The inferential layer of the Word-Pond: Mood and Emotion #amwriting

Today we go a little deeper into the Word-Pond that we call Story. In talking about literature, the word mood is sometimes used interchangeably with atmosphere. Like conjoined twins, mood and atmosphere march along together; separate, but intertwined so closely that they seem as one. Mood is long term in the background and makes the emotions evoked within the story specific. Atmosphere is also long term but is part of world-building. Atmosphere is the aspect of mood that setting conveys.

Emotion is immediate, short term. It exists in the foreground but works best when in conjunction with the overall atmosphere/mood.

Robert McKee, in his video seminars, tells us that emotion is the experience of transition, of the characters moving between a positive and negative.

While emotions are immediate, they can be subtle. I like books where emotions are dynamic, but where the character’s internal struggle becomes personal to me.

Mood is a large word serving several purposes. It is created by the setting (atmosphere), by the exchanges of dialogue (conversation), and the tone of the narrative (word choices, descriptions). It is also affected by (and refers to) the emotional state of the characters—their personal mood.

Emotions that are undermotivated lack credibility and leave us, the reader, feeling as if the story is flat. We have deep, personal reasons for our emotions, and so must our characters.

A woman shoots another woman. Why? Add in the factor of her child having been murdered by this woman, and you have high emotion, high drama. Therefore, motivation for a character’s emotions is fundamental to the motivation for their actions.

Which is more important, mood or emotion? Both and neither. Characters’ emotions affect the overall mood of a story. In turn, the atmosphere of a particular environment may affect the characters’ personal mood. Their individual moods affect the emotional state of the group.

Because emotion is the experience of transition from the negative to the positive and back again, emotion changes a character’s values, and they either grow or devolve. This is part of the inferential layer as the audience must infer (deduce) the experience.

You can’t tell a reader how to feel—they must experience what the character feels and understand (infer) the character on a human level.

What is mood? Wikipedia says:

In literature, mood is the atmosphere of the narrative. Mood is created by means of setting (locale and surroundings in which the narrative takes place), attitude (of the narrator and of the characters in the narrative), and descriptions. Though atmosphere and setting are connected, they may be considered separately to a degree. Atmosphere is the aura of mood that surrounds the story. It is to fiction what the sensory level is to poetry.[1] Mood is established in order to affect the reader emotionally and psychologically and to provide a feeling for the narrative


Setting can contribute to atmosphere, but in itself, the setting is only a place, not atmosphere.

What is atmosphere? Atmosphere is associated with the environment but is an ambiance that pervades a literary piece with the intention of evoking a certain frame of mind or emotion in the reader. Atmosphere is created as much by odors, scents, ambient sounds, and visuals as it is by the characters’ moods and emotions.

Now we know that atmosphere is environmental, separate but connected to the general emotional mood of a piece. From the first paragraph of a story, we want to establish a feeling of atmosphere, the general mood that will hint at what is to come.

PEDIAA  says:

Mood vs. Atmosphere

Although the two terms, mood and atmosphere, are usually used as synonyms, there is a subtle difference between mood and atmosphere in a general sense. Mood can refer to the internal feelings and emotions of an individual. However, the term atmosphere is always associated with a venue. But, the mood and atmosphere are interrelated in this aspect as well. For example, a gloomy and dark setting in a play creates an ominous atmosphere. This atmosphere can also affect the mood of the characters as well as the audience.

Difference Between Mood and Atmosphere

  • Mood refers to the internal emotions of an individual.
  • Atmosphere is usually linked to a place.
  • However, both mood and atmosphere are used as synonyms in literature.   
  • They refer to the emotional feelings inspired by a piece of literary work.
  • Mood and atmosphere are created by diction, dialogues, descriptions, tone, setting, etc.

Robert McKee tells us that the mood/dynamic of any story is there to make the emotional experience of our characters specific. Happy, sad, neutral—the overall emotional mood is no substitute for the characters’ emotions, but the two, overall mood and emotion must work together to draw the reader in.

This inferential layer of the Word-Pond we call Story is the place where we realize that creating this pond requires thought on our part. Like a diver seeing an undiscovered shipwreck for the first time, the story is still waiting to be uncovered. The bottom of this pond is still distant, and we have a lot of deep water to travel before we get there. On our way down, we have more denizens of the deep to examine.

Next up: a closer examination of Writing Emotions: the sharks of the Word-Pond.

Credits and Attributions:

Much of my information comes from watching seminar-videos on the craft of writing found on YouTube, and posted by Robert McKee. He is an excellent teacher, and YouTube University is a free resource for the struggling author. His book,  “Story” by Robert McKee, is a core textbook of my personal library. Robert McKee on YouTube

Wikipedia contributors, “Mood (literature),” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, (accessed July 7, 2019).

Difference Between Mood and Atmosphere, by Hasa © 2017 PEDIIA (accessed July 7, 2019).

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:The Oracle – Hawaiian Symbolist by Marguerite Blasingame.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, (accessed June 27, 2019).

Ruins of the Oybin (Dreamer) – Caspar David Friedrich 1835 [Public domain]
Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Caspar David Friedrich 011.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository,  (accessed May 24, 2019).


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