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!

Something Different

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Well, here we are in a new series. Usually I try to make each series distinct from the one before, and thus avoid building off of any prior ideas. This is going to be the exception, though, because last series I made a post that I have a bit more to say on. Specifically it was my post just a week ago about how every author seems to have a distinctive style. In that post I suggested that if each writer were to examine their own style they would probably find that it had naturally emerged as an extension of their own personality.

I still agree with those thoughts, but realized that many authors are actively trying to change their style. Perhaps they want to branch out and try new things, or they want to be more marketable, or maybe they want the prestige of being a versatile author.

Personally I do think it can be very positive to spread one’s wings and expand, though not necessarily for all of those reasons listed above. In fact I think authors can run the risk of killing their passion for writing if they push themselves too hard to change and for the wrong reasons.

 

Unhealthy Change)

I’m concerned that the most common motivation people have for changing up their craft is a fear of what other people think of them. This fear can manifest in couple of ways. Perhaps the author feels that writers who shift effortlessly between many different styles are more impressive than one who only writes in one, or perhaps they think their work will sell better if it is in a different genre. With these fears an author can feel pressured to redefine themselves over and over, changing with every shift of society.

Holding ourselves to such expectations can never be healthy. It’s exhausting and will inevitable lead sooner or later into writing things that we really don’t care about. With this mentality writing truly becomes just a “job” and not a work of passion. And what of the outcome? Perhaps one can learn to write something different, but that does not inherently mean that it is better.

Even a dream can be made into a drudgery, and nothing is more dulling than slaving away over a script you don’t care for. I’m all for writing things out of your comfort zone as an exercise, and even for emulating an entirely different voice in a new novel. But if you’re going to be dedicating a significant portion of your life to doing this work, you had better make sure it will be in a genre that you love.

 

Priorities)

But what if it’s not about pleasing a crowd? What if it’s sincerely just trying to become the best author one can be? What if the author is afraid that they have stopped growing and they want to take their craft to the next level?

Well, to be clear, experimentation and exploration are obviously essential to becoming a confident author. Every person who wants to author a story needs to be expanding their scope every day. They need to practice and exercise their skills, making sure every tool in already in their belt is kept sharp, and trying to add new tools wherever they can. I think most people would say that developing one’s skillset is the single most important thing one can do to become a professional writer.

I, however, would say it is only the second most important. It’s a very big second, but still second.

First and foremost comes living a full and complete life. Extensive skills, fancy prose, hours of writing prompts… these are ways of putting those tools into your belt. But tools do not craft a masterpiece, the artist that wields them does. More than these you need to find things in life you are deeply moved by, so that you will know by experience how to touch a reader’s heart. You need to experience the full depth of real-life relationships, so that you will know how to write a convincing relationship. You need to go through a soul-crushing disappointment, so you will know how to pen a heartbreaking tragedy.

One of the classic elements I love most in a good martial arts film is that raw talent is only of use after one is grounded and centered. You see this in The Karate Kid, Ip Man, and even Cinderella Man. Other warriors in those stories might have greater raw strength, but the heroes triumph because their foundation is based on living a life that matters.

If you want to be the best author you can be, then you need to find out what real love is, what real loss is, what hopes and dreams and doubts and failures are made up of. You need to hurt, and you need to be healed. You need to understand yourself, and then you need to be mystified by yourself.

 

Natural Improvement)

No author should want to stay the same for their entire career, but they needn’t worry about that if they are living a deep and meaningful life. Part of living life to the fullest means constantly changing and improving. It means not sitting back in complacent idleness, but rather growing and expanding as a person.

As I mentioned in my earlier post, my own particular style has changed as my patterns of life naturally evolved through education, physical exercise, and spiritual searching. I didn’t have to try to alter my form of storytelling, it just did so naturally as an extension of who I am.

When growth as a writer is based first on personal development and second on developing skill, I think you’ll find your improvement will outstrip any other method. This has certainly been the case for me.

Whenever I want to take my writing to the next level, my first question is “what can I do to improve myself as a person?” And if I successfully become a person that I respect more, then I always find that my writing is more satisfying as well.

 

A Real-Life Example)

Obviously many life changes come unexpectedly, and it is impossible to tell exactly how they will color our writing style. This means that while we hope to improve in our craft, we may not know in which way we will do so.

