Tag Archives: mood and emotion in literature

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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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

SO:

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 https://pediaa.com/difference-between-mood-and-atmosphere/  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, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Mood_(literature)&oldid=895686542 (accessed July 7, 2019).

Difference Between Mood and Atmosphere, by Hasa © 2017 PEDIIA https://pediaa.com/difference-between-mood-and-atmosphere/ (accessed July 7, 2019).

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:The Oracle – Hawaiian Symbolist by Marguerite Blasingame.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:The_Oracle_-_Hawaiian_Symbolist_by_Marguerite_Blasingame.jpg&oldid=276120985 (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, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Caspar_David_Friedrich_011.jpg&oldid=326731449  (accessed May 24, 2019).

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