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What is atmosphere? Atmosphere is something that the writer creates through setting to make a reader feel a certain way in a particular scene. Mood, on the other hand, creates a feeling that lasts from cover to cover.

Creating mood through setting seems to me to be a subtle manipulation of the reader to feel a certain way throughout an entire work.  Atmosphere, however, can change as the story shifts.  

Atmosphere, like mood, comes from description, from word choice, from sentence structure, from the rhythm of the prose.  So sun and warmth should make us feel good and dark and cold the opposite. But writers can do a lot with only one of those sets. Consider this scene from Golding’s Lord of the Flies.

Piggy rose dripping from the water and stood naked, cleaning his glasses with a sock. The only sound that reached them now through the heat of the morning was the long, grinding roar of the breakers on the reef.

“How does he know we’re here?”

Ralph lolled in the water. Sleep enveloped him like the swathing mirages that were wrestling with the brilliance of the lagoon.

“How does he know we’re here?”

Because, thought Ralph, because, because. The roar from the reef became very distant.

So far, the sun and the beach and the reef seem unthreatening, even pleasant, the water warm, sleep inducing. Piggy’s glasses get cleaned, Ralph lolls in the water. But minutes later, the dialogue turns frightening and look what happens to the lagoon.

“They’re all dead, said Piggy, an’ this is an island. Nobody don’t know we’re here, nobody don’t know—”

His lips quivered and the spectacles were dimmed with mist.

“We may stay here till we die.”

With that word, the heat seemed to increase till it became a threatening weight and the lagoon attacked them with a blinding effulgence.

“Get my clothes,” muttered Ralph. “Along there.”

He trotted through the sand, enduring the sun’s enmity.

The lagoon changes in an instant, reflecting the emotions of the two boys. That’s atmosphere used in a single scene to create tension.

So mood and atmosphere, although from the same source, the setting, the author using the same tools in both, are different in their effect. One creates a feeling that persists, the other reflects the emotional changes of the characters or foreshadowing events about to occur. Not everyone sees these terms the same way, and they are often used interchangeably.

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