When Brunelleschi lost the commission to design the bronze doors of the Florence Baptistery in 1401 he also lost any future as a sculptor in Florence. His entire trajectory had been crushed in a moment, and he knew it was time for some deep soul-searching. So he went away to Rome, and there among the marvels of antiquity he found an abiding fascination in the ancient ruins that he found there. He started uncovering principles of architecture that had been forgotten to the ages, secrets of a bygone era, and even found ways to improve on them.

Eventually Brunelleschi did return to Florence, but not as a sculptor. Instead of crafting a pair of mere doors, he was commissioned to erect an architectural masterpiece. His dome on the Santa Maria del Fiore cathedral showcased principles of balance and support that were entirely unheard of, and the structure still stands today as a prominent figure of the Florentine skyline.

The important thing, though, is that while his shift in life was quite radical, it was not a brash reaction to public opinion. Perhaps it was losing a commission that began his journey of self-discovery, but he dedicated 39 years of honing his craft between that failure and his later monumental success. This was no brief flight of fancy, this was a man improving himself over a lifetime of effort. As best we know, Brunelleschi died a content man. A man who had lived richly, and then created beautifully.

 

By all means each of us should test the limits of our comfort zone regularly. These exercises will expand our skillset, and may even lead to discovering new passions, such as architecture to Brunelleschi.

Generally, though, I always like to approach these sorts of exercises without any expectation, I simply allow the experience to be what it will be, take the good that it offers me, and move on with my work. And that’s exactly what I am going to be doing with my next project. On Thursday I will post the first part of a story that is intentionally as far removed from my usual style as possible. Where normally I fall into the pattern of slow and fantastical allegory, here I am going to strive for a realistic setting, some biting cynicism, and a chatty-conversational narrator. Come back then to see how it turns out.

Finding Your Sense of Style

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One of the most valuable things about writing regularly is that you start to learn things about yourself you never knew. Perhaps one of the revelations that comes quickest is what aspects of writing you are bad at. Personally I’m bad at character descriptions. And by bad, I mean I just don’t even do it in most cases! I’m worried about dragging down the pace, so I blitz past giving the reader a mental image of any character. I guess I struggle with knowing how to tackle that in stride with the plot, and it’s something I need to get better at.

A little bit after discovering your weaknesses you will also get to know your strengths, a far more pleasant discovery! Obviously this is subjective, but I think I’m pretty good at incorporating messages into my stories. I’m able to have arcs that are “going somewhere.”

After your strengths and weaknesses further revelations will follow. You’ll learn how hard-working of a writer you are (or aren’t), how consistent, how many typos you’re likely to make for every thousand words written. You’ll start noticing the differences in how you write when you are happy and how you write when you are sad. You’ll learn how some of your scenes will be deeply moving to you when in some moods, only to be laughably corny when in another.

But one thing you may not fully realize until you’ve written for a decent while is what your style is. If I had been asked before this blog what my writing style was I really wouldn’t have known how to answer. The last time I wrote stories consistently was in my mid-teenage years, and those were “high fantasy adventures that are liberally inspired by Lord of the Rings.”

Now I still like high fantasy adventures, but I really don’t think I would say that is my particular style any longer. As I’ve paused to reflect on all of the titles that I’ve written for this blog I’ve been noticing some strong new trends emerging, ones that I had been entirely ignorant of while writing. Just this last series of short stories illustrates a lot of those common themes especially clearly. Let’s take a look at them.

 

Allegory)

First and foremost is allegory. With the Beast and Glimmer are both overflowing with it, and as I look back on all of the short stories I’ve written on this blog almost each has had some from of it at one point or another. I seem to like taking intangible concepts and bringing them to life as a character.

In With the Beast these principles are the various virtues and vices that can live within a man, the regret when the latter destroy the former, and the hope that the former never actually do die. In Glimmer the allegory is based on nothing less than good and evil, themselves! They are manifested in a ball of light, an eternal void, and the various souls that are moved by each. We see how good becomes personified, and how persons become good. We see the difference between active evil and inactive evil, and the dangers of both.

When I reflect on my stories from earlier in life I don’t find any allegories among them. I’ve reflected as to why that might have changed, and one event stands out the most to me as a likely turning point. As I mentioned before, it was my mid-teenage years that I last wrote stories consistently, and that period was brought to a close as I started at college.

While there I didn’t have so much time to write stories, as I began writing essays instead. At first essays were unnatural to me, and it was only after a great deal of practice that I began to really write them properly. With essays I had to learn to see things in terms of a culminating message, a thesis, a point where we say “and thus from all of this we learn…” I was learning to write in allegories and I didn’t even realize it. Now on the other side of college I find myself writing stories again, but ones that have been flavored by the allegorical lessons from college.

