Pep & Prompt #4: How Do I Create An Unsettling Atmosphere In My Story?

How do you create an unsettling atmosphere in your writing? As with any writing question there’s a hint of string-length in this, but here’s a quick and easy hack for when you just want to creep the heck out and crack on:

Liminal space *cue spooky music*

Black and white gif of a woman peeking out from beneath the bedclothes, looking scared.

Liminal space exists somewhere between here and there. It’s No Man’s Land. An ethereal dead space where time seems to function differently – like that weird week between Christmas and New Year, drifting between the manic rush of the build up to C-day but not yet quite locked into the January routine.

Liminal space is threshold between one thing and another, whether that relates to time, place, or psychological state. Whatever the heck it is, it’s a great big honking turning point.

Liminal space is super-duper-trooper important in fiction because it represents ‘that indefinable bit between cause and effect’ – the space between the familiar and the unknown. It’s limbo. It’s purgatory. It’s a weird in-the-middle place that is neither here nor there.

Remember use your unsettling atmospheres wisely – they need to serve a purpose in the grander narrative. You can’t just give someone the willies and then skip along as normal in the next scene. Your protag can’t turn back, but they’re not quite ready to face their next challenge either.

Liminality is often a metaphorical/psychological state. Maybe your character is waiting for a significant event to happen. Maybe they’re coming of age or making some sort of self-discovery. Maybe they’re slowly regaining their memory. Maybe they’re about to step outside their comfort zone and into uncharted territory…

Liminal spaces can be actual physical locations, too, and often make extra-cool and atmospheric settings for your story because they have an eerie, magical or slightly discomforting feeling to them. Such as…

Throughways – places whose existence is defined by their temporary nature, eg:

  • Airports, bus depots and train stations
  • Petrol stations in the middle of nowhere
  • Stairwells and elevators
  • Waiting rooms
  • Laundrettes
  • Galleries and museums
  • Nightclubs and bowling alleys (or anywhere with no windows or sense of passing time)

Shifted Context – places that we’re used to seeing in a different way and therefore trigger a warning signal in your irrational little brain because it can’t handle change:

  • Playgrounds after dark
  • Freshly-fallen snow that no one has walked on yet
  • Empty places that are usually full of people, eg: schools, museums, supermarkets, theatres etc
  • Abandoned buildings
  • A childhood home that someone else lives in now

Kinda creeped out yet? Yeah, us too – isn’t liminal space awesome? Soooo….

Ready to write? Here’s your prompt:

Pick a liminal space from the list above, or the picture prompts below, or use a place or threshold you’ve been inspired by in real life. Throw a character in there and explore the in-between-ness of the space.

– Where has your character just come from, and where are they going?
– Why did they stop in the liminal space?
– How does it make them feel? Uneasy? Peaceful? Confused?
– What are their choices at this point? How does the liminal space help/hinder their decision-making?
– How do they leave? DO they leave?
– Is this space a big ol’ metaphor for their own psychological transformation?

Image of two empty airport travelators.
Image of a series of doorways in what looks like an abandoned building. Paint is peeling off concrete walls and old rotting wooden doors hang open. There are grey patterned geometric tiles on the floor.
Image of a parkside path at night, lit by a solitary streetlight. A wooden bench sits between a ramshackle wooden fence and metal goalposts. A dark forest looms behind.
Image of a very precarious-looking rope bridge with intermittent slats of wood and branches. It stretches across a wide river to a sheer muddy bank the other side.
Image of an underground train station platform with a train waiting to depart. A figure sits at the far end of the platform and another singular figure sits on the train.

How did you get on? Did you get lost in the in-between? Did you find a metaphor or two? Keep on exploring those weird bridges between worlds and make a habit of noting down all the freaky little liminal moments you encounter every day – ’cause it’s likely there’s a story in there…

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