General Writing

Why Mood Matters in a Story

Writing about writing is hard. Everything from world-building and outlining to opening hooks and sentence length has been covered so many times that finding some useful tidbit to add sometimes seems impossible. The truth is, though, that most articles repeat the same banalities and half-truths and plenty of room remains for originality. More importantly, some topics are never covered at all. As someone who started as a poet, I particularly notice the lack of discussion about mood (or atmosphere or tone, if you prefer). Perhaps as a result of this lack, many modern novels come across as flat and distant. So far as mood is created, it is usually by accident, with little control.

By “mood,” I mean the feeling that a passage invokes in a reader. In fantasy, mood used to be so common that it was a defining feature. Fantasy was supposed to be about sense of wonder, whether of awe or terror. The classic fantasies of Lord Dunsany or E. R. Eddison were all about leaving readers breathless in their descriptions of settings and events. As late as Tolkien, mood was an essential part of fantasy. Think of Tolkien’s home-like Shire, or the twilight glories of Rivendell and Lothlorien, or the wasteland that is Mordor, and you will understand immediately what I mean. The descriptions of these places are as important as the characters and plots. They are a main reason why some readers fall in love with The Lord of the Rings. A poet himself, Tolkien offers readers a poet’s eye view of his world.

Yet as fantasy has gained in popularity, mood has been de-emphasized. Part of the problem may be the amount of generic fantasy published. By definition, generic fantasy concentrates on the more superficial aspects — imitators copy elves and orcs more often than Tolkien’s worldbuilding or writing style. Another problem may be that blockbuster movies and games have made fantasy fiction a genre of action or plot, with less attention being paid to subtler aspects like mood. When attention is paid to mood, it is usually to admire the animation or green screen effects, rather than the audience’s response to special effects. As a result, mood has all but disappeared in fiction. With the emphasis on plot, mood is viewed as extraneous to the art of storytelling.

I find this state of affairs unfortunate (by which I mean, comparable to an alien invasion or a tidal wave followed by Godzilla’s relatives arriving all at once for a family reunion). Not using mood is as odd as writing an entire novel without using the letter “e”: you can do it, but why limit yourself so arbitrarily? Especially when the result is so unsatisfactory?

If you doubt what I say, take The Return of the King from the shelf and open it to “The Battle of Pelennor Fields.” The chapter describes the siege of the city of Minas Tirith by the forces of Mordor. The city is vastly outnumbered and waiting for allies who may not come. Detail after detail accumulate to create a feeling of hopelessness. As the chapter ends, Gandalf the wizard confronts the Lord of the Nazgûl, who mocks him and promises destruction. Things could not get any worse. Then:

And in that very moment, away behind in some courtyard of the city, a cock crowed. Shrill and clear he crowed, recking nothing of war nor of wizardry, welcoming only the morning that in the sky far above the shadows of death was coming with the dawn.

And as if in answer there came from far away another note. Horns, horns, horns, in dark Mindolluin’s sides they dimly echoed. Great horns of the north wildly blowing. Rohan had come at last.

Just like that, the mood of despair, that keeps readers turning the pages with growing apprehension, is replaced by relief with a sentence of five words. The entire chapter, and especially the ending, is a masterpiece of mood control, and proof enough of the importance of mood. I would call it the best writing Tolkien ever did.

But how do you capture some of the same power in your own writing? I have no idea how Tolkien did it, but I have found a technique that works for me. I start by deciding what mood I want to create, and reduce that mood to a single word, such as grief or relief or strangeness. Then I open up the thesaurus and note all the synonyms for that word.

However, I do not use that word, nor any of its synonyms. Besides being unsubtle, that would simply not work. You do not create a mood of horror by using the word “horrible.”

Instead, as I write, I try to choose words and descriptions that create that word. For instance, to give an unsubtle example, to invoke grief I might mention shadow and night, and funeral hymns. Possibly, I might choose a viewpoint of someone who grieves. One word, one phrase at a time, I work, and, if I am successful, a reader will receive the impression I want. If I want to orchestrate a change in mood, as Tolkien does, I repeat the process, and figure how I want to make the transition from one mood to another. In effect, choosing the word is a form of outlining, but for mood instead of actions.

Sometimes, the effect is as simple as a simile or a metaphor. For instance, if I write, “Silence spread like a stain,” the comparison carries a hint of the ominous, of something out of control and wrong. At other times, the effect works through an accumulation of details. For instance, in describing a keep, I could have written simply

He remembered now that the cellars and parts of the curtain wall were older still. Built by Valicon’s legions, most said, to mark the north-eastern end of an empire.

However, I wanted to create a sense of the uncanny, so I wrote:

He remembered now that the cellars and parts of the curtain wall were older still. Built by Valicon’s legions, most said, to mark the north-eastern end of an empire. Giant-built, said others, pointing at the outsized stones. Built by others, harpers said when the fire was reduced to ember. Other folk, human only by whim.

The additional two sentences and fragment steadily move readers from history to legend, to hints of the supernatural — to ghost stories. And with their addition, a snippet of info-dump suddenly becomes more interesting.

Strictly speaking, mood is unnecessary to the story. Yet by working to create it, writers can add to readers’ experience. It may even be the case that, when readers remember a scene or re-read a story, the reason may be that they have been struck by the mood.

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