I have three teenagers. Pass me the tissues. We have drama. And quite a bit of it. The mood swings high. And it swings low. Sometimes in a matter of minutes.
All the moodiness in my house these days reminds me of the need for creating moods in our stories. But all too often, manipulating the mood falls to the bottom of our writing to-do list.
When we're talking about moods in our stories, we're not just talking about how our character feels (although that can play a part in it). We're not simply putting our character on a roller coaster ride of emotions. In fact, if we gave our character as many mood swings as a teenager, we'd probably annoy our readers.
Rather, when talking about moods, we're referring to the atmosphere or tone that we establish in scenes so that we can enhance the story as well as engage the reader's emotions on a deeper level.
Mood is one way to glue together all the elements of a scene–to combine the plot, characterization, and setting so that they work together to deliver a more powerful punch to the reading experience. In other words, there are techniques we can use to increase the level of spookiness, joy, sadness, fear, etc.
As I thought about some of the ways I try to set the mood or tone of scenes, here are several methods I employ:
1. Pick setting details carefully to add to the mood. Often we choose what setting details to include in a scene based on the POV character–what that specific person would see due to their personality, history, etc. Other times we include setting details for foreshadowing or symbolic purposes.
But another way to decide what to include when we're grounding readers in the setting is by establishing the mood. For example, if we're trying to scare our readers, we might show the sharp knife on the counter, the dirty crack in the window pane, or the jagged rip in the curtain.
If we're trying to set happier tone, perhaps we'd bring attention to more cheerful aspects in the setting that our character notices like the basket of fresh picked apples (next to the knife), the way the crack in the window is shaped like a cross, or the cheerful yellow of the ripped curtain.
2. Use internal narration and corresponding actions to reflect a mood. Internal narration gives our readers a glimpse into the minds of our characters. We take them deeper into the thoughts and motivations that drive our character's actions.
On the one hand, we can use our character's internal narration to reflect a positive mood. While she's picking her hundredth hill of potatoes for the day, she hardly feels the shovel in her blistered hands because inside in her internal narration she's overflowing with gratefulness for the harvest that will help her family through the winter. She hums or whistles while she works.
But if she's unhappy at the end of the day of picking potatoes, then she'll think about every ache in her back, notice the dirt caked under fingernails, and long for a cool dipper of water to pour over her itchy scalp. She may jerk her shovel into the rocky soil and mutter with every breath.
We can also use the character's internal narration to establish a dichotomy of mood. For example, our POV characters can be content and grateful at the end of the day picking potatoes, but she only briefly notices the smoke spiraling in the distance and the animals stampeding to the river signaling the forest fire drawing nearer.
3. Slow down or speed up the scene to enhance the mood. Varying the pacing is a technique we often use when plotting. But we can also establish the mood in a similar fashion. When we're trying to create a tense or fearful mood, we would create choppy dialogue, shorter sentences, and less internal narration.
When we're in the middle of a romantic kiss or pleasant moment, we can slow down the pacing, draw out the moment, move the camera lens languidly over what's happening to enhance the sensual or romantic mood.
4. Use the five senses to make the mood more vivid. In the same way that we pick our setting details to establish mood, we can also carefully bring in the five sense to help enhance the mood.
Perhaps our character is grieving the loss of a child and so we'll have the sun be too bright and hot, the hardtack is bland, the grit of dust coats her tongue, the scent of horseflesh is overpowering, and the buzz of flies incessant.
The senses of sight, taste, texture, smell, and sound can all add to the atmosphere of the scene and make the reading experience more vivid for our readers.
My Summary: When we regularly look for ways to strengthen the mood, we're better able to breathe life into our stories so that they jump off the page and into the hearts of our readers.
How about you? Have you ever dealt with moody teens? ;-) And how are you doing in establishing the mood of your story?