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!

With the Beast

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Now and again a familiar echo will take you back there. Seeing a field of grain, or feeling the warm sunlight washing across your skin. Hearing the croak of a frog at night. You close your eyes and the skin pricks with the memories, a familiar trance stirs once more.

Now you can hear the subtle raise in pitch as the wind passes between your arms. You taste the salt in that air as it passes to your lungs. The granular texture of sand caught in your hair. The heat of the unshaded sun mixed with the coldness of the ocean breeze, it causes you to alternate between shivers and sweats. You are somewhere else.

Opening your eyes you see yourself transported to the familiar scrawl of that coastline, the lazy surf rocking against it and back again in tiny waves. Though you have not been here in years you remember the details perfectly.

Turning around you face east and see that you are standing only on a sandbar, the island proper now a hundred yards ahead. It is a hulking mass of green, mountain clothed in forest. The larger peak on the right side, the northern side, gives the landmass an overall lopsided appearance, as though it might unbalance and fall back into the sea at any moment. The mountainous green is skirted all about by outcroppings of gray cliffs against which the western tide crashes in frothing white foam.

Lowering your gaze to the island’s only sandy coast you spy the small shape of the Whit family’s vessel, a simple wooden boat tipped to one side with a stray furl of sail whipping in the breeze. Its owners are disembarking from it now, and though they are far off you know their silhouettes instantly: two men, a woman, and a small girl.

At the sight of them you feel a familiar ache in your core, a longing and regret. Why have you returned to this place? You have traced these paths many times already, and each time you have followed the same bootprints, bent the same leaves, broken the same bones. It never changes. Is peering into the sweetness of their faces worth the agony of their later corpses?

But you have arrived, and to begin a memory is to already slip to its conclusion. It must be seen through. And so, as if on cue, you feel yourself step forward into the water, splashing your way to the island and its explorers. The water is shallow, never rising more than halfway to your knees, sloshing pleasantly until you return to crunching sand.

The explorers are more familiar to you than family. Beings that live within. Nearest is the patriarch, John Whit. He is crouched beside the boat, packing away all of the charts and compasses of their completed sea voyage. Every instrument and paper has their proper storage place now that their use is complete, and the satchel into which he tucks them is just the right size to accommodate them all.

As he works he tucks his gray mane behind wide ears, exposing a long, bald forehead and leathery, copper skin. He is a proud man of a proud heritage, one that is noble in virtue, if not in blood. It is for his own late father’s great service that this very island was gifted to the Whit family.

John turns and faces the sea he led his family across. He charted their course well and saw them through with a careful hand. Indeed he hopes to chart them rightly still, for he sees in this land an opportunity to build on the foundation established by his ancestors. He wishes to take that which he was given and prove he was worthy of the gift by adding to it something more.

Beside him is his son, William Whit, packing seed and dirt samples into a large sack that he slings over his shoulder. He is the only child of John, and has lived life comfortably and well, so evidenced by the beginnings of a potbelly beneath his folded arms. His whole life he has wanted for nothing but an opportunity to make his own mark, to give expression to his great ambition. Perhaps his father has the careful hands to steer, but he will be the surging steed that carries the family forward.

For where John looks backwards to heritage, William looks forward to legacy. He stands erect and strokes his chin thoughtfully, ruffling the close beard as his deep set eyes peer out at their surroundings with a gaze that is both penetrating and discerning. Upon these untamed wilds William sees overlaid a future of bridges and statues, ports and shops, a center of trade and wonders of construction. Important diplomats and even royalty walk the streets about him, and deeper inland he can hear the hum of mills and factories. He sees the land rich and giving, and can hardly wait to plumb its secrets.

At William’s feet young Clara babbles to her doll. Her yellow curls stand in stark contrast to her father’s dark scruff. Ivory arms hold the toy aloft, and she speaks to it of the infiniteness of the ocean and how as they sailed across it she felt that they would remain motionless in its eternities forever.

From moment to moment her eyes stray from the doll to the hulking island mountain before her. There is a wariness of the unknown in her expression. All her short life “home” has meant one place and one place only, so that this new land might as well be an entirely alien world.

She mutters something to her doll about how these forests and mountains are more “real” than she had expected. Indeed to one that has only seen such sights in the sketches of storybooks, the living and breathing wild has so much more “realness” to it that it becomes as terrifying as it is exhilarating! She slowly crosses the sand to her mother’s skirts and buries her face in their familiar closeness.

