Word by Word

Practical insights for writers from Jessica P Morrell

Between the lines: Mood

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Mar• 18•22

Just as every dark and stormy night, party, holiday, or bustling office on payday are infused with mood, so are scenes in fiction. Mood infects and reinforces the reader’s emotions, aids in understanding key moments, and enhances his or her enjoyment of the story events.

Mood is the feel or atmosphere or ambience of a story or scene. ALL writing should evoke a mood.

Mood is omnipresent like the soundtrack of fiction. As with movies, without a soundtrack, fiction is not complete and captivating. Mood makes readers worry about heroines stranded in lonely castles and fog-bound moors. It feeds suspense and tension, and is in fact inseparable  from them. It is essential to genres like horror, thrillers, and action, but is necessary to every moment in every story where you want a reader to feel a certain way. You can stage your characters in dramatic events but without setting up the proper mood, the characters’ actions will fall short.

Mood is what the reader feels while reading a scene or story. It’s not the reader’s emotions, (though mood is designed to influence them) but the atmosphere (the vibe) of a scene or story. It’s the tornado heading for Dorothy Gale’s Kansas farm. In the film, once the viewers spot that towering tunnel and witness winds lashing the countryside, fear sets in. Will Dorothy make it to cellar in time?

It’s what the reader notices, what gets under his or her skin. Not all readers will experience/perceive the same mood from a scene, although the writer tries to achieve a particular feel common to every reader.

A quick example from everyday life–candlelight is soothing and soft; overhead fluorescent lights are harsh and even irritating.

Tip: Mood should change and vary as the story moves forward. Moods in subplots should vary from the main storyline.

Why Mood?

  • Deepens the reader’s experience.
  • Creates cohesion.
  • Enhances tension and suspense.
  • Evokes emotions, creates emotional connections to the characters and their situations.
  • Works with reader’s nervous system.
  • Underlines themes.
  • Mood helps fiction become more immersive, alive, lifelike and creates a backdrop for drama.

Mood as Backdrop

Peter Heller’s brilliant novel The Dog Stars takes place in a future where the world has been ravaged by a pandemic that’s killed off most of the population. If that wasn’t bad enough, the natural world is dying off too. He wrote it in 2012. I’m a sucker for a postapocalyptic novel, even when they’re shockingly prescient. I cannot recommend enough this beautiful, compelling, heart-wrenching story that invaded my thoughts for days while reading it. This backdrop to the state of affairs the protagonist Hig exists in, is dropped in on page 6.

In the beginning there was Fear. Not so much the flu by then, by then  I walked, I talked. Not so much talked, but of sound body—and of mind, you be the judge. Two straight weeks of fever, three days 104 to105, I know it cooked my brains. Encephalitis or something else. Hot. Thoughts that once belonged, that felt at home with each other, were now discomfited, unsure. Depressed, like those shaggy Norwegian ponies that Russian professor moved to the Siberian Arctic I read about before. He was trying to recreate the Ice Age, a lot of grass and fauna and few people.  Had he known what was coming he would have pursued another hobby. Half the ponies died, I think from heartbreak for their Scandinavian forests, half hung out at the research station and were fed grain and still died. That’s how my thoughts are sometimes. When I’m stressed. When something’s bothering me and won’t let go. They’re pretty good, I mean they function, but a lot of times they feel out of place, kinda sad, sometimes wondering if maybe they are supposed to be ten thousand miles from here in a place with a million square miles of cold Norwegian spruce. Sometimes I don’t trust my thoughts not to bolt for the brush. Probably not my brain, probably normal for where we’re at.

I don’t want to be confused: we are nine years out. The flu killed almost everybody, then the blood disease killed more. The ones who are left are mostly Not Nice, why we live here on the plain, why I patrol every day.

Mood sets the stage

“Stop that you’ll fall.”

A week’s worth of snow has compressed into ice, each day’s danger hidden beneath a nighttime dusting of powder.  Every few yards my boots travel farther than my boots intended, and my stomach pitches, braced for a fall. Our progress is slow, and I wished I’d thought to bring Sophia on a sled instead.

Reluctantly, she opens her eyes, swivels her head owllike, away from the shops, to hide her face in her sleeve. I squeeze her gloved hand. She hates the birds that hang in the butcher’s window, their neck iridescent feathers cruelly at odds with the lifeless eyes they embellish.

I hate the birds too.

Adam says I’ve given the phobia to her, like a cold or a piece of unwanted jewelry.

“Where did she get it from them?” he said when I protested turning to an invisible crowd, as if the absence of answer proved his point. “Not me.”

Of course not. Adam doesn’t have weaknesses.

This is the opening salvo for Hostage written by Clare Mackintosh, a ‘locked room’ thriller. The locked room in this story is a London to Sydney flight.  It feels like a thriller doesn’t it? Those creepy dead birds, dangerous snow, and the husband-wife conflict signal something bad is going to happen.


Mood is created by a range of literary devices–setting, conflict, imagery, sensory details, characters reacting and responding in scenes. While setting is most commonly used to induce moods, descriptive language is a potent tool and that decreases or amps up tension. In Dean Koontz’s novel The Face a horrific storm lashes Los Angeles a few days before Christmas adding a delicious shiver of danger and tension. The weather is referred to in each scene, causes things to happen and creates an ominous, the world-is-askew mood. For example, he writes, “In the witches’ cauldron of the sky, late-morning light brewed into a thick gloom more suitable to winter dusk.”

  • Mood is created on a word-by-word basis by choosing sensory details that stir emotions, but also by orchestrating pacing. Slow down for important moments, places readers need to savor. Pacing naturally speeds up when excitement is high, conflict is intense, action is nonstop. Short sentences and paragraphs communicate excitement, urgency, panic, anger, shock, and violence. Short sentences land a gut punch and demand readers keep zipping through the text.
  • While most stories, especially short stories,  have an overarching atmosphere, the ambience or vibe of a story will change over time and change in intensity.
  • Examples of mood: spooky, light-hearted, gothic, sexy, peaceful, ominous, brooding, funny, suspenseful.
  • Mood is linked to tension and suspense and getting under your reader’s skin.
  • Use mood to foreshadow.
  • A vague or pallid setting will create vague and pallid emotions/reactions in your readers.

Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart

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