Setting the Mood

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What is Mood?)

Every story has a mood, just some of them are intentional. Mood is something that is a difficult to pin down directly, because it always hangs in the background of a scene, forever just out of focus. In a single sentence you have a subject and an object, but neither of those are the mood, they are directly in the forefront. The adjectives and adverbs get you a bit closer to the mood, but still not all the way. The word “chilling” might be used in a thriller to describe the appearance of the villain, or in a romance novel to describe the temperature of rain the two lovers reconcile under.

Mood isn’t necessarily defined by what is happening then, it is more the way it is being told. Mood can sometimes be strongly evoked by a single sentence, but most commonly it is an ineffable quality that is conjured up by the combination of entire chapters, all contributing together to the story’s particular tone.

And sometimes the mood of a story is affected by more than the words alone, summoned by the very physical nature of its pages. My family owned an old copy of Oliver Twist, probably published sometime before 1940. The pages were all yellow, gave off a deep, musty smell, crackled as they were opened, and so seemed to literally exude the adventures of a bygone era.

Another way to think of mood is that it would be the music of a story. Usually the score of a film never breaks into the foreground of the action, instead providing subtle cues directly to your subconscious. Mood, like background music, is the artist sending you a silent message of what you are supposed to be feeling at this particular moment in time.

No amount of polishing a story is going to make up for a lack of mood either. The way I know that my work is lacking an evocative mood is when reading it leaves the overall sensation of “it’s nice and all…but flat.”

Usually the solution for this is rewriting scenes to have the same temperature across them. The fact is my “flat” work does have moods, every story does, it just is that those moods are so inconsistent that they never have enough space to actually permeate the story. If one sentence is happy, the next is sad, and the next is angry, none of the emotions are able to actually land.

I’ve seen many other stories, too, that are comprised of many fascinating and engaging chapters when taken individually, but when combined together jerk the reader back and forth so quickly it gives them whiplash. Now and again it is fine to place two opposite sensations back-to-back for contrast, but you don’t want to be placing them back-to-back-to-back-to-back.

On the other hand, let us consider the atmosphere so effectively summon by George Orwell in his dystopian fantasies. These are worlds that feel sterile, monotone, and emotionless. Pristine machinations serving a totalitarian state where everything is clinically regulated and suppressed. How does he begin his novel 1984?

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

Bright and cold, they convey an immediate blandness, not only in their meaning, but also in being such short and to-the-point sort of words. The mention of clocks whose churning gears represent the machinations of the superstructure. The fact that they are striking thirteen instead of 1 PM conveys a military mentality. The mind does not necessarily process all of these facts, though, the reader simply feels them. And so Orwell’s signature mood is established, and then maintained by the story’s persistent reinforcement.

 

The Need for Variety)

But, of course, while some stories are famously known for how they evoke a single mood, the fact is that all of them are actually comprised of a great many moods throughout. To leave a reader steeped too long in a single state of emotion would soon dull the entire experience, making them incapable of still recognizing that overall mood. Therefore even the most tragic of stories needs to have moments of hope and levity to make the return of despair have its bite again.

And so it turns out that establishing mood is all about maintaining a balance of variation. Too little variation smothers the reader in blandness, but too much variation then smothers the reader in chaos. We want to journey to our destination and have the scenery change around us as we go, but mostly at a rate of just one sequential step after the other.

Let’s look at a classic example of a story with a strongly defined mood, that of Catch-22. The novel is famous for its lighthearted and flamboyant style, its many contradictions and paradoxes. The very idea of the “catch-22,” a situation in which two things simultaneously depend upon but also prevent one another, is already such a humorous concept that it easily pervades throughout all the rest of the novel. The mood is undoubtedly insane, but somehow cheerfully so.

But then, there are somber cracks that now and again appear beneath the insanity. The reality that some characters are dying, that planes are being shot down, that these men are facing death as their regular, daily routine. Eventually the mirthful craziness breaks apart and the final act is famously dark and depressing. Previously glossed over brutalities come into stark relief and the real catch-22 is the notion of depending on war to bring about peace.

By giving each section of his book adequate space to breathe, but also by allowing cracks of each to appear in the other, Heller is able to walk that fine line between having both a consistent mood, but also enough variety to flavor the whole.

Also, never forget that a single well-seasoned sequence will leave a lingering taste in the segments that follow. An example of this can be found in a small section from Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Specifically it is the portion dealing with the Demeter, a Russian ship that runs aground entirely bereft of any crew. The Captain’s journal is read and it gives the chilling account of one man in the crew disappearing after another, each seemingly plucked from their number by the devil himself.

Finally the Captain knows he is the last remaining, knows that the unseen vampire must soon be coming for him, and so he lashes himself to the wheel and waits. The nightmarish suspense creates a mood so evocative that it colors the story long after the episode passes. Though the following details of Lucy’s illness do not involve any of the members of that disappeared crew, their shadow looms over it, the mood still fresh in the reader’s memory.

 

 

It is easy to make the mistake of writing a story without any consideration for mood, to just focus on characters and scenes, and then at the end wonder why it somehow doesn’t have the cohesion you had hoped for. I would argue that consistent tone is the number one differentiator between narrative worlds that feel like they are composed of living, breathing environments and the ones that feel like they’re cobbled together with cardboard cutouts.

For my next short story piece I have only a very light outline: two characters wash ashore, one of them is pursuing the other. But what I do have a a clear idea of is the mood I want the piece to be saturated with: one of grim conflict, two beings that are locked into their own mutually assured destruction, brought from distant lands to wreak their havoc upon a quiet and idyllic countryside. Come back on Thursday to see how it all comes together, and have a wonderful week until then!