Eleanor Whit strokes her daughter’s hair with a hand thin and veiny. Her slight frame is wiry and toned for labor. She was not raised in the comfort of her husband and learned while young how to do her share and still more. Her auburn hair is drawn back into a snug bun, the better to not get in the way of her work. The angular features of her face survey the rest of her family, even as the family surveys the land.

She sees the stoic resolve in John, the anxious excitement in William, the curious apprehension in Clara. Far more interesting to her than the island is the effect it will have on this family. Much like the water through which they have just passed, trials and opportunities serve to dichotomize individuals, buoying up those that are worthy and sinking those that are not. The isolated nature of this island is such that they, separated from the influences of the world and society, can grow intimately acquainted with who they are inside and become what they will ultimately be.

Eleanor does not regret the moment, she only gives it the solemn consideration that it is due. In the same breath she resolves to do her utmost to see them through to a happy end.

John gives their gear a final look-over and is at last satisfied that he has all they need to set up their first camp. He has distributed their equipment into three packs, one for each of the adults. The rest remains safely stowed in the bottom of the boat for them to return for later.

“How does it look, William?” he asks as he hands the first of the packs to him.

“Good, good,” William smiles. “Plenty of opportunity for manufacturing with all of the natural resources. Wood, rock… There’s also a couple bays over there that are large enough for a port, and with the distinct climate we could probably also grow some produce that’s hard to get on the mainland.”

“Sounds promising,” Eleanor beams cheerfully, stepping forward to take her pack from John. “So what comes next?”

“Well we need to find a camp first of all,” John asserts. “Somewhere further inland where we can keep dry.” He gestures to the rocky cliffs that mark the end of their beach. “That means finding our way on top of there somehow. We’ll need more rope.” So saying he turns back to the boat and extracts a few more lengths.

William turns and surveys the rock in question. “Yes, be good to get a better look at the rest of the island from up there, too. What about over there?” He points to the southern edge. “Can’t tell for sure what is round that bend but it looks like the rock slopes more gently there.”

As Eleanor follows William’s gaze she gives an involuntary shiver. It isn’t much, but her slight frame cannot hide it. John notices it and asks “Are you up for the climb, Eleanor?”

She is about to answer when Clara tugs at her sleeve. She, too, has followed the conversation and her eyes are wide with apprehension.

“I don’t want to, mother.”

Eleanor tuts at John. “Of course, I’ll be fine.” Then, turning to her daughter: “And there’s not a thing to worry about, Clara. You’ll be locked safe with me the whole way.”

John looks to William who just shrugs and nods.

“Well, what are we waiting for, then?” Eleanor asks. “Hadn’t we better get going?”

“The sooner the better” John concedes and they turn their backs to the waterline. Four abreast they walk down that long shore: John and William on the left, Clara clutching her mother’s hand and burying her face in it. Four embers reaching out for something to catch their spark and set the world alight.

And so they were.

***

This is meant to be the intro to the novel I’m currently working on. It is my first time doing anything past the planning and outlining stages, so I admit it was a bit daunting to actually give a voice to the story.

As I mentioned on Monday, though, I had as my guide the intention to establish the mood of the story and then begin on the first arc. Obviously there is a lot of mood here, in fact it might be too much, but at least it is pointing in the direction I want. Thoughtful, pondering, and reflective. I think that is captured even in the very first line “Now and again a familiar echo will take you back there.”

Also writing in the second person definitely stands out, and gives a distinctive tone. Again, I wonder if it isn’t coming across too strongly, but I do like how it naturally encourages introspection in the reader. I’ll probably be going back and forth on how deep I want this tone to be, and would love to get any feedback on it!

After establishing the story’s mood, though, my next object was to move directly into the first plot points and establishing the story’s main arc. And so I established that these are explorers trying to make something of themselves in their own virgin corner of the world. Amidst the hope and optimism I’ve sowed traces of underlying menace, and it is easy to predict that these themes will escalate throughout the tale.

By this method I’ve been able to establish expectations in the reader, which serves the double purpose of giving them a roadmap ahead, and also allowing me to subvert those expectations as desired.

