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Setting the Mood
by Victoria Grossack
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What Is Mood?
First, let's define mood. Mood is how the reader feels while reading your story. Stories or scenes within stories can be characterized with many different adverbs and adjectives that describe mood, such as happy, sad, indignant, angry, gloomy and terrifying. It is up to you to decide which moods and feelings you want to create in your readers.
Given that you have decided how you want your readers to feel, what will make them feel that way?
The usual approach is to have them identify with your characters. If your characters experience an emotion, your readers generally experience their emotions vicariously.
Settings can have a huge impact on how your characters feel, and, by extension, your readers. Thus, a skill that we authors need to develop is to create settings that impact your characters. Let's imagine a character entering a setting, such as walking into the air-conditioned reception area of a fancy hotel. How would this make your character feel?
The answer depends a lot on the character. If the character is tired and hot, but rich and self-confident, the character may simply be relieved. A sense of well-being may be restored after a hot day of travel or sight-seeing. Perhaps this feeling is deepened as a manager approaches and respectfully offers assistance.
On the other hand, your character may be hot and tired but lacking in confidence. Perhaps he feels dirty, out of place and certain that people are staring at him with distaste and disgust. Perhaps the manager comes over and "offers" assistance, but with such a sneer in his voice that the character feels even worse.
You can also choose to have your character react not to the general atmosphere of your setting, but to something specific in the setting. Perhaps the air-conditioning makes her shiver or even wonder if she -- if you make her a hypochondriac -- is being exposed to Legionnaire's disease.
How Settings Appear to Characters
In determining how your character should react to a setting, and consequently how it impacts his or her mood, you may find it helpful to consider the following questions:
Is the Setting Familiar or Unfamiliar?
You, as the omniscient author, know whether or not your character has been to this setting before. If your character knows the setting, then he will be more confident in his reactions. He will have less need to look about and less uncertainty about what is going on.
Note, however, that even if your character knows the setting, as he would if he were doing something as routine such as walking into his own bedroom, your readers may need some help. You may want to have your character notice something in the setting or even interact with it -- such as closing the curtains or sitting on the edge of the bed to take off his socks -- to orient your audience.
If the setting is unfamiliar, it is natural for your character to pay closer attention to the new surroundings. This makes it easier to describe the setting to your reader. In an unfamiliar place, your character is also more likely to be experiencing a sense of uncertainty, as well as the heightened awareness associated with first impressions.
Although it may seem that a setting should be either completely familiar or completely unfamiliar to your character, a setting can lie somewhere between these two possibilities. A familiar setting may contain an unfamiliar element, such as a book out of place, a person who does not belong, or an unexplained bloody knife on a pillow. Perhaps it is a setting that the character has visited long ago and needs some time to recognize; C.S. Lewis's Prince Caspian contains a good example of this.
On the other hand, some settings may be unfamiliar in the sense that the character has never been to the particular location, but has experienced settings that are similar. If you have been to one McDonald's restaurant, you have not been to them all, but you generally know what to expect at the next one. (There are exceptions; for example, you won't find hamburgers on the McDonald's menu in India). Another possibility is that your character has not been to a particular setting, but has heard about it from others, and so has a general idea regarding what to expect.
A character in a dream setting or a fantasy setting may alternate between experiencing what is familiar and unfamiliar.
Is the Setting Friendly or Hostile?
Another fundamental point to establish with respect to the setting is whether or not your character believes it is friendly or hostile. A setting in which a character feels safe and welcome creates a different vibe than one that is potentially dangerous or just plain rude.
Some settings feel welcoming as soon as your character enters. Warm fires, enough light to see by, cushions, cleanliness, food and drink, agreeable music and a welcoming gesture on the part of the host: all these aspects impart a mood that is pleasant. Other settings are immediately categorized as harsh, dangerous or unpleasant, with description such as darkness, light so bright it hurts the eyes, locked doors, inadequate shelter and inclement weather. Threats and insults also convey hostility.
Whether a setting turns out to friendly or hostile is frequently determined by the host, but it can be an attribute of the setting itself. In Star Wars, Princess Leia, Luke Skywalker and Han Solo take refuge in a room full of garbage, where they hope to gain a respite during their adventures. The room turns out to contain a dangerous serpent and then the walls start moving towards them in an attempt to crush the heroes.
Perhaps your story does not involve life-and-death situations. You can still pick your spot along the friendly-or-hostile continuum by considering a less extreme version, such as a setting that is more or less comfortable.
One trick is to turn a setting that is assumed to be friendly into one that is hostile. Your character can reach home and finally feel safe, only to discover that the enemy is lying in wait upstairs. Or you can transform your setting in the other direction, too. The low light in the room, which your hero at first finds spooky or dangerous, can end up being part of a romantic gesture to have dinner by candlelight.
Is the Setting Complementary or Contradictory?
Does the setting suit how your character feels or does it contrast with those feelings?
Everyone knows the balcony scene from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, in which the star-crossed lovers confess their feelings for each other. Of course the play has been produced a zillion times and many different settings have been created, but generally one expects the balcony in this scene to support the play's romantic mood. The house belongs to the rich and noble family Capulet, who would have the means to make the balcony beautiful. Often one expects the balcony to be covered with roses (although the thorns might scratch Romeo as he climbs up to Juliet).
In the movie version of Berstein's "West Side Story," which is based on Romeo and Juliet, the balcony is not nearly as elegant or as romantic as the usual balcony of the 16th century play. In West Side Story the viewer sees, along with the balcony and the fire escape, the inevitable poverty associated with crowded, new-immigrant living. Nevertheless, with their love and their singing, Tony and Maria cast an aura of beauty over everything. In a way the contrasting ugliness of their surroundings heightens the beauty of their love; unfortunately, the ugliness comes back to ruin their lives.
A setting that contrasts with how your character is feeling can also be used to make your readers laugh. Receiving a marriage proposal at the city dump; discovering the winning lottery ticket while running for one's life; a character's learning that she has received a promotion while she is getting a tooth pulled -- in these cases the settings do not really match the feelings of the characters, but can be used to lighten the mood and amuse your audience.
If you decide not to have the setting match what the characters are feeling, you may be creating a different mood for your readers than for your characters. That is fine; just be sure that that is what you want to do.
There is much more that could be written about setting and mood, and even more that could be written about how setting impacts mood. Nevertheless, hopefully this article has given you a place to start. By understanding how your settings impact your characters, you can manipulate how your characters feel, and through them, how your audience feels while reading your story.
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.