Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Mood In Writing

The response to my Monday post suggested how important mood is to writing. It started me thinking that one of the primary goals of writing is, in fact, to create a mood in the reader—happy, angry, frightened, melancholy. A writer’s success at hooking the reader, or lack thereof, depends to a large extent on whether readers are experiencing the mood the writer wants them to experience. But how can words create a mood?

Fortunately, human beings are emotionally expressive. We’re wired for emotion and most of us like it. We read fiction to be emotionally involved. So, the writer has a partner in the drive to create a mood. I know, as a reader, I desperately want the writers of the books I’m reading to be successful. I’ll meet them halfway, but they are the ones driving and the first move is theirs.

I find that most writers have strengths and weaknesses in their ability to create mood. Personally, I find it easier to create melancholy moods than happy ones. I’m not exactly sure why. I’ve definitely experienced sad times, but I’ve had plenty of happy ones as well. I’m not generally a sad kind of guy. But an important aspect of creating mood in writing, I think, is for the writer to be experiencing the very mood they are trying to induce. When I’m happy, I tend to spend less time writing. I’m doing other, happy things. I express myself with laughter maybe, but happy moods don’t send me to the keyboard. In contrast, when I’m feeling a little down I seem to naturally gravitate toward words in an attempt to express the feeling.

I also find that certain words or phrases have the strength to evoke certain moods in me. “Gray rain.” “Barren trees.” “Cemetery.” “Coffin.” These shift my mind toward melancholy. “Zephyr wind.” “Clear stream.” “Cicada.” These tend to create a summer mood, peaceful and relaxed. A lot of this is the power of association. Cemeteries are associated with loss, and loss with sadness. In Arkansas, I remember hearing the Cicadas’ strident song every summer when I was working on the farm. To create mood we need to find the words that are associated with the experience of that mood. And those words and phrases, if we let them, will shift our own mood toward the one we’re trying to convey.

So, if you’re a writer, what mood do you find easiest to evoke? Which one is hardest? As a writer or a reader, or just a person in general, what words or phrases create mood for you? I’m curious to see how different your words are from mine.


Scott said...

I find, at elast when writing poetry, that it's easier for me to write dark or bad feelings...I'm not sure why, or what that says about me, but there it is.

Scott said...

The fourth word in my previous post is supposed to be 'least'..don't drink and blog, kids.

Lisa said...

It's easiest for me to write about pain or isolation, but the trick is to find some new way to approach it. Love is the most difficult emotion for me to write.

Erik Donald France said...

Makes a lot of sense . . . If one is super-happy in the moment, probably not writing or reading.

Happy poetry is a Hallmark card, and isn't very good poetry, I suppose.

Then there's musical taste to consider . . .

Why does fiction require conflict to work effectively?

Rachel V. Olivier said...

Charles, meet Karen:

ivan said...

I find it easier to convey a mood in straight prose.

But sometimes, if I write a novel, I write flat. Flatness is close to bestsellerdom.
It's something like technique. Making every word count.
Okay to feel one way or the other, hut there is the discipline of the style. Let the content convey the mood.
Or so I augur.

Heather said...

Emotion is a funny thing - everyone has different associations and triggers. The common triggers have mostly become cliche. I've found that the purest form of emotion is often difficult to convey effectively because many times words just aren't enough. I find this true for love (which I've written about, it was extremely difficult for me). I imagine the same could be said about grief for a deceased loved one.

steve on the slow train said...

I have an easier time with the darker moods, I think. It's really hard to tell, though, as I'm not certain how effective I am at conveying mood. I've tried to convey confusion, elation, depression, anger, a sense of the mysterious, and all four of the "Four Loves" with varying degrees of success.

However, if I'm really depressed, I have a difficult time writing at all.

Angie said...

I find the stronger emotions easier to evoke than the milder ones. I think it's easier to evoke OMGFear!!! than mild concern, WHEE!Happy!! than quiet contentment.

Maybe it's because the quieter feelings are closer to nothing, and if you miss the mark, you're likely to communicate nothing. Whereas with the stronger emotions, even if you miss the specific point you were aiming for, you'll often still create something, even if it's not quite so much as you wanted. [ponder]


Sam said...

My daughter (14) just had to write a paper for her class about what made her favorte book her favorite. She said it was because of the emotions. I think she really pin-pointed the appeal of a good book. If it stirs your emotions, it is good. I find it hard to evoke intimacy and have to work on that. It's easy for me to evoke angst, and for fright I just imagine a spider crawling up my back....

Miladysa said...

Am I a writer? I'm trying.

