Readers and authors often use the word mood interchangeably with atmosphere when describing a scene or passage. Like conjoined twins, mood and atmosphere march along together—separate but intertwined so closely that they seem as one.
Mood is long-term, a feeling residing in the background, going almost unnoticed. Mood affects (and is affected by) the emotions evoked within the story.
Atmosphere is also long-term but is sometimes more noticeable as it is a worldbuilding component. Atmosphere is the aspect of mood that setting conveys.
Emotion is immediate and short-term. It exists in the foreground but contributes to the overall atmosphere and mood.
In his book, Story, Robert McKee tells us that emotion is the experience of transition, of the characters moving between a positive and negative. “Story” by Robert McKee,
Much of my information comes from seminar videos on the craft of writing found on YouTube and posted by Robert McKee. He is an excellent teacher, and his textbook is a core component of my personal library. A wonderful 6-minute lesson on the difference between mood and emotion can be found at:
Robert McKee, Q&A: What Is the Difference Between Mood and Emotion?
While emotions are immediate, they can be subtle. I look for books where emotions are dynamic, because that is when the character’s internal struggle becomes personal to me.
Mood is a large word serving several purposes. It is created by the setting (atmosphere), 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.
Undermotivated emotions lack credibility and leave the reader feeling as if the story is flat. In real life, we have deep, personal reasons for our feelings, and so must our characters.
A woman shoots another woman. Why? Add in the factor of her child having been accidentally killed by the woman she murders, and you have high emotion and high drama. Therefore, just as in real life, the root cause for a character’s emotions is a fundamental 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 attitudes 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 stagnate. 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 and understand (infer) what drives 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. Mood is established in order to affect the reader emotionally and psychologically and to provide a feeling for the narrative.
What is atmosphere? It is created by our word choices and is intangible, but it affects how the reader perceives the story. The setting contributes to the atmosphere, so it is a component of worldbuilding. But we should note that the setting is only a place; it is not atmosphere. Atmosphere comes into play when we place certain visual elements into the scenery with the intention of creating a mood in the reader.
- Tumbleweeds rolling across a barren desert.
- Waves crashing against cliffs.
- Dirty dishes resting beside the sink.
- A chill breeze wafting through a broken window.
Atmosphere is created as much by odors, scents, ambient sounds, and visuals as by the characters’ moods and emotions. It is a component of the environment but is also an ambiance because it is intentional.
We build atmosphere into a setting with the aim of creating a specific frame of mind or emotion in the reader.
I love it when an author drops me into an atmosphere that colors their world and shapes the characters’ moods.
So, now we know that atmosphere is environmental, separate but connected to the general emotional mood of a piece. From the story’s first paragraph, we want to establish a 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. It makes their emotions feel natural. After all, the mood and atmosphere Emily Brontë instilled into the setting of Wuthering Heights make the depictions of mental and physical cruelty seem like they would happen there.
Happy, sad, neutral—atmosphere and mood lend a flavor to the emotions our characters experience, giving them emphasis and making them real to the reader.
For me, as a writer, the inferential layer of a story is complicated. Creating a world-on-paper requires thought even when we live in that world. We know how the atmosphere and mood of our neighborhood feel when we walk to the store. But try conveying that mood and atmosphere in a letter to a friend – it’s harder than it looks.
Next up: a closer examination of emotions and why showing is so much more difficult (and sometimes dangerous) than telling.
Credits and Attributions:
Wikipedia contributors, “Mood (literature),” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Mood_(literature)&oldid=1147399122 (accessed April 30, 2023).