through the stacks. The story was unfortunately plausible…

        I don’t know why more people don’t write Lovecraftian Horror set on college campuses. The places are meant for it.

        1. Why don’t more people write Lovecraftian horror set on college campuses? That’s easy. Because on campus, the truth is scarier than the fiction!

            1. The last time I looked the Miskatonic University Faculty and Student parking passes were still sold out. (I really want one for my vehicle).

  6. Another one that I’m just sort of working on in my mind…

    The prison was one of the worst places that Commander Thomas Kinsley had ever been. It was hot and so humid that he had almost choked when the trap door had been opened; by the time he reached the bottom of the stairs, he was sweating as if he had run a marathon. Below, the space was dim and cramped with a low ceiling. Tom had to bend over until his back was almost perpendicular to the ground in order to avoid hitting his head. What little light there was illuminated stone covered with some sort of slick, green lichen-like plant that smelled rotten. Tom tried to avoid breathing too much and kept pushing on his way.

    Even as he made his way through the prison, Tom knew that it wasn’t designed for cruelty. For the creatures usually confined here, the temperature was normal, the smell of the lichen was pleasant, and the humidity made everything comfortable. For a member of Homo sapiens, however, it was like a descent into Hell, and Tom was filled with horror and pity for the human prisoner he had come to help.

  7. The broad Hudson, blue under spring skies, was dotted with sails. The orchards in the valley were aglow with white and purple blossoms. Beyond the river frowned Storm King, not much of a mountain by western standards, but impressive enough to a York Stater. The landscape blazed with the livid green of young leaves—and Sir Howard van Slyck, second son of the Duke of Poughkeepsie, wished to God he could get at the itch under his breastplate without going to the extreme of dismounting and removing half his armor.

    L. Sprague DeCamp – Divide and Rule

  8. The hold was dark,
    The hold was dank,
    With so many crammed inside
    It also rather stank.

    He barely managed to keep from blurting that bit of doggerel as he glanced about the dimly-lit hold. A few cracks in the hatch offered the only dim light, but it was enough to see the wood of the bulkheads and know he wasn’t on Dawnchaser any longer. It was also enough to see others languishing in shackles, the same as him.

    Damn! Pirates. He couldn’t remember a fight, but it was the only explanation for how he’d become a captive on another skyship.

  9. The clerestory windows of the cathedral, each with its dormer like projection, presented fascinating stacked shapes in the moonlight. High in the tower she saw a light though all was silent below. Once the door unlocked she walked through the dimly lit vestibule and entered the cathedral proper. Far above the bells began to ring. The sound filtered down through hundreds of feet of stone and air barely disturbing the after hours quiet.

    The windows were dark against lighter gray stone, with fantastic trefoil shapes at their apex. Columns that marked the aisles and nave seemed impossibly high. Once long ago she had stood at the top of this main section of the cathedral, right under the highest windows, slipping onto the catwalk with the help of “borrowed” keys. Up close the windows became abstract and impossibly huge. The bells continued; their muted hum reassured her as she swung open the wrought iron gate to the elevator. He would be up there ringing with the band. All had agreed that his love for ringing would override other considerations.

  10. This is from my first novel-length story, which someday I need to re-write a bit (or maybe a lot) to fix it up. This isn’t the current intro to the story, but I’m thinking perhaps I should move this section of the story and make it the intro…

    The star was a white dwarf. It was an old star; a very old star. It had burned in silent witness to the birth of solar systems, the rise and fall of civilizations, the death of other stars many times more massive than itself. The galaxy had grown under the cool gaze of its pale light. If the star were a living thing with feelings and emotions, would it gaze out on the field of lifeless asteroids that orbited it and feel envious of those stars that fate had seen fit to grant solar systems which in turn gave birth to life? Or would it value its quiet isolation at the center of its peaceful garden of rock and ice?

        1. You made me laugh. At least women had an excuse. They had guys like Harvey, and many others like him, acting as gatekeepers. You gotta wonder if guys ever experienced “casting couches.”

          1. Not the atmosphere I was aiming for (heh). I suppose that one paragraph doesn’t work too well alone, but the follow-on paragraphs segue pretty quickly into a “something’s happening” intro:

            The star was a white dwarf. It was an old star; a very old star. It had burned in silent witness to the birth of solar systems, the rise and fall of civilizations, the death of other stars many times more massive than itself. The galaxy had grown under the cool gaze of its pale light. If the star were a living thing with thoughts and emotions, would it gaze out on the field of lifeless asteroids that orbited it and feel envious of those stars that fate had seen fit to grant solar systems which in turn gave birth to life? Or would it value its quiet isolation at the center of its peaceful garden of rock and ice?

            These were the thoughts and questions Sept Leader Khep Jolon mulled over as he stared out a tinted viewport at the white dwarf. He turned away from the star and his musings and looked back at his desk. The House masters had submitted their annual production orders to the shipyard and his engineers had countered with lists of personnel and resources that would be needed to meet those orders. It was an administrative battle with which he was all too familiar. This year, however, there was an added urgency. The barbarians of the self-named Consortium had destroyed a number of hulls and the House Masters not only wanted those hulls replaced, they wanted additional hulls to counter the threat.

            “Sept Leader,” the slightly distorted voice of Deck Officer Mo-Si Ch’veyo called from the comm station on Jolon’s desk. “Perimeter sensors have detected a momentary contact in Sector 3.”

            “I will be right there,” Jolon replied, thinking as he rose from his desk, it is about time. He paused to make a slight adjustment to his eye patch and fastened the collar of his uniform jacket. He gave the hair ridge over his good eye a cursory look and decided that he would need to get it cut soon. Then with a final glance out to the white dwarf he exited his office and stepped out onto the command deck. He studied the faces manning the various stations around him and nodded slightly in satisfaction. Everyone on duty was loyal to the Cause. Ch’veyo, whose twin hair ridges were cropped close to his skull in fashion of House Khep rather than longer style favored by his own House Mo-Si, was standing at attention behind a seated sensor technician who had recently arrived on station. Jolon turned to him. “Report.”

            1. My idea would mos def be a different novel. Imagine sentient stellar orbs (I might never call them stars again, bless your pea-pickin’ heart 🙂 ) allied with various races in their sundry trade networks, wars, etc. Can we confidently rule out sentience in them? How much do we really know and understand about high temperature plasma physics? That’s an honest, not a rhetorical, question. Stipulating their existence for storytelling reasons seems no less an suspension of disbelief than Planet Kurt Russell from Guardians, or Magic Meteor Metal from Wakanda, or Themyscira, or Sparkly Vampires, or Drogon, to use recent examples.

              1. Hmmm…that’s a pretty cool idea. Perhaps those sentient stellar orbs require/desire require something similar to “interstellar cross-pollination” where the tradeships and warships of their respective civilizations act as the “pollinators”? The sentient stellar orbs could have a way of projecting faster-than-light connections between themselves which is how starships get around? The sentient stellar orbs could also place some value or “social status” on the number of such connections they maintain as well as the number of wild, non-sentient stellar orbs each has under its influence?

                1. Feel free to take the story and make it you own. My plate is cram-fulla a series that’ll prolly take me YEARS to finish, as prolix as I am. I’d LUUURVE to read that story.

  11. Attempted Sword & Sorcery opening:

    The sun was lowering in the west as the procession reached the village.

    Half-a-dozen red-cloaked priests banging drums and cymbals led the way, followed by a long column of paired figures. Those on the left were barely-clad women, those on the right black-robed men. A slender chain led from the neck of each woman to the left hand of a man. The men’s right hands held flaring torches.

    The streets of the village were deserted, the doors bolted and shutters drawn closed.

    As the procession passed through an area of warehouses, another pair of figures darted from the shadows and took up position at the rear of the column.

    The man who had been last in line slowed and turned his head at the sound of footsteps behind him. He gazed at the newcomers through drug-hazed eyes. The chain of the woman at his left tugged his wrist as she moved mindlesly along, and he shrugged and resumed his march towards the temple.

    It stood at the far end of the village, squat, brooding. Built of dark stone, the temple dominated its surroundings with its sprawling wings spreading from the central dome.

    The red priests stopped in front of the massive iron doors, painted black to match the stone. The lead cloaked figure raised his hands and the cacophony of drums and cymbals ceased as those following came to a halt.

    With a groan the doors ground open towards the procession. Revealed was a tunnel like an abyss, the darkness broken only by the flickering of a pair of torches mounted on either side of the doorway.

    With a cry of “Bmapth! Bmapth! Bmapth!” the priests led the way from the faltering daylight into the night. The doors groaned again, and the light was entirely shut out.

      1. Because it’s “these people” doing something, even if not focused on the main characters? (Except incidentally; they are the two joining up at the end of the procession.) My usual opening is a close 3rd-person of protag directly speaking / acting, and it’s hard to do any scene-setting that way.

        (I have managed to sell 2 shorts to semi-prozines, but need to expand my techniques a lot.)

  12. Tiniest, picayune suggestion. Microscopic tiny. In the 3rd paragraph from the end, you MIGHT wanna change the word “lead” to “leading.” Why? Because of the unfortunate resemblance of that word to a metal found in plumbing. I read it twice after glitching on it the first time. I was envisioning a lead-cloaked figure about to descend into a radioactive area.

  13. A pleasant little park with a duck pond, and a mother duck with three little ducklings swimming in circles. Something splahed into the pond from above and the holographic ducks flickered. He looked up and could see the louvered sunway across the station’s spindle, as well as the strips of land for Alpha and Gamma sections, but nothing that would have made the splash.

    (ok i tried for once)

  14. Humans mourned with fire. The funeral pyre painted weathered faces in crimson and gold and kindled the tears in many eyes. Human faces. Human eyes. Each House clustered behind their Head. Every man woman and child held an unlit torch, eyes fixed on the pyre and the woman who knelt beside it. She was tall and slender, and the firelight cast her in bronze.

    No torch lay beside her and as she stood, she simply reached one hand into the fire. Steam wreathed her as she stepped back, drawing a handful of fire with her. She turned to the assemblage and as she approached the first Head of House, there were no tears in her eyes nor expression in her face.

    The first torch dipped towards her and she lit it from the funeral flame. Each Head met her as she walked the row. One, young, dared meet her face as she lit his torch and she favored him with a small bow. He, in turn, turned his back to her as the others had not dared do to light his young wife’s torch. Slowly the valley lit, now from the torches, not the pyre itself.

    Her work complete she approached the old man with a senechal’s staff.

    “Warn them Peldar. They will take it better from you than from me. Warn them. The storm is coming, they must gather the crops in quickly. I will try to keep it in the mountains when it comes but I can make no guarantees,” She looked once more on the pyre itself. On her own liege lord… the only being to whom she had ever given her loyalty, and clenched her fist over the flame, snuffing it a sudden burst of steam.

    Humans were bound in fire and earth. Not so with Elves. Elves were creatures of air and water wild and constant. Humans mourned with fire and ash. Elves mourned with thunder and lightning.

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