On a mountain hike in the dead of winter, my partner Adam and I finally reached the top of an hour and a half summit. Skiers and hikers with snowshoes passed us as we climbed to the top but, despite not having any gear, we did not give up. A frozen lake awaited us at the top, chilled over by days of freezing temperatures, and a lone peak stood above its surface. There was absolutely no wildlife in sight, not a bird, not a fish, and the wind howled as it whipped through the pine trees behind us. In the shadow of storm clouds, the mountain looked down upon us with cold crags and a marred surface, but in the distance, the cornflower blue sky peaked through and sunlight glistened on a distant peak.

So, how do I add ambiance to my writing?

The most important things for adding ambiance, for me, anyway, are senses, mood, context, and word choice. With these four things in your tool belt, ambiance is almost impossible to miss. By utilizing all five senses and imagining myself as the writer in the setting I am describing, I find I can provide my readers with much more detail. After I’ve sorted the things I’m describing with my senses, I think about the mood of the scene. If we’re using my mountain lake is an example, is in the middle of summer? Is there a murder happening at the lake (I hope not)?  Is a group of happy friends camping out and bonding over hot chocolate or making out in tents? Context is everything when determining the mood of a scene, as mood directly impacts ambiance. Word choice is the last big puzzle piece. Using words like soft, serene, and chilly do not denote the same feeling as frigid, icy, and eerie.

What do I use ambiance for?

Using ambiance is a surefire way to get your readers immersed in your story. By making a camera in your mind, you can place your reader exactly where you want them in the scene. You’ve played a video game before, right? It’s exactly like that. If you do it well enough, the ambiance will make them forget they’re even reading a book. What better way to get them crawling back to you than juicy, descriptive scenery? Ambiance is also a powerful device to use to directly influence how readers view your environments. A child’s bedroom can be cute and inviting…  or it could be the scene of a demonic haunting. How I describe my ambiance in my work is going to determine which it is. Using words like warm, cuddly, sweet, and soft are going to tell my readers that this room belongs to a charming eight-year-old girl. Using words like cold, quiet, dark, and empty are going to tell readers that this room has been abandoned and they should maybe run.

When should I use ambiance in my writing?

Ambiance should not be overused. It’s really easy for me to get carried away with ambiance sometimes, and my scenes become incredibly descriptive with no action. BORING. Do I need to describe the location of every frozen bush and piece of driftwood in my mountain scene? No. Of course not. Please, please, please do not fall prey to my mistakes. If a character is thrown into a piece of driftwood or a wolf creeps through the frozen and crackling branches of a bush, the readers will use their own imagination to fill in the blanks. Showing versus telling is something that absolutely needs to be remembered when writing ambiance. I use a “first-person camera” method to determine what I tell my readers. Back to the video game example! This method is applicable even if you are writing in the third person. This is how I do it:

  1. Figure out which character the story is being told through. If this is a first-person novel, this is the easy part. If it’s a third person novel, who is the story following? Who is the main character (even if it’s the main character at the time)?
  2. what is most important to this character? How do they view the world?
  3. Based on how they view the world, what are the first things they see, hear, smell, taste, or touch?

If I am a mountain warrior coming to this frozen lake for the first time, what do I notice? Do I spot tracks? Do I know deer have been through this area before? If I am a scholar eager and fresh out of school traveling with this warrior, what I notice is different. Do I notice how lovely the sun looks reflecting off of the peak in the distance? Am I recording what types of plants are in the area? By leaving some details out, this also builds suspense and makes your ambiance more impactful. Remember this: your characters are just as human as we are. Characters can’t look everywhere at once (unless they’re Bran from Game of Thrones, of course), and showing what they see first says not only a lot about the character you’re writing but also the world in which they live.

Where do I include ambiance?

I find that the best time to include ambiance is in a longer period of breath before an intense action scene. This is the downtime your characters take to recover from near-death moments in your plot. These breathing points in my stories prevent the action from feeling too rushed and keep the readers on their toes. By taking a break and describing a little bit of the ambiance through writing, the readers get time to refresh and reset in the story. Then, by clueing the readers into the rest of the ambiance through action and character dialogue, I can direct where I want their imaginative mind to go. My readers get to experience the magic of readinggggg. When a wolf jumps from the brush and attacks a character from behind, my readers are totally in shock (surprise!). The ambiance is best not used in scenes of high tension. If someone is being attacked, they most likely do not have time to use their senses to check out the plant life in the area. Their focus will shift to the details that matter, like the face of their attacker or the armor that their assailant is wearing. Use ambiance and action alternately, not together.

How can I stop myself from overusing ambiance?

Ambiance can also be overused when characters reach locations that do not matter. If my band of fantasy warriors comes back from their mountain fight and visit a tavern to get a hearty meal, should I describe the inside of this tavern in detail? To get to the answer, we ask another question. Are my characters coming back to this location later in the novel? If the venue is of importance, describe it. If they are never going to see it again, it may be a waste of time. No one wants to sit through paragraph after paragraph of boring exposition. Again, your characters are not going to notice or see everything. If a character can’t see it, don’t describe it. If your character wouldn’t think that x detail is important, don’t describe it. If the detail doesn’t add to the current mood of the situation, don’t describe it. While this may bring down the word count of your novel, it’s better to keep your audience engaged than it is to flesh out your world via lengthy and unnecessary exposition.

All in all, ambiance is a powerful tool that I love to employ. It helps me enjoy visiting new places in real life by taking notes and photographs, sitting in the space, and appreciating nature. By writing ambiance in my stories, it forces me to be more critical and observational. It is also a good lesson on reservation. It’s hard when you’ve poured so much into a fantasy world you love to not describe every tree, rock, and stray animal. By allowing the reader to build the world in their mind with the help of your direction, it creates a much more satisfying experience for everyone involved. You’re playing with your reader, and don’t forget that! If I’m going to be writing a story in an environment I’m not accustomed to, sometimes I plan trips just to go and experience it firsthand. Who doesn’t love a good vacation? We’re writers! If anyone needs to get out of the house more, it’s us. Drawing from experience is not only enjoyable, but you’ll build more realistic worlds for your readers. I instantly revisit the places I’ve been when I’m writing, the feelings I felt at the moment, who I was with. Writing becomes just as much of a time-traveling experience as one of craft at that moment, and that is exactly what ambiance is about.