I've been writing fan fiction for 7+ years now. Recently, I went back and compared the ratings my fan fiction has received from my readers, compared to what they contained. I discovered that those fan fictions with a distinct feel had generally better ratings, and were in fact some of the highest rated things I've written. These include:

  • A zombie story with a very dark atmosphere of despair and defeat.
  • A war story with an atmosphere of useless struggle against the conflict.

This research seems to indicate to me that I should focus more on finding and maintaining a specific feel for my stories. There is, however, I problem: how to do so?

I'm a very design-oriented person. I need structures and plans if I'm to make anything. This is no different. I need a step by step process, by which I can give a story a particular feel. Can you provide me with such a process?

Some feels will be easier than others. I originally thought giving a story a feel would be fairly simple, until I tried it. I've determined that my current fan fiction requires an atmosphere of desperation. Not despair, but desperation. I know how to create an atmosphere of despair. But how do I make the difference to desperation? The feeling that people have been pushed to the edge and are willing to do literally anything. The answer escapes me.

  • No time to write a complete answer now, but just a suggestion: as well as your primary plot having the feel you're going for, for this kind of work it's also important to have subplots that reinforce the same ideas.
    – Jules
    Commented Sep 21, 2017 at 4:15
  • 1
    What are the hallmarks of desperation? IMO things like being willing to do anything - anything - for a small little goal. And then some characters doing those things. Being driven down until they are willing to die for something small, and then they do, indeed die, the goal unattained. Maybe start with a definition of desperation and then identify the specific details that embody it.
    – SFWriter
    Commented Sep 21, 2017 at 14:10

3 Answers 3


Suppose you are hosting visitors to your city and you want to control the impression they get. If you want to give them the impression that your city is safe, you take them down certain streets at a certain time of day. If you want to give them the impression that your city is dangerous, you take them down different streets at a different time of day. If you want them to feel your city is green, you take them to the park. If you want them to feel it is a concrete jungle, take then to the freeway interchanges and the industrial district. If you want to give the impression that your city is cosmopolitan, take them to an ethnic restaurant. If you want to give the opposite impression, take them to Denny's.

Now, you can control the impression they get to a certain extent by how you talk up the city, by the language you choose, but your words will do much less than the actual experience of neighbourhoods to create the impression that stays with them.

It is the same in a novel. Most of the feel of the novel will come from the places you take the reader, the scenes they witness, the weather, the food, etc. In other words, all the things that would shape the feel of an experience if they were there in real life.

Don't think about this in terms of words, therefore, but in terms of storytelling. To make the reader feel something, take them to a place or through and experience that will create that feeling, just as you would if you were taking them on an adventure in real life.

  • The idea of showing people a city is a great way to visualize this. I'm still having some trouble conveying 'desperation', but I feel like I'm closer with this answer. Thanks Mark! Commented Sep 21, 2017 at 17:17
  • +1 Although I wrote my own answer, this one is great! :) By the way, small typo at the end of the penultimate paragraph. Commented Sep 21, 2017 at 17:55
  • Slightly off-topic, but I wanted to know your thoughts on changing the atmosphere between books in a series. Suppose book 2 takes place with the same character, but in a completely different land... would a change in atmosphere still be too jarring to the reader/story? Commented Sep 22, 2017 at 18:00
  • @thomasmyron I think that should be a question in its own right.
    – user16226
    Commented Sep 22, 2017 at 18:12

This might seem like an issue of setting or structure, but it's actually about your characters and their perspective. If your characters are desperate, and you are close enough to their point of view, this will give your story a feel of desperation. Keep in mind, however, what is a desperate situation for one character might not be for another.

If the story doesn't have a "feel" to it, you might be too far distanced from the characters' point of view. You don't have to go first-person, just try to get inside their heads and hearts a bit more.

You can then invest this mood into your details and descriptions. For instance, a looming tree raised its branches threateningly against the darkened sky has a very different feel than a welcoming tree opened its branches gratefully to the night, even though they might conceivably both be descriptions of the same tree at the same time. Different mood, different emotions, different feel.


The other answers provided here are awesome, and I also advise word choice to be paramount. I would like to add, though, that since you're writing about desperation, and that is the feeling you're currently wishing to create, try breaking down desperation into a series of action. Find the root cause of the characters' desperation, or the state that their environment is in and portray things happening that would create this desperate feel. This could be larger plot events. Or, on a smaller scale, tiny things that happen in each of the characters' lives. Desperation comes around when people feel trapped, or incapable, and it seems there is only one option left (or none) and they have been lead to doing the extremes to fix things. This is a very anxious feeling, a very uncomfortable place to be in. While you're taking your reader on a walk through the park like Mark Baker suggested, have tiny things happen that create this anxiety. The girl is getting dressed this morning, but she can't quite find the right outfit. Nothing she puts on seems to flatter her, or make her feel good. She keeps glancing to the window and the blinds are tilted up a little. She feels watched, observed, by any random stranger who may pass by her room window. As she walks to the bathroom to brush her teeth, she notices a leak coming from the ceiling, stuff oozing down the side of the wall. These little things out of place, stripping your character of control, will create the idea that the world is slipping and if she can't keep a grasp on anything, then she's going to get desperate really fast to get a grip again.

  • My dilemma is that when I create the root cause, as you suggest, the situation seems to be one of simply despair, not really desperation. Desperation implies an effort, and a willingness to do anything to achieve a goal. I'm not sure how to portray that willingness. Commented Sep 21, 2017 at 22:41

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