How to Set the Mood in Creative Writing
When you read a scene and are left with an emotional impression, a feeling that sticks with you for days, you have been impacted by the mood of that scene. Although mood isn’t the only source of emotion in a scene, it plays a large part in whether or not that scene will linger with your readers.
Mood is the emotional atmosphere of a scene. It is the way the story, setting, or scene make your readers feel and can be the difference between an unsuccessful and successful one. An unsuccessful scene is one lacking emotion unintentionally; it feels more like a list of facts. A successful scene leaves an emotional impression. Here are a couple of sentences written without mood then rewritten with mood:
A woman called out to me in my dreams. Come, she said. Come, she begged.
The melodic call seeped into my dreams like smoke beneath a door and wrapped its tendrils around my will. Come, she said. Come, she begged.
Which of these paragraphs did you find more interesting? Which one made you want to read more? Likely, it was the one that made you feel something, the one with mood. The second version’s emotion is a creepy foreboding. The emotional reaction of the character lets the reader know this is an unwelcome intrusion. The first version’s lack of emotion means the reader doesn’t know whether they should feel sorry for the woman, want to help her, or fear her.
Mood can be any emotion and can vary from scene to scene. However, you should be able to articulate the mood of each scene in your story. The example’s mood was creepy foreboding. It could be rewritten to be pleasant, wistful, or frustrating. It depends on the purpose of the scene and the type of story the writer wishes to tell.
One of the most effective ways to infuse your story with mood is through your setting descriptions. How you (or your character if you’re using first person point of view) choose to describe a vase of flowers reveals how that space feels. Here are two different descriptions.
The dusty vase of roses smelled like dank mildew and only had an inch of grimy water at its bottom. The flowers themselves were more wilted stem than petal and rustled every time Rebecca bumped the table with her fidgeting.
The medley of tulips reached toward the sunlight streaming in from the open window. Their healthy blooms and recent watering filled the room with a fresh scent that made Rebecca smile. Like clear ocean waters, the blue vase sparkled.
The first mood is dark and hopeless. The second one is bright and hopeful. Each is describing a vase of flowers, but their state and the author’s word choice determine how those flowers make the reader feel, what mood they create.
Similarly you can create mood through character reactions. What your characters say and how they respond to their environment can build emotion. If the character from the dream example wakes up thrashing with a cold sweat, it reinforces the creepy, foreboding mood. If the character wakes with a sad smile and whispers “I’ll be there soon” to his deceased wife, the mood becomes bittersweet. The mood of your scene is entwined with your characters, setting, and all the other aspects of your story.
In a previous article, What Is Tone and How to Use It in Creative Writing, I shared how tone is the author's attitude toward what they’re writing about. It’s the overall emotion of your story and contributes to mood. If an author loves flowers, they will likely use them in a happy context like the second flower description. If an author continued to receive passive-aggressive flowers from an ex-lover every Monday for a year, they might not associate bouquets with happy emotions and will use the first description. How you feel about what you’re writing will contribute to the emotional impression you leave.
What all three of these have in common is word choice. The words you choose to use and how you put them together play the largest role in creating mood. A voice seeping beneath a door makes a feeling of foreboding and inescapability. A voice blasting through a door conveys anger and frustration. Pay attention to how your word choice is helping or hindering your mood.
Ever Changing Mood
The tone of your writing should remain relatively consistent throughout the story. When someone calls a book funny or griping, they are referring more to tone than mood. Your mood should change from scene to scene – or sometimes in the middle of a scene – to reflect the arc of your story and your characters’ changing emotions. This is why I refer to the mood of a scene more often than the mood of a story. A story can contain many different moods.
Many writing courses and authors talk about plot and character arcs, but there is another arc tied to these two – your emotional arc. In order to have moments of action and rest and character mistakes and growth, you need to have changing emotions. A scene might start out with a dark, twisted mood as your character works their way through a cursed wood, but the mood brightens at the end when the character finds their way out. The different moods of your scenes allow you to take your readers on an emotional journey. You can’t do this if you’re hitting the same emotion over and over again. Use your mood to reflect what’s happening in your story; allow it to change as your characters and plot do.
Why an Editor Recommends Choosing Words for Mood
Emotion is what makes your story linger with readers. It strums their heart strings, haunts them, or leaves their hearts pounding. This lingering emotion keeps your story at the forefront of their minds, causing them to recommend your book to other readers. Mood is one way of creating emotion.
Mood isn’t something you should be worried about during your first draft. Get your ideas down on paper, then, when revising a scene, look at your word choice. Ask yourself what key words are doing for your mood and if they are the best words for the scene. If you don’t own a synonym finder, get one. (I got mine from a used bookstore for a dollar.) Yes, you can look up synonyms on the internet, but it’s too easy to get distracted. A synonym finder is basically a dictionary of synonyms. Words that mean the same thing technically carry different connotations. Those connotations are emotions or moods. Choose words for their emotion as well as their meaning to build feeling into your scenes, to create mood and Ignite Your Ink.
How do you incorporate mood into your scenes? Share your process in the comments below. For more advice on word choice and other aspects of writing subscribe to Ignite Your Ink and get a free worksheet on using synonyms to build character voice.
Ignite Your Ink is written by editor and author Caitlin Berve. She holds a MFA in Creative Writing and Poetics, actively participates in multiple writers’ organizations, and is dedicated to helping writers produce content that leaves an impression on readers.