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:
David walked through
the woods with a hand on his sheathed knife as he listened for the
sounds of children.
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.
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.
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
Whatever words you choose,
they must clearly set the mood so that the reader would not have to
guess at what you mean.
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.
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
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.
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!