By: Deborah Brewer
A short video plays on social media:
A pigtailed girl watches with wide-eyed panic as the ice cream from her cone topples to the ground. A pack of mini-poodles swoops in to claim the mess. The girl bursts into tears.
“A whole mood”
In American slang, “a whole mood” is a vignette that conveys a relatable feeling or state of mind. The term mood in literature, however, is what the hearer or reader is left with after the message has been delivered; a feeling, like the “whole mood” above, or a sense of atmosphere. In a broader sense, the mood is the overall feeling readers get from a written work.
(To confuse matters, there are also grammatical moods—indicative, imperative, interrogative, conditional, and subjunctive—that indicate the quality and tone of a verb. These are not what I’m discussing here.)
I must not have been giving my full attention in English class when creating mood was taught, because I came away believing that it’s done by inserting code words like foggy and whispering, or laughter and sunshine, into a poem or story.
But we don’t want our readers to decode their way through the language in our stories, we want them to feel it. We want readers to hold up a copy of our novel and say, “This is a whole mood—in a book!” We write to share the human experience. If we write something truly relatable, our readers will share our work with others. Whether one writes for love or money, there is no greater compliment, nor promotion more persuasive, than an earnest referral from a reader to their friends.
There’s nothing like the unexpected to alter one’s mood. In The Emotional Craft of Fiction: How to Write the Story Beneath the Surface, Donald Maass envisions our readers engaging with our story characters, asking “Would I feel like that too?” The key, he says, lies in small details and the element of surprise.
We see a lot of dead bodies in mystery novels and as many grand gestures in romance. We grow immune to the emotions of these expected, plot-dictated, big moments. Deviating from the expected mood with a humorous bit in a court scene or a desperate moment at a wedding will keep your readers engaged in the more subtle mood swings of a character, and prepare them to feel more profound emotions when the bigger moments arrive.
How can we take our readers on this moody journey? Let’s begin by revisiting English Literature 101. A writer induces feelings and a sense of atmosphere in the reader with their choices of setting, tone, syntax, diction, and imagery. The mood is what readers read between the lines.
Let’s review the definitions of these essential ingredients for creating a mood for readers.
The setting of a story, where the action takes place, is more than merely descriptive. Not only can the setting act as an ally or an antagonist for characters, but its effect on the atmosphere of the story is also shaped by the perspectives and attitudes of the author, narrators, characters, and even readers. A quiet library or a crowded stadium might elicit very different feelings depending on one’s perspective.
The tone is the attitude with which an author, narrator, or character communicates their subject matter. Many of the words used to describe mood could also describe tone. If someone has ever told you to watch your tone, you’ve experienced the power it has to put others in a mood.
The syntax is the order of words and punctuation in a sentence, ideally, grammatical. Are your sentences complex and ambling or simple and quick? Do you beguile your readers with variation? A paragraph filled with short sentences lends authenticity to a frantic pace, while longer sentences, packed end-to-end, tend to leave readers feeling languorous.
Diction is the selection of words used in a piece of writing. Different narrators and characters will express themselves with a set of words appropriate to their point of view. A story’s genre expectations may also influence word choice.
Imagery includes metaphor and description, all the pictures you paint with your words.
Moods can be described with adjectives such as bleak, cheerful, disgusting, fanciful, foreboding, gloomy, intriguing, ironic, melancholy, mysterious, nostalgic, optimistic, romantic, sarcastic, solemn, soothing, suspenseful, and more.
The form of a written work—the paragraphing, chapter length, formatting, and cover—may also influence readers’ sense of mood by building expectations. Sentences packed into a solid block, while tiring to read, can lend a sense of gravitas. If you organize your sentences with a bit of white space it will lighten the mood instead. Shorter chapters are better suited to a beach read, while longer ones might add to the weight of a saga. And few would dispute that what’s inside a book ought to be accurately advertised on its cover.
Flash fiction, like poetry, is a concentrated form of writing. In order for less to be more, one must write more with less. As a chef enhances flavor by cooking out the excess water in a sauce, a writer can reduce a story to its most essential and mood-enhancing words.
Here’s a flash micro-fiction story exploring one of the more polarizing topics of our time:
Trial by Vegetable
By: Deborah L. Brewer
Melissa pondered the gold embossed menu. “Ooh, what about the Brussels sprouts?”
A remembered stench filled Artie’s airways—vile fumes of sulfur and rotting grass.
Artie’s mom had always had a knack for ruining Thanksgiving. She’d cackled like a gorgon as she handed a bowl of putrid vegetables to his older sister, Sue. “You kids will need to eat at least a mouthful of these if you want dessert tonight.”
Artie slid down in his seat as Sue picked through the gruesome snot balls and spooned a smallish one onto her plate. She speared it with a fork and dipped it into gravy and mash. Bravely, she held her nose and made the abomination disappear. As she gagged in anguish, green slime emerged from her gaping mouth. Mom had said Grandma’s chocolate cake was to die for, but until now Artie hadn’t known what she’d meant. The assembled relatives were to witness his sister’s demise.
Trembling with indignation, Artie pushed what remained of his apple cider toward Sue. He sighed with relief as she washed the masticated horror down her throat.
There was a nudge at Artie’s shoulder. Uncle Pete offered a serving bowl. “Hey, pal,” he said, “I saved a juicy one for you.”
“Artie, are you okay?” asked Melissa. “You look befuddled.”
She seemed to Artie a gorgon like his mother. “No…I mean yes,” he said. “I’ve never felt less befuddled in my life.” It relieved him to know the engagement ring in his pocket was returnable.
As we enter the holiday season with its crisp nights and warm gatherings, I encourage you to explore a variety of moods and put them into words.
The Emotional Craft of Fiction: How to Write the Story Beneath the Surface, Donald Maass, 2016
Brevity: A Flash Fiction Handbook by David Galef, 2016
Deborah L. Brewer joined Pikes Peak Writers a decade ago, seeking help with a cozy mystery. When the novel was completed, she stayed for the camaraderie. Now she’s writing short stories. An editor for the PPW 2022 anthology, Dream, Deborah contributes to Writing from the Peak to help fellow PPW members write better with more enjoyment, and ultimately, achieve their writing dreams.