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

A brief pep, a brief prompt, then go post your work on our community forums for feedback and chat.

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*

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?

How did you get on? Let us know about your liminal space exploration on our community forums, 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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5 Comments. Leave new

  • Avatar
    Amy Winters-Voss
    30 May 2019 2:01 pm

    ooh, this idea will also help when needing to portray other liminal spaces – like a gateway between worlds! Thank you for posting this!

  • Avatar
    Jane Buttery
    30 June 2019 7:03 pm

    I can see the value as my heroine enters the kitchen of a house where she has slept and finds herself in a Victorian kitchen.
    Later I see her going to a spooky attic.Your ideas will help the tension and fear she has.

  • Will think of some whilst driving my daughter to Milan (problems with trains), so I’ll have time to think of many instances.

  • Oooh I wrote a poem just a few days ago re: that liminal space which exists as the sun gets its colourful jimmies on before switching off the bedside light. That’s not what ended up on paper but it’s what entered my head – I think I’ll revisit my poem 😁

  • This is so helpful! I have a scene like this as the opening of my memoir/creative non-fiction book that is centered around my father. He is in that liminal space, but I didn’t know that terminology. I now understand that I can strengthen and emphasize this for atmosphere. Thank you.


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