By C. S. Lakin
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 ether of a place.
Regardless of 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 perspective, their individual mood will differ.
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 their emotions.
First, Consider Your Scene’s Purpose
Your story may have an overall tone or mood, but every scene is a microsystem 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 his setting based on his mood and the purpose of your scene.
Remember: it’s the purpose of the scene that determines all the setting elements—what you choose to have him notice (and not notice) and react to and why.
Words Are Everything
However, learn this truth: it is not the originality of a world or the degree of creativity in the world itself that makes a fantasy novel shine with brilliance; it’s the choice of words and phrases that the author uses that evokes not just a right sensory experience but makes readers fall in love with the writing.
Please note: this doesn’t just pertain to fantasy novels. Every novel involves the creation of a “world,” and so writers need to take just as much care in the creation of any world in any genre. 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 that 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. But 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), a reader can clearly sense the purpose of the action by the things he notices and the words used to describe them
To immerse your readers in the world you’ve created, you need to spend time coming up with masterful description. And the components of such description are the nouns, verbs, and adjectives you choose.
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 their emotions. It’s a reciprocal factor: mood informs how the character sees his setting, but the setting also informs his mood—shifting it or intensifying it.
Take a look at this passage from The Dazzling Truth (Helen Cullen):
Murtagh opened the front door and flinched at a swarm of spitting raindrops. The blistering wind mocked the threadbare cotton of his pajamas. He bent his head into the onslaught and pushed forward, dragging the heavy scarlet door behind him. The brass knocker clanged against the wood; he flinched, hoping it had not woken the children. Shivering, he picked a route in his slippers around the muddy puddles spreading across the cobblestoned pathway. Leaning over the wrought-iron gate that separated their own familial island from the winding lane of the island proper, he scanned the dark horizon for a glimpse of Maeve in the faraway glow of a streetlamp.
In the distance, the sea and sky had melted into one anthracite mist, each indiscernible from the other. Sheep huddled together for comfort in Peadar Óg’s field, the waterlogged green that bordered the Moones’ land to the right; the plaintive baying of the animals sounded mournful. Murtagh nodded at them.
There was no sight of Maeve.
Culler is masterful in her usage of imagery to convey sensory detail. The feeling of rain on Murtagh’s skin is described by flinching at spitting raindrops. The blistering wind attacks his pajamas. Dragging the heavy door shows the sensation of his muscles working—proprioception. And of course we have visuals, which paint the stage for us.
We also have the sound of the brass knocker—used for a specific purpose—to tell us he’s concerned about the children waking. This is a good point to pay attention to: sensory detail should serve more than one purpose. Don’t just add a sound or sight without thinking of the POV character’s mood, concerns, mindset, and purpose in that moment. The more you can tie those things to the sensory details, the more powerful your writing.
Writers are sometimes told not to write about weather. It’s boring, right? But weather affects us every moment of every day and night. We make decisions for how we will spend our day, even our life, based on weather. And weather greatly affects our mood, whether we notice or not.
Since we want our characters to act and react believably, they should also be affected by weather. Sure, at times they aren’t going to notice it. But there are plenty of opportunities to have characters interact with weather can be purposeful and powerful in your story.
Strong Verbs and Adjectives
Using strong and effective verbs and adjectives will help you craft setting descriptions that are masterful. Every word counts. To borrow unfaithfully from Animal Farm: All words are created equal, but some words are more equal than others. Some words are plain boring, and others take our breath away.
Mood is one of the 3 M’s of character setup, and you’ll want to make sure you get the character’s mood, mindset (what she’s concerned about), and motivation on that first page. What happens in the scene will shift the mood in some way, resulting in some change in mood by the end of the scene. So think about what that mood will be like at the start of the scene and what’s changed in the mood by the end. Using the setting interactively with your character is the most powerful way to masterfully accomplish this!
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!