 

Supernatural)

I tried to base my story The Heart of Something Wild in a situation that was based on reality…mostly. The specific tribe and location in Africa were works of fiction, of course, but were meant to represent something that could exist. But then, after establishing the familiar I threw something odd into the mix: a large and lethal bat-like creature with rows of finger-like mandibles and a deep sense of empathy. It was utterly bizarre and clearly a work of pure fantasy.

With the Beast also shares a setting and a place that are realistic, even if not contained within any actual history book. Mid-industrial era explorers come to a tropical island to begin a family enterprise. But all the while they are being followed by an invisible phantom, one that has an uncanny knowledge of their future and later in the story will become embodied as a supernatural beast.

Again, when I reflect on my other recent stories I continue to find more mixes of the ordinary with the supernatural. When I consider why that might be I suppose it has to do with being religious. I believe in a reality beyond the physical, and things like God and angels have certainly taken deep roots in my subconscious. By their nature these things are impossible to pin down in full definition. One may come to understand them better, but never perfectly. Thus they churn and gestate in the mind and heart, and the hands naturally express those ponderings through characters and prose. I think for many of us our writing is just a way of thinking-out-loud the things in the soul, and that stream of consciousness is often best expressed through the supernatural.

 

Slow)

Writing in the short story format has been hard for me. It’s taken real effort to keep things moving along at a brisk pace, and even then I end up extending some of my stories out to parts 3, or 4, or 5. I’m looking at you, Glimmer.

That’s not to say that I don’t incorporate action into my stories, I certainly do, but usually in a single punch at the end. That was certainly the case for The Heart of Something Wild. I began the story with a promise of a duel, but then spent the entire story slowly building up to that moment. I wanted to raise the tension and stakes with a long burn, and didn’t want to release any of that pressure with mid-story moments of cathartic action. When at last I came to the promised battle it was fueled with all of that built up plot and drama, and I then stoked it further with a few moments of shock and intrigue.

For Glimmer I have followed the same basic pattern, but with a few variations. In the middle I introduced the enemy and included a brief battle. That scene was crafted to only raise tension, though, and not to resolve it. The hero spent the entirety fleeing, just trying to escape a foe she could not handle. I suppose she did have a triumph in the form of successfully escaping, but also anxiety for the future confrontation that is surely waiting in the wings. Then, with just this last section I finally let loose and it has been a much more drawn-out action sequence than in any of my previous stories. For the ending of this story to work, I really felt it needed to break its tension in a long and exhausting sprint to the finish.

There’s obvious reasons for wanting action in a story, but I’ve paused to consider why I specifically like it in the form of a slow burn that bursts out at the end. Interestingly, I’ve noticed that this pattern matches up very well with how I exercise. When I run, for example, I never sprint out a single rush. I don’t speed up and slow down in cycles, but neither do I hold the exact same pace all the way to the finish. What I do is run just slightly beneath my ideal pace, storing a pocket of fuel that I suddenly let loose at the end for a dramatic finish.

 

So when all the above is considered, just what is my particular style? I guess I would categorize it as some sort of “slow fantasy allegory.” I had no idea that this was my default when I first began this blog, but as I reflect on all of the stories here I find that the vast majority of them all fall under this very narrow genre.

There are, of course, some exceptions. A Minute at a Time stands out as a real outlier. In that story there is no action whatsoever, there are no supernatural elements, and there isn’t really anything that could be called an allegory. It’s just a very straightforward, quiet drama. And actually I really like it a lot.

Because, of course, having a particular style in no way means that you don’t like other options. I don’t know that I’ll ever be any good at writing a pure comedy, but I certainly enjoy well-crafted humor. And while almost none of my stories have featured any romance, I still appreciate when a heroic epic weaves love into its tapestry.

Who knows, maybe one day my particular style actually will stray into those categories. Because if there’s any main takeaway here, it’s that when you pause to consider why you write the way that you do, you’ll probably find that it is merely an extension of who you are today. And who you are as a person naturally evolves, and as it does the way you write will follow.

Certainly I want to branch out and challenge myself, exercising new skills can only improve my work as a whole. But while I do that learning and improving, I know I’ll also enjoy the times when I settle back into my cozy and familiar voice.

And you can bet that when I post the last section of Glimmer on Thursday, it’s going to involve a slow burn punctuated by moments of action, a hefty amount of allegory, and a strong presence of the supernatural. Personally, I’m looking forward to it very much.