Do you want a scene in your novel to be especially intense, emotional, creepy, scary, romantic or exciting?
Let it play out at night.
To create the right atmosphere, you need to trigger the reader’s senses differently than for a daytime scene. In this post, I’ll show you the techniques professional fiction authors use.
- 1 Use different senses.
- 1.1 The sense of hearing is especially important.
- 1.2 In the evening, most people’s sense of smell heightens, so you may want to mention the scents and odours of the place and the characters.
- 1.3 Any lights, whether nearby or faraway, will be noticeable at night, so mention lights.
- 1.4 Describe the colour, quality and movement of the light.
- 1.5 If the scene takes place outdoors, show the weather and the temperature, the way your point-of-view character experiences them:
- 1.6 Fear, danger, anxiety, uncertainty, are increased in the dark.
- 1.7 ASSIGNMENTS
Use different senses.
In the dark or semi-dark, your PoV character will see less than in bright light, so use the sense of vision less and the other senses more.
The sense of hearing is especially important.
Insert several background noises, such as:
- Outside, a car door slammed and a motor whined.
- From the kitchen came the persistent drip-drop-drip of a leaking tap.
- Water gurgled down the drainpipe.
- Wind whispered through the branches and rustled the leaves.
- Rain hammered on the window panes.
Insert sentences of this kind especially in moments of tense silence. They can help increase the suspense.
In the evening, most people’s sense of smell heightens, so you may want to mention the scents and odours of the place and the characters.
However, this awareness lessens in the early morning hours. The temperature also affects the sense of smell – during a balmy night, the characters will notice more smells than if it’s cold.
Here are examples:
- The rain sharpened the smells of smoke and earth.
- He smelled of cigarettes and stale sweat.
- She reeked of whisky and resentment.
- Her scent was sweet, fruity, reminding him of the aroma of a freshly sliced peach.
- The alley stank of rotting vegetables and piss.
- From the entrance came the enticing smells of pizza and fried fish.
Any lights, whether nearby or faraway, will be noticeable at night, so mention lights.
Here are some ideas for outdoor night scenes:
- car headlights
- street lamps (a row of them or a single one)
- lit windows in houses
- the glowing tip of a cigarette
- the stars (unless the sky is cloudy)
- neon advertising signs
- the moon (full, waxing, waning, crescent, gibbous?)
- a campfire
- the hazy cloud of light above a distant city
- any appliances in use (a tablet, a mobile phone)
Describe the colour, quality and movement of the light.
Use your full creativity to come up with original, atmospheric descriptions.
Here are some examples to inspire your own ideas:
- Stars winked like sequins on a dark velvet gown.
- Torches waved their yellow flames in the gloom.
- The light of the lantern shuddered in the darkness.
- The silvery sheet of the lake’s surface darkened and lightened with every passing of a cloud.
- Beams of light burst into the moonless night.
- A pair of headlights sliced through the darkness.
- The street lamps cast their sulphurous glow on the wet asphalt.
If the characters are indoors, your scene may be well-lit… but you can still show the source and quality of the light:
- The overhead strip lights flickered to life.
- The lamp cast its smoky light on the carpet.
- The light bulb cast a pale glow, leaving the corners in shadow.
- She relaxed in the generous glow of the clustered candles.
- The log in the crate spluttered and fell apart, throwing orange sparks.
Artificial light affects how objects and people look. Candlelight tends to flatter the complexion, while white bulbs and neon tubes emphasise every wrinkle, blemish and scar. Use this effect in your descriptions.
To create a night-time atmosphere for your scene, also consider showing drawn curtains, or having your characters draw them against the approaching darkness.
If the scene takes place outdoors, show the weather and the temperature, the way your point-of-view character experiences them:
- The night chill seeped through her jacket.
- He tightened his hood and marched onwards through the battering storm.
- Slivers of hail stung my cheeks.
- Raindrops made needle streaks in the light of the street lamps.
Fear, danger, anxiety, uncertainty, are increased in the dark.
By emphasising the darkness, you can create suspense and fear.
If you want to frighten your readers, give the point-of-view character light to see by at the beginning of the scene… and then take it away.
Here are some ideas how to achieve this:
- One by one, the candles burn down.
- The wind blows out the lantern.
- Rain extinguishes the campfire, or the character runs out of wood to burn.
- A power cut drops the whole house into darkness.
- The battery runs out.
Try the effect of diminishing light for any scary or creepy scene in your novel. Your readers will shiver with delighted fear.
Beginner writers often fail to create a convincing night-time experience because they don’t use the senses enough. Remember to use the senses of hearing, touch, smell and temperature, as well as other senses, such as taste, if relevant to the context.
Do you want to put the theory into practice? Here are two projects for you.
1. Go out at night—perhaps to a place that resembles a location in your WiP, or somewhere bizarre. If you dare, or walk through a rough neighbourhood or visit the local graveyard at night. Stay safe! Best take your dog or an understanding friend. If you don’t want to leave your home after dark, your own back garden can yield interesting material, or you can simply throw a window open and lean out to listen, look and smell. Absorb the lights, sounds and odours of the place. Collect as many observations as possible and write them down, for use in a future story.
2. Imagine the location of your night scene. What smells might the PoV character notice? What noises can be heard in the background? Where does the light come from, and what’s its colour, strength and effect? How does the ground feel underfoot? Write at least five sentences about the setting – as many of them as possible about a sense other than seeing – and sprinkle them throughout your scene.