Within the depths of the Word-Pond that we call Story is the inferential layer. This is the layer where the reader must infer (deduce, guess) many things, all of which form a subtle, invisible path to understanding and connecting with the story.
We have talked at length about conveying Emotions, Part 1 and Part 2. But the inferential layer is about far more than the immediate emotional condition of your characters. The mood of the piece also comes into play.
Mood and atmosphere are two separate but entwined forces that form subliminal impressions in the awareness of the reader. Where you find atmosphere in the setting, you also find mood in the characters. For this reason, when talking about depth in a narrative, the conjoined twins of mood and atmosphere are best discussed together.
We know that emotion is the character’s experience of transitioning from the negative to the positive and back again. The overall mood also changes over the course of the story. Mood is an emotional setting that begins with the characters and their experiences, and encompasses the reader as they immerse themselves in a story. It is developed by other aspects of the narrative: setting, theme, ambiance, and phrasing.
Emotion is a constant force in our lives. On the page, it must be truthful and based in reality or it becomes maudlin.
The same goes for atmosphere and mood–they must feel real; solid. The atmosphere/mood dynamic of any narrative is there to make the emotional experience of the story specific. The atmosphere of a setting is not a substitute for emotions you can’t figure out how to write. However, creating the right atmosphere leads to shaping the characters’ overall mood, and the right mood can help you articulate the specific emotions.
What do you want to convey? Let’s talk about one of the all-time masterpieces of atmosphere and mood: Wuthering Heights, the 1847 gothic novel by Emily Brontë.
Theme is the universal, fundamental ideas that are explored in a work. Theme is also an underlying aspect of mood. In Wuthering Heights, the two main themes are
- The many aspects of love: obsession, hate, selfishness, and revenge. These are shown in the course of exploring the destructive power of obsession and fixated, unchanging love.
- Social class, gender inequality, security and insecurity in a society where money and breeding matter.
World-building comes into it. Environmental symbols are subliminal landmarks that shape the reader’s mood. They give us hints about what we should feel. In Wuthering Heights, the landscape is comprised primarily of moors. The depiction of these desolate places is wild and starkly beautiful; wide expanses high in elevation but also boggy, as they are made of peat.
Setting the story there immediately implies infertility and death. Moorland cannot be cultivated, and the desert-like lack of landmarks makes it easy to lose your way. In some places, the land is so waterlogged a person can drown. Becoming lost and drowning is a possibility that is raised several times over the course of the story. Thus, the moors symbolize the threat posed by untamed nature.
Houses are also symbolic in the piece: most of the action in the novel occurs at Wuthering Heights (the manor from which the novel takes its name) or Thrushcross Grange. Also, much of it happens on the vast stretch of moorland that lies between the two houses. All three locations are distant from neighboring towns, most especially from “the stir of society” (London) which emphasizes the loneliness of the setting.
Each house is symbolic of its inhabitants. Those who reside at Wuthering Heights tend to be strong, wild, and passionate—untamed like the moorlands. Conversely, the characters living at Thrushcross Grange are passive, civilized, and calm.
That underlying threat of danger in the environment affects the mood and emotions of the characters as well as affecting the overall atmosphere of the novel.
The mood/atmosphere of Wuthering Heights is dark and gothic.
Words are our tools, and they are also our Jedi mind trick–properly wielded, words put the reader into the story where they live it, becoming the characters.
In this quote from A Tale of Two Cities (1859) by Charles Dickens, we see how he uses words to convey a dark, ominous mood:
“There was a steaming mist in all the hollows, and it had roamed in its forlornness up the hill, like an evil spirit, seeking rest and finding none. A clammy and intensely cold mist, it made its slow way through the air in ripples that visibly followed and overspread one another, as the waves of an unwholesome sea might do.”
A gloomy setting creates an ominous atmosphere, which affects both how we perceive the characters and how they perceive themselves.
In Chapter Two of The Great Gatsby, (1925) F. Scott Fitzgerald’s opening paragraph runs like this:
About halfway between West Egg and New York the motor-road hastily joins the railroad and runs beside it for a quarter of a mile, so as to shrink away from a certain desolate area of land. This is a valley of ashes—a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and finally, with a transcendent effort, of men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air. Occasionally a line of grey cars crawls along an invisible track, gives out a ghastly creak and comes to rest, and immediately the ash-grey men swarm up with leaden spades and stir up an impenetrable cloud which screens their obscure operations from your sight.
This sets the tone for what follows. In reading these passages, we know that the way we present the setting impacts the mood. Also, the overall emotional life of the characters contributes to the mood of the piece. If they are tense, worried, then the narrative takes on an ambiance of tension.
Use your Jedi mind tricks. Set that interpersonal stress in the right environment, as Brontë, Dickens, and Fitzgerald did, and write a story that will compel the reader to keep turning the page.
Credits and Attributions:
A Tale of Two Cities (1859) by Charles Dickens PD|100, originally published by Chapman & Hall.
The Great Gatsby, (1925) F. Scott Fitzgerald PD|75, originally published by Charles Scribner’s Sons.
Worked to Death, H. A. Brendekilde. Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:H. A. Brendekilde – Udslidt (1889).jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:H._A._Brendekilde_-_Udslidt_(1889).jpg&oldid=355191092 (accessed July 16, 2019).
Moorland Landscape with Rainstorm by George Lambert. Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:George Lambert – Moorland Landscape with Rainstorm (1751).jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository,https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:George_Lambert_-_Moorland_Landscape_with_Rainstorm_(1751).jpg&oldid=234912081 (accessed July 16, 2019).
Ellen Berry McClung, by Lloyd Branson. Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Berry-ellen-mcclung-by-branson.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Berry-ellen-mcclung-by-branson.jpg&oldid=324386360 (accessed July 16, 2019).
3 responses to “Atmosphere and Mood, the Conjoined Twins of the Word-Pond #amwriting”
Well said, and thoroughly illustrated. Mood, setting, and atmosphere combine to outwardly reflect the inner world of characters hiding behind whatever persona they willingly show the world. This happens to be a big part of a class I’m teaching this summer. Thanks for your insights.
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Thank you, Scott 🙂 I wish I lived close enough to go to your classes.
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