Vision: A Resource for Writers

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Helping the Setting to Set the Mood

By Lazette Gifford
Copyright © 2008 by Lazette Gifford, All Rights Reserved

Sometimes writers overlook a very simple tool that can be used to help ease the reader into the proper mood of the story right from the start, and without resorting to long explanations about the who, what and where of the situation.  This is a simple trick, and one many of you will have either done consciously or unconsciously in your writing in the past.  It's easy, and it can also help you to focus on your story opening.

It was a dark and stormy night. . . .

Those words have become such a cliché that we don’t often think about what they would mean to the start of a story, and yet I don't doubt that every one of you would have a clear vision of what that opening would mean to a story.  Those words not only instantly set the scene; they also create a sense of trouble and even dread.

Let's look at three views of an opening line, and see how the choice of setting descriptions affect and enhance the situation:

  1. David walked through the woods with a hand on his sheathed knife as he listened for the sounds of children.
  2. David walked past trees stripped of leaves, gnarled limbs moving feebly in the erratic wind; he kept a hand on his sheathed knife as he listened for the sounds of children.
  3. David hurried through the sun-dappled woods where squirrels danced across the limbs, moving with a hand always on his sheathed knife as he listened for the sounds of children.

The first line is plain; we have no feeling for David or the place where he walks except for the vague shape of trees.  The other two lines can help evoke different feelings about David, based on where he is and how he is reacting to that setting.  In the second line, we might have someone out to save lost children from a dangerous place, but in the third we could easily have someone who hunts children himself.  His hand on his knife is at odds with the bright cheerful place around him; we don't know if we can trust him, or if he knows something more about the dangers of the woods than we do. 

With just those few words about the setting -- and none at all about the character -- you can start creating the groundwork for your story's mood.  You can use the opening to put your character in sync with the surroundings (#2) or to show him at odds with the surroundings (#3).  No single sentence is going to tell 'the whole story' of course, but you can use the setting right off the start to help shape expectations.

However, there is another way to create a feeling for the story, and that is by purposely using emotionally charged words to describe some aspects of the setting. These can be words that create an anthropomorphic-like relationship (that is, assigning human attributes to something not human).   This is also sometimes called The Pathetic Fallacy -- the assignment of human emotions to nature such as cruel nature.  Ignore the negative sound of 'Pathetic Fallacy' and realize that writers -- and people in general -- use this kind of descriptive license all the time to help people understand the relationship between emotionally charged words and the way they can evoke responses in the reader when a plain, true-to-life recitation of a description might not.

Exercise 1

Make a list of at least ten words that could be used to describe either a setting or would work equally well in describing a character's mood, and then write sentences using both. 

Whatever words you choose, they must clearly set the mood so that the reader would not have to guess at what you mean. 

For instance:

Sullen:  A sullen haze hung over the city.  He stared in sullen anger as the sun rose.

This simple exercise can start focusing you on choosing words which will help you draw on the emotions of the readers.


Working through the descriptive process can be an interesting exercise, even for those who don't feel as though they need to consider something so simple.  Sometimes we get too used to the way we write, and stop exploring new styles and patterns.

Experimentation is the trick to getting this type of material right.  Don't be afraid to try different word combinations, different 'emotional' descriptions to find the level that works for you.  Sometimes it will sound over the top -- but there are times when even a description like that might work best.  Don't limit yourself to 'safe' descriptive passages, when something else might help you better create the mood.

Exercise 2

And in the light of day he saw. . . .

The dawn rising on a new day has become something of a cliché, but it is useful as an exercise.  For this exercise, write no more than 200 words that link what a character sees with how he feels.  Write this in two parts.  The first is the dawn of a bright new day, and the second the dawn after disaster.  Mirror the situation and the character -- or show them at odds with one another.  You do not need to repeat the same words for both, but make it clear how they interrelate. 


Exploring the possibilities for setting the mood can help with problem pieces.  Sometimes getting those openings right is the hardest part of the story, where you want to both convey the situation and set the mood.   Working with an emotional overlay and purposely nudging the reader toward the type of reaction the writer would like without being overt is a trick that takes practice.  It will not work with every story, but there are times when it might be just the piece you need.

Exercise # 3

Put this idea to practical work.  Find one of your stories where you think the opening does not do all it can to help introduce the story and the character and see if you can't manipulate the description of your background to build up a feeling for the story before the reader has gone more than paragraph into the story.


Exploring different ways to reach the reader is always something useful, even if you find that it doesn't apply to your current work.  You never know when a simple idea like this might be just the little nudge your story needs to get moving in the right direction!