Another interesting decision in establishing the mood was choosing where to begin the story geographically. I knew it took place on an island, but I could have opened in the forest, or on a cave, or any other number of places. I chose a coastline though because I felt it spoke to a subconscious association with things deep and timeless. That’s a notion I’d like to look at in greater detail next week, this idea of speaking in a universal and symbolic nature. I’ll see you Monday when we delve into it!

And Now We’ll Begin

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New Year’s Eve is funny. Here we are on December 31st, and tonight at 11:59:59 PM it will be the absolute end of the entire year. And then one second later it will be the absolute beginning of another year. Clocks make endings and beginnings look so easy to craft. Any author that has sat down to begin their next great novel has no doubt found it a far trickier business to start putting the words onto an empty canvas.

The clocks are cheating, I suppose. They don’t come up with anything creative when they herald the beginning of a new year, or day, or second. They simply tick one iteration forward, the exact same process as for the moment that came before, and the exact same as for the moment that will follow. The truth is no new day or year is truly a beginning out of nothing. Each beginning exists within a context, being preceded by prior beginnings and followed by others.

That same principle applies to authors and the stories they craft. Virtually every tale is going to begin in media res. Characters are not springing into existence out of nothing. They were already born some time ago, have done and seen things, have developed personal opinions, and have expectations for what the world has in store for them. Thus when you begin your story you are not telling the start of your characters, you are not even telling the start of events, you are only telling the start of your story. Your story should have bounds, a scope defined by its themes and arcs. Once those bounds of the story are understood, it is already clear with what scene it should be opened.

Let’s look at an example. In preparation for Lord of the Rings, J. R. R. Tolkien developed one of the most extensive backstories ever known. He wrote a comprehensive history of the world and even charted out main characters’ family trees. None of that exposition is what he opens with, though, all of that information is tucked away in an appendix completely separate from the story. Because none of that context is relevant to the bounds of what his story is actually about.

What his story is actually about is a group of small and provincial people rising as heroes to hold back the hordes of evil for another generation. Therefore the arc of the story mandates that Lord of the Rings start somewhere in that quiet and provincial. Thus the first chapter is A Long-expected Party, and here we see that the greatest excitement in the lives of Frodo, Sam, and the other hobbits is nothing more than a big birthday celebration. The humble beginning is established and the arc is ready to run its trajectory.

But knowing where your story begins is only half of the problem. Even if you know exactly what your first scene is, you still have to figure out that opening phrase. The problem here seems to be an infinity of possibilities. We could describe the setting, or a character, or we could start right in the middle of a conversation and set the scene after the fact. What sort of narrator are we using? What sort of vocabulary? What if we just write something to get us started, and later come back to fix it?

My general rule-of-thumb is to start with the tone, or the mood. You hopefully have a sense of how you want your story to feel, the style it is going to be utilizing. You know whether you want it to be a fast-hitting thriller or a slow, simmering epic. You know whether it is humorous, or serious, or maybe a little bit of both. Your reader doesn’t know any of this, though, and it is one of the first things they probably want to be informed of, even before being introduced to main characters and themes.

Some of my favorite stories have used this technique, and every time reread I am instantly transported back to their domain through their use of tone-deliberate openings. Let’s look at examples of this from Moby Dick, A Tale of Two Cities, and Harry Potter.

Call me Ishmael. Three words and the tone of the story is already established. The narrator is speaking to us directly, and even has a personal name. We’re ready to hear a tale from an individual, a grizzled seaman with personality and perspective. We know that the story is going to be colored by his opinion and belief, and that he’s willing to break the fourth wall.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. We have a far more traditional and omniscient narrator here. As such we do not expect the story to express personal opinions, but rather the absolute “facts.” Also we should note that the writing already has a poetic balancing of opposites. Best and worst, this is a central theme of the entire story and we’re already introduced to it within the very first sentence.

Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. There is an unmistakable humor to this opening, one that suggests to us a more lighthearted and fun tale. Furthermore the emphasis on things being “perfectly normal” seems to be exaggerated, and thus hints to us that things are not going to remain that way. Strange and adventurous things are coming, and probably very soon.

A story that begins with a strong sense of mood and then presents the first of its overarching themes is instantly engaging and consistent with all that will follow. These are principles that I have been following while crafting my current novel. On Thursday I will present the introduction to that novel, and you can be sure it will start with mood and arc. I can’t wait to share it with you to start off the new year!