How Writers Can Infuse Mood in Story Settings

Note From KMW: Mood will influence every moment of your story. It will create (and be created by) your story’s tone. It will determine the nuances of your story’s narrative voice. And it will help create both pacing and foreshadowing, by guiding readers to experience and anticipate what you want them to.

Naturally, this only works when you are aware of what you want your story’s mood to be, how to create that mood, and how to choose the right mood for each moment in your story.

Today, I’m pleased to host a post from author, editor, and writing coach C.S. Lakin (of Live Write Thrive), who offers some pointers on how your story’s setting, specifically, is important to framing mood in every scene.

Check it out!

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Every person or character, at any given time, is in a particular mood. Generally, mood is a person’s state of mind, but it’s more than that. Mood can also describe the disposition of a collective of people, a certain time in history, or the essence of a place.

Regardless what kind of mood we speak of, it’s always subjective. Ten people can be experiencing the same event at the same place and time, yet depending on their perspectives, their individual mood will differ.

It’s easy to think of a setting as a fixed element. Paris is Paris, right? While the location itself may be fixed, the city can look vastly different when certain variables are altered. The time of day, the weather, the season, and what a character is dealing with can make a setting look very different than it did just the day before. And no factor has more influence over the setting than mood.

The Purpose of the Scene Determines the Mood

This is important for fiction writers to keep in mind, because a story is populated by characters who have core needs, fears, hopes, and problems. In conveying a character’s mood in a scene, setting is a crucial component. Before a writer can “set the mood,” the purpose of the scene needs to be thought through carefully.

We all know about moods and have a range of them we express and feel, whether we’re aware of them or not. We can sense others’ moods just as they can sense ours. The mood of the character should affect the way he perceives his environment, and expert writers will carefully choose words and imagery that act like a mirror to the character’s emotions.

It’s a reciprocal factor: mood informs how the character sees the setting, but the setting also informs the character’s mood—shifting it or intensifying it.

Your story may have an overall tone or mood, but every scene is a micro-system of mood that depends on the emotional state and mindset of your character. When you plot out your scene, you need to first think about how your character will interact with the setting based on her mood and the purpose of your scene.

It’s the purpose of the scene that determines all the setting elements—what you choose to have the characters notice (and not notice) and react to and why.

The Importance of Wordsmithing

Simply, mood is created by words. By carefully chosen words.

What makes a novel or short story shine with brilliance is the choice of words and phrases that evoke not just an effective sensory experience but makes readers fall in love with the writing.

Take a look at this hastily written sentence:

Bill walked through the forest until he found a cottage set back in the trees.

Now consider the reworked description below, which I spent a bit more time on:

Bill slogged along the leaf-choked path, the spindly arms of the bare maples quivering in the cold autumn wind—a feeble attempt to turn him back. He pressed on until he spotted, nestled in a copse of willows, the derelict cottage slumped like a lost orphan, the lidless windows dark and vacant. Hardly a welcoming sight after many tiresome hours of travel.

A specific mood is created by bringing out Bill’s mindset and emotional state. Without knowing anything else about this scene (if I’d written one), readers can clearly sense the purpose of the action by the things they notice and the words used to describe those things.

In my YA sci-fi novel Time Sniffers, Bria arrives at the site where it seems an explosion took place that possibly killed her mother. Notice the stark imagery and use of the Martian landscape as simile—which is appropriate for teenage Bria because her father is a scientist that works on Mars missions.

Rotating lights splattered the air in eerie shafts of blue and red. An acrid taste coated my mouth. Dad leapt from the car and ran into obscurity.

I opened my door, hesitating, fingering the handle. I strained to see past the haze and gloom, struggled to use some inner eye to find clarity and explanation—in both my real and mental worlds. No one would talk to me; they hurried past me as if I were invisible. And then a light breeze kicked up, and I squinted, grit pelting my eyes.

When my hair stopped whipping my face and the stinging lightened, I opened one eye and peeked out. My breath caught in my chest, and a lump the size of a grapefruit lodged in the back of my throat.

The laser lab—acres of buildings, equipment, and personnel—was gone. Not demolished into piles of concrete rubble and twisted steel girders, like you see on TV surveying the aftermath of an earthquake.

Just . . . gone.

