It was a dark and stormy night…
We’re all pretty familiar with these words. And, ham-handed as they might be, they do one thing quite clearly: they set the mood for the reader. Mood is not terribly complicated or difficult to set, but more often than not it requires a slightly subtler hand.
A notable exception to this would be if the central character of this scene has a distinct, in-your-face voice. In that case, maybe you DO want to go with something overt, like,
The sun was being deliberately hot, just to piss him off. People kept smiling, making him look at all the teeth he wanted to punch down their throat.
This can be effective at setting the mood, but it can easily be overused, and most of the time we want a softer touch.
The above example does, however, bring up our first method of mood setting…
ANTHROPOMORPHISM: To anthropomorphize means that we are attributing human characteristics to something that is not human, like an animal or an inanimate object. In the example above, I use the sun being deliberately hot to spite the character, which speaks more to that character’s frame of mind than if I were to simply say “the sun was hot and making him pissed.” Another example is from Green Day’s song, Insomnia: “…the clock is laughing in my face.” Obviously, a clock can’t laugh in your face, but we can all sympathize with the feeling of frustration when it’s 3 a.m. and you’ve got to be awake at 5. Through the eyes of the scene’s primary character, we can anthropomorphize all kinds of things in order to illustrate to the reader how the character is feeling, without having to come right out and say that he or she was feeling tense, lonely, happy, sad, angry, etc.
THE FIVE SENSES: I know I already talked about using the five senses to set the scene, and I won’t go back through all of that, but I WILL say that when you are using the five senses to set the scene, they can do double duty for you, and give you a nice avenue to illustrate mood. Take for instance, the following two short descriptions:
- Mike walked into his bedroom–well, his ex-wife’s bedroom. Gray walls. Gray bedding. Gray, gray, gray. She called it “greige,” and she insisted on dousing the entire room in it. God forbid she have enough personality for a splash of color here and there. Wouldn’t want anyone to think that she WASN’T a soulless succubus. At least she was being honest.
- Mike walked into his bedroom–well, his ex-wife’s bedroom. She called the color of the walls “greige.” Mike only saw regular old gray, but then, she’d always been able to see thirty different shades of color for every one that Mike could. She had an eye for colors.
In both examples, Mike is noting the color of the room as he walks into it. However, we get two very different moods. In the first example, we can see that things probably didn’t go well between Mike and his ex-wife, that he’s still pretty bitter about it, and that he’s not happy to be there. You can feel a conflict brewing, and you get the sense that if the ex-wife appears in the scene, there’s going to be some nasty words.
In the second example, we have a very different mood. Mike seems a little lonely. Like maybe he misses the bliss of marital life. Maybe he made a mistake in getting a divorce. There’s the sense that maybe if the ex-wife appears, Mike will try to make amends with her.
DRAW ON COMMON EXPERIENCE: If you were trying to set the mood for a romantic occasion with your significant other, what would be your go-to moves? Common experience tells us that firelight or candlelight feels romantic. We also know that warm colors like red can help the amorous mood. And of course, a pleasant scent never hurt–although exactly what scent is probably pretty subjective (I don’t think my wife would care about a floral scent or some fancy cologne, but if I smelled like chocolate, she’d be all mine).
Well, the same thing happens when you’re setting a scene in a story. Read the following three sentences, and really try to picture each one, just as you would if they were in the middle of a good book, and not disembodied here in a blog post:
…Afternoon sunlight coming in at a slant, cream-colored cabinets, and the smell of mom’s meatballs simmering in homemade sauce…
…Harsh, fluorescent lights, a bunch of square, gray cubes filled with mumbled telephone conversations, and the smell of copier toner…
…Greenish, dusky light, as the sun peeks through thick clouds, the smell of rain on grass…
Chances are, each one of those sentences evoked a different emotion in you as you read them. I’d be willing to bet that most of you felt something like comfort/home, boredom/depression, relief/fresh beginnings, respectively. As a fellow human being, you can draw on our common human experience to make the reader feel things.
Of course, there’s always the oddballs like me, who associate green sunlight, storm clouds, and rain-soaked grass with excitement and footchases…
What about you? Any oddball feelings from those sentences?
Any other tricks to setting the mood that you keep up your sleeve?