When we discuss our work with other writers, the word mood is sometimes used interchangeably with atmosphere. I see those two aspects of story as conjoined twins, marching along together. They are separate but intertwined so closely that they seem as one.
Mood happens in the background over the length of the story. Mood allows the emotions the writer instills into the story to be more specific, more intensely colored.
Atmosphere is also long-term but is part of worldbuilding. Atmosphere is conveyed by setting, which affects the overall mood of a piece.
Together, atmosphere and mood have the power to intensify the reader’s impression of the emotions experienced by the characters.
Emotion is immediate, short term. It exists in the foreground but works best when in conjunction with the overall atmosphere/mood.
Robert McKee, one of my favorite teachers on craft, tells us that “emotion is the experience of transition, of the characters moving between a positive and negative.”
As we read, we become invested in the characters and experience their emotional highs and lows. These transitions range in intensity from subtle to forceful. I like books where emotions are dynamic, but where the character’s internal struggle becomes personal to me.
Despite being comprised of only four letters, mood is a vast 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 passions and hates, and so must our characters.
Thus, emotions drive the characters’ actions and create a sense of urgency. If we don’t feel some emotional intensity connected to the deeds and actions taken by our protagonists, we don’t care about them.
In Martha Grimes’ book, The Knowledge, a man, wearing a bright red scarf, steps out of a taxi in front of a nightclub. He has barely left the vehicle when he shoots and kills a couple who are waiting to get in. This is an apparently random act. Why?
Martha Grimes shows us this scene through the taxi driver’s eyes. We experience it in his shocked disbelief and horror.
Then, making no effort to disguise himself, the shooter gets back in the cab and forces the driver (at gunpoint) to take him to Waterloo Station.
All during the ride, we feel the driver’s terror, applaud his resourcefulness, and hope like hell he won’t be murdered.
In a stunning, baffling end to that scene, the man pays the driver, gives him a large tip, and disappears into the crowd at Waterloo and walks straight to the parking lot.
The assassin then gets into a Porsche and drives to Heathrow, where he casually boards a plane to Dubai. Before takeoff, he unwittingly helps an underage detective who is following him become a stowaway on the flight.
I need to know why, and I need to know right now! This story is compelling because it is about emotions as much as it is about the action.
Which is more important, mood or emotion?
Both and neither.
The emotions our characters experience have an effect on the overall mood and atmosphere of a story.
In turn, as I showed in my post, Mood and Atmosphere: Where Inference meets Interpretation, the atmosphere of a particular environment has a significant effect on the characters’ personal mood.
Just as in real life, the individual moods of our characters collectively affect the emotional state of the group.
We know that emotion is the experience of transition from the negative to the positive and back again. Experiencing intense emotion should change a character’s values. Characters should have an arc to their lives, over which they either grow or regress.
This is part of the inferential layer as the audience must infer (or deduce) the experience. Our task is to make the emotions real, but not maudlin.
You can’t tell a reader how to feel. Readers must experience what the character feels and understand their reasons and motives on a human level.
What is mood? Wikipedia says:
In literature, mood is the atmosphere of the narrative. Mood is created through the setting (locale and surroundings in which the narrative takes place), the attitude (of the narrator and of the characters in the narrative), and the descriptions.
Although 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. Mood is established to affect the reader emotionally and psychologically and to provide a feeling for the narrative.
In other words, the setting can contribute to the atmosphere. However, setting is only a place. Setting is context, not atmosphere.
How is atmosphere separate from setting? It’s part of the world, the environment, right? It’s just worldbuilding.
Yes and no. Atmosphere is associated with the environment but is a created ambiance, written to evoke a specific frame of mind or emotion in the reader.
Atmosphere is created of layers and applied to the setting. It is comprised of the odors, ambient sounds, and visuals you write into the environment. It is influenced by how you write the characters’ moods and emotions as they move through the setting.
Atmosphere is environmental, separate but connected to the general emotional mood of a piece.
From the first line of the first paragraph of a story, we want to establish the feeling of atmosphere, the general mood that will hint at what is to come.
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 environmental mood is no substitute for the characters’ emotions. However, the two, overall mood and emotion, must work together to draw the reader in.
This inferential layer of any story is the place where we have connected the dots and drawn an outline that shows what our story is.
Filling the outline of the story with color requires thought on our part. Emotions are the colors we use to show a picture.
In my next post we’ll discuss the tricky dance of show and tell—the art of conveying specific emotions without bludgeoning the reader with them.
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, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Mood_(literature)&oldid=895686542 (accessed July 7, 2019).