I didn't write anything for RoYds from the end of May until the end of August. I just didn't have the mood on me.

The mood came with the darker nights and colder weather. I would say my writing is dark too. Words, hmm... ethereal, melancholy, enchanted, dark. forboding...

the walking man said...

Dusty swinging half doors, hat's and holsters, a deeply varnished bar, the bullets fly.

Every word is a mood in my opinion and, moods are pictures and, pictures are stories.

Cath said...

I enjoy reading where the mood created makes me feel like I am curled up on a soft pillow, content, but then I enjoy the fast pace of a thriller, I enjoy the writer making me think as in a "psychological thriller" - and the "of course!" or "eureka!" moment in a story as the threads start to tie in together. But for me, all have to tie in. I hate loose ends. Which is a problem as a writer.

I enjoy creating moods which touch all the five senses, but I have to be very disciplined about not having to deal with all details or I make it over complicated. If it gets too complex, I lose my story.

I think the moods I like best are those that create a suspense and anticipation but without terror. Fear is ok - not terror.
I can't think of groups of word right now, but I might get back to you on that. You are good for me you know - you make me think and examine and if I am aware of how I associate things and why, then I may realise my readers may have different associations. This (to me) is vital awareness for successful writing.

For example, your association of something for summer, means nothing to me because I have never heard it. Similarly when I write about say a situation unique to Britain, e.g. the NHS then I limit my readership immediately through cultural difference.I am not sure if I am explaining myself well here, but I hope you know what I mean, what I get from this and I am forever grateful to you (and others) that offer points to ponder or challenges to stretch and develop my abilities as a writer.
Thank you.

Charles Gramlich said...

Scott, I'm the same. I suspect its similar for many writers. Yes, typing and drinking do not a happy association make.

Lisa, I agree. Love is so hard because everything has been said multiple times it seems, though maybe that's true for pain as well. I think all loves are somewhat alike while all pains are
different maybe.

Erik, I'm satisfied when I'm writing at times, but when I'm really happy I'm doing other things. Jumping up and down perhaps. As for conflict, maybe folks just like drama.

Rachel, I'll check it out.

Ivan, content is definitely key. The words are just pegs to hang images and emotions on.

H.E. I agree that love is very difficult. partly, maybe, when we are in pain we are more introspective and when we're happy we want to share it and so we don't think as much about it internally.

Steve, that's true. If I'm really depressed I don't want to do anything either but just sit around. Or sleep.

Angie, that's a good point. I think you may be on to something there. I'll have to give it some thought.

Sam,yes, I do remember images from books, but most strongly I remember the emotions they conveyed. I use the woods at night to evoke fear for me.

Miladysa, those are great words. I did a post a long time ago on "writing weather," and mentioned how when the chill comes into the air it really energizes my writing. It affects my mood. Sounds like you are similar.

Mark, that definitely sets a mood or tone. Some words are neutral for me, but most do have associations that somehow link to mood.

Crazycath, I think that's a large part of the challenge of writing because each of us has unique associations for things. Cicada means something to me but not to you. I'm sure British terms would be the same way for me. Good point.

Paul R. McNamee said...

E. A. Poe (as I recall from Lit classes) believed that the story's only goal should be conveyance of mood to the reader. (or, creation of a mood IN the reader.) Character, setting and plot should all drive toward it.

I think since movies and action stories, etc, sometimes we lose sight and focus on plot execution for its own sake, which can be a mistake.

I need to get back to invoking mood - I've really been structure and plot oriented since I did screenwriting.

I know Clark Aston Smith's Hyperborea tales always give me a strange mood conveyed by the setting of vast gray expanses and towering fortresses but a strong sense of isolation of the characters. Even if there is sunlight, Hyperborea never feels "sunny".

Virginia Lady said...

I'd have to agree, it seems easier to write the darker emotions since when we're happy we're usually out doing something else, though I enjoy writing to the point that it can turn my mood around completely at times.

Words I like: cheerful, glorious, delight, playful, vivacious, sunny, dreamy. And on the opposite end: powerless, broken, dead, empty, forlorn, defeated

Bernita said...

I think we both often use scene as metaphor to express mood.
At times I try for eerie, for otherness, for the sense of the invisible just beyond.

laughingwolf said...

good thoughts, charles

i tend to let my characters create/dictate the 'mood' i'm writing in, and not give my own state of mind much credence at the time, but am sucked into the one i'm working on....

Lana Gramlich said...

The Celtic Druids & bards encouraged creating & reciting poetry while engaged in the moods/surroundings of what they were speaking about. One shouldn't write happy poems when they're terribly depressed--the tