One intangible that I love in books is ambience. How do you describe ambience? Merriam-Webster defines it as being “a feeling or mood associated with a particular place, person, or thing : atmosphere.” You’ve probably been in a restaurant (or bar) that had great atmosphere — the architecture, decor, lighting. Movies accomplish ambience with filters and music. But how do you as a writer sit down to create ambience? The fact is, all we have are words.
Maybe we can get a clue from some of the synonyms — air, aura, aroma, climate, flavor, mood, odor, smell … notice how a lot of the words are physical words? That’s part of creating ambience. Describe what the character sees, smells, feels, and hears, and use words with a lot of emotional baggage — stench instead of smell, cloying instead of sweet, clashing instead of ringing. The best way to create ambience is to create vivid scenes the reader can see and taste and feel along with the character.
I just finished reading a book that had great ambience called The Immortal Rules by Julie Kagawa. It’s a YA vampire book, and the story was pretty good, but what made the book a standout was the atmosphere she created. She describes life in “the Fringe,” a hard-scrabble place where kids try to find food and shelter in a no-man’s land between the vampire city — with its scheduled blood-letting — and the world outside the fences and barbed wire, a world overrun with mindless, zombie vampires. She uses concrete words to make us feel life in the Fringe: gutted buildings, glass-strewn lots. Here’s a sample of the words: burned, crumbled, mold, rubble, charred, cold, damp, dark, rusty, weeds, dented, broken, squeak, scavenge, shattered, maggoty. You can see this place, and probably smell it and taste it too. She didn’t info-dump it all in one page. She used every opportunity to wriggle in a little description. If someone closed a door, it was a rusty door and squeaked. If the main character walked, she stepped over broken bottles among the weeds.
I think people love some of the most popular books not just because of the story or characters but because they leave the real world and take refuge in the world created by the writer. It’s a little bit of escapism. So the key to a truly great book is ambience. Make the reader forget the real world and feel like they are in a completely different, magical place, and you have a winner.