Tag Archives: mood and atmosphere in writing

Emotion: it’s complicated #amwriting

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.

What? Why?

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).

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Atmosphere and Mood, the Conjoined Twins of the Word-Pond #amwriting

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:

Quotes from:

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.

Images:

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).

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