A gray dust spread across the ground for blocks on end, like a peculiar sandbox of wavering dunes made of fine dust that kicked up in whorls with the slightest disturbance. A Martian landscape, like the photos Dad had pinned on his office wall. Desolate, barren wasteland. …

The rest of the afternoon blurred. Dad coming back to the car, talking to one person after another, huddling in conversation. Dylan unmoving in the backseat, someone running to the car and smothering me in a hug, babbling, crying, stroking my hair (which I really hate). My eyes stinging and itching, my skin coated in gray dust—the dust making everyone around me look like zombies emerging out of the earth.

 Every word in the scene is chosen carefully to paint a mood in gray, leeched-out tones, which both mirrors and influences Bria’s mood and reaction to what she experiences.

Once you’re certain about your scene’s purpose and the mood you need to create, try to make every word count and stretch your creativity to come up with strong, evocative verbs and adjectives. Play around with imagery and metaphor.

One great way to get inspired is to search for poems by topic (try PoetryFoundation.org), and read how poets evoke certain subjects or elements, like colors or seasons. Here’s an example I just pulled up by searching poems for the word dust. This is part of a poem by that name by Dolores Cairns:

Dust …

Swirling in endless garlands over a white road in the wind;

Settling in deliberate silence on the unused furniture

Of an old house;

Little heaps of dust under shabby tombstones;

Dropping multitudinously upon the earth:

Rocks, trees, mountains, animals, people, palaces, nations.

Poetry paints word pictures. Let your imagination spark by reading poems that have elements of your scene. When plotting that Time Sniffers scene, I could have looked up Mars, wind, rubble, earthquake, gray, ashes … you get the point. After reading some poems, try freewriting the ideas swimming in your head. I have no doubt you will then be able to bring more vibrancy and originality into your setting.

Infusing mood into your fiction will bring your setting to life. If you consider the purpose of your scene, the mindset and mood of your character, and use evocative words and imagery to reflect and inform that mood, you’ll immerse your reader in a rich sensory experience.

 

Want to master crafting powerful settings? Enroll in C. S. Lakin’s new online video course for techniques and exercises to evoke settings that will immerse your readers. You can find all her online courses for fiction writers at Writing for Life Workshops on cslakin.teachable.com.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What mood are you wanting to evoke in your latest scene? Tell me in the comments!

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About C.S. Lakin | @cslakin

C.S. Lakin is an award-winning author of more than 30 books, fiction and nonfiction (which includes more than 10 books in her Writer’s Toolbox series). Her online video courses at Writing for Life Workshops have helped more than 5,000 fiction writers improve their craft. To go deep into creating great settings and evoking emotions in your characters, and to learn essential technique, enroll in Lakin’s courses Crafting Powerful Settings and Emotional Mastery for Fiction Writers. Her blog Live Write Thrive has more than 1 million words of instruction for writers, so hop on over and level-up your writing!

Comments

  1. Thanks so much for sharing with us today, Susanne!

  2. Crawford Wheeler II says

    Excellent article.

  3. Thank you for the Poetry Foundation link – what a great idea, to mine these poems for mood! I would never have thought of it!

  4. Colleen F Janik says

    Thank you for this inspiring blog. The word “paint” really leaps out at me. In many ways I think writers are required to be artists. What I cherish about the experience of reading a good book is being whisked away into a different place, a new time, a fascinating reality. That part of writing does take more work, maybe more caffiene or good wine, but it’s worth it. And what a gift to all the zillions of waiting readers out there. Thank you!

  5. Thanks for having me on your blog today!

  6. Both brilliant and practical. I already edit poetry— never thought of “mood-mining” poetry for vivid imagery, though! I will begin immediately…

  7. Rosemary Brandis says

    i do this to inspire me when i write poetry of verse for my novels. Works great. Never thougth to use it for setting.Thanks.

  8. Yes, getting into poetry can help not just with setting but with mood in general. Powerful words and images can set up motifs and symbols for how the character is feeling. The setting, of course, should always both inform how the character feels and be interpreted/colored by how the character feels.

  9. “Every scene is a microsystem of mood.” This is a wonderful insight!
    I love the idea of the poetry topic for inspiration. Thanks for the link.

  10. You are my favrioute writer, your mode of describing things is just great!
    Keep sharing

  11. I feel like you wrote this article for me! Thank you so much for this advice. I hate writing settings. When I read them, I often feel like a writer is just padding his word count. You’ve demonstrated a whole new way to think about them and make them interesting. This sounds so exciting! I want to try it!

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