Manipulating the Moods of Our Stories

By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund

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?


  1. Great post, Jody! Point #1 is one that I'd like to incorporate more into my writing to add to the mood.

    I was wondering, now that your kids are getting a little bit older, have any of them taken an interest in writing? Do you see any of them following in your footsteps and becoming an author themselves?

    1. Hi Shelly! One of my older children REALLY loves to read. She's dabbled in writing too, but I don't think the writing bug has bitten her yet. She's artistic and I could see her creating stories at some point, but for now she'd much rather read than write the stories! My youngest daughter (8), however, makes her own books in her spare time. She staples papers together, draws pictures, and writes about what's in the pictures. She seems the most like me when I was her age. So maybe . . . I'm holding out hope that at least one of my children will want to write some day! :-)

    2. My oldest does the same thing. He made his first book when he was five, and all something he wanted to do on his own. He drew the pictures and told me what happened and I wrote the words for him. Still makes me smile. :-)

    3. That's so sweet, Naomi! Sounds like maybe your oldest will be the writer in your family! I always love the creativity. And besides, it's just plain adorable! :-)

  2. Great ideas here. I especially like the idea of enhancing or playing up the emotion that would be naturally present in a particular moment. When a draft feels flat, the temptation can be to throw in melodrama, when the real problem can be simply that the scene needs to be deeper, bringing forward more details.

    1. Hi Laurel,

      Yes, I think the temptation is to add melodrama. But as I said, that will get about as annoying as moody teens! LOL Rather, helping enhance the mood in other more subtle ways can have a more powerful effect.

  3. This was very, helpful. I definitely need to work on using all five senses in my writing. I tend to forget about taste and touch altogether, sometimes.

    1. Hi Ashley,

      Glad you found the post helpful! I usually pay more attention to the five sense during my editing phase. When I'm going through the scene, I ask myself if I've brought out all the sense, or tried to, at least in some small way. I don't want to just randomly start adding in sensory details, however, but I prefer to tie the sensory details in with the mood, or foreshadowing, or some other plot point.

  4. These are helpful tips! I'll probably come back to these as I work on my own writing. Thanks!

    1. Excellent! Hope you'll find them helpful as you continue writing! :-)

  5. You know, I've gotten into arguments with Pride and Prejudice lovers over this very thing. I love the 2005 version with Kiera Knightly, while your true P&P enthusiasts go crazy over the 1995 BBC version and claim it's more authentic, etc. Honestly, the 1995 version is more authentic, but the 2005 version does a way better job at creating the mood.

    The best example (and best scene in the entire movie, as far as I'm concerned) is the first time Darcy proposes to Elizabeth. In the 2005 version, Darcy and Elizabeth are outside in a gazebo with rain pouring around them while Elizabeth turns him down, and then she walks back through the rain all soaked and destitute and alone.

    The 1995 version follows the book exactly, and has Darcy propose to Elizabeth in the parlor, where she stiffly denies him.

    So which is better? The version with the pouring rain--,by leaps and bounds. In fact, I'm nearly tempted to criticize Austen herself and say she totally should have written that scene between Elizabeth and Darcy while they were outside in the rain. :-D

    1. Naomi, I can visualize the rain scene simply because the mood made such an impression on me. Whereas, I can't really remember any of the scenes of the older version. So I'd have to agree! The more we do to enhance the mood of the scene, the more memorable it will become!

  6. This is a great post and very helpful. I've heard countless times that agents don't connect with the voice. So I've tried work with that, but I've never known exactly what the problem is. I think this could be a part of it.

    Part of voice is what characters see and how they react to it, but advice on voice is always vague. But here you've given examples, and I can see what I need to do. Go back to a scene, see what the mood is and throw in those little details about what they're noticing. #1 and #4 are probably the things I need to concentrate on.

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