Updated: Jan 23, 2019
Have you ever asked yourself, what sets one scene apart from another in your fiction?
Naturally, aside from different plot driven events or descriptions where they take place, the thing that affects the reader the most is the way the whole thing feels. We call this the mood.
Describing the mood of a scene helps to hook your readers into a frame of mind you want or need them to be in, so that the events and ideas you describe, make an impact.
If pulled off correctly they walk away from the experience with something intangible they can only hardly describe. It also works great if you contrast your mood with your plot for emphasis.
Going down to Flavortown
For example, a mood of mundanity in a scene of something significant, highlights the strangeness of life or the inability of characters to relate.
This also risks coming across as being “boring”, so bear that in mind and make sure to ask someone for feedback.
Another idea: mentally ill characters can perceive things in a very different “mood” to what is appropriate to the setting.
If you aren’t trying to be detached, always try to describe your scenes in vivid detail. Can't count the times one a great story is ruined by the narrator being a matter of fact describer.
Just compare this: “The homeless in the shelter didn’t spare us a second glance, as we passed into the main hall, towards the basement.”
„The steps of the shelter are crowded, even at midnight. Homeless derelicts sit singly or in small groups, muttering to one another and watching the street with furtive, glassy eyes. Past the weathered wooden doors lies a wide hall filled with silent, still forms. Some sleep, clutching trash bags filled with all they have. Oblivious. Wrapped in layers of grimy clothes. Others sit on the cots or against the walls, staring into space, their expressions lost, as if struggling to remember who they were and how they came to this cheerless existence. Across the room, past the cold and empty pots of the soup line, lies a dark doorway and the stairs that lead down. Down. Into the buildings basement“.
They both basically say the same thing. We went into a homeless shelter and into it’s basement. But where one simply tells us how someone acts in area, the other makes sure to say how the area acts upon them.
The scene can be described in numerous other ways, each evoking a different mood, based on what we want to say.
If a place is unimportant to the story, you don’t need to dwell on it too much...but then again, why is it here then? Would the story suffer if you threw this scene out?
“Like talking to the blind”
The quality of your descriptions affects everything from the mood you want to convey to the action of a brutal firefight. Describe people, places, and activities in a way that engages all of your readers’ senses. It isn’t enough to say, “After a few hours of walking through the winter night, he made it home.” Instead, try something like: “The streets are rimed with patches of dirty gray ice, and a knife-sharp December wind howls between the tall buildings. He keeps to the shadows, stalking the alleys and silent parks. Alone. The scent of a coming rain fills the air. He hears the hollow echoes of his footsteps, crossing the cold concrete towards him. Finally, the key slides into the lock. With a creaking embrace of warm air, his hallway greets him, smiling. He’s home.”
Of course, you don’t have to wax poetic every single time. In fact, speaking naturally and occasionally switching your narration (and pacing) makes the reader change the mood in his head and keeps your text fresh.
It makes the act of reading interesting on top of intriguing (if your ideas are) as well as entertaining.
Naturally, sometimes it’s better to gloss over an unimportant event and move on, but in general the more detail you can give, the easier the scene is to envision, and the more alive it becomes.
“Paint in finer strokes”
Creating the mood for the story goes hand-in-hand with choosing your setting, because it relates to the kind of atmosphere you want to convey.
If the setting consists of evocative surroundings for the story, the mood is the way in which you choose to describe the surroundings, and the actions of the characters in them. The secret to evoking a proper mood is to emphasize details that paint the picture you want to convey, while minimizing others.
Fear: The children stare at you with eyes that are glassy and round from shock. They scamper away as you approach, whimpering as they retreat into the shadows to hide their pale faces in the dark. All of them avoid the iron door looming at the other end of the cellar. A door, covered in hoarfrost.
To make the audience afraid, you are going to need two things.
You need stakes and you need mystery.
This is not easy, as if you can’t make compelling characters I won’t give a damn about the threat.
Failing that, double the mystery. As any experienced psychonaut may attest: Everything is scary once you peel away the crust of mundanity that habit layers on it. Focus on small, out of place details that betray something hidden on what is by now familliar. Use images that hint but not reveal and focus more on reactions to things than the objects themselves. Emphasize helplesness, vulnerability and horror.
Anger: Someone in the crowd screams. A harsh, coarse curse. A sound of pure rage. Then a bottle smashes against the side of a car a storefront window shatters, followed by the wet, dull sounds of fists and clubs thudding into flesh echoing down the street.
Anger is best shown and woven into the sentence structure. Use long sentences with short words, few commas and make events be a stream of things happening one after the other. Very few people remember being angry very vividly because other areas of the brain are activated - you can mimic this by obfuscating details and focusing on actions and make the words rage in a stream bursting out.
To invoke it, focus on violence, frustration and outrage.
Loneliness: The theater had once seen its smiling days of glory; now its grand marquee is dark, and the windowpanes in the ticket booth are long since broken. No footsteps to be seen anywhere in the sheet of dust on the old carpet. Red.
The carpet. Like the ones they have at the Oscars, with all the shiny, happy people - smiling. No one comes here anymore, ever since... can't remember. Along one wall, yellowed posters linger under grimy glass panes, celebrating the premiere of blockbusters and sultry starlets - now lost to time. Wonder if they're still smiling? Sometimes.
The younger sister of despair, loneliness focuses more on abandonment and solitude. Dont mistake loneliness with aloneness - they are two separate things, and one can certainly exist without the other. Being alone while in a crowd can be a brutal contrast.
When you are alone, your mind tends to wander a bit more erratic - try either droning on into nothingness interrupted by new details or punctuating long sentences with repeating motives, as if thoughts arising.
Best enjoyed with images of solitude, abandonment and isolation.
Despair: They built the boardwalk at the turn of the century. It was meant for lovers and children. With brightly painted carnival rides and seaside stands selling candy and confections, or offering prizes to tempt an eager suitor. Now the rides are rusted and dull, their skeletons creak in the cold sea air, and the only souls haunting the graffiti-stained shacks are the derelicts, caring for nothing more than a little shelter. And a place to drink.
You achieve desperation the easiest by contrast. What once was bright, now is shadowy, what was high, has come low. Images of decay and forgotten times can evoke this mood. Its very easy to slide into cheese territory here, so don't go too nostalgic, otherwise you risk breaking the immersion.
Your stories can be complex and subtle tapestries that can evoke a variety of moods in individual scenes. Sensual, Mysterious, Elated, Dangerous, Eerie…
Can you think of some moods you like to use in your stories? Maybe even if you didn’t know you’re using them up till now? Comment up! How do you evoke moods in your tales? Do you like my examples or are they ridiculously old-fashioned? :) Stay tuned for part 2 of this ramble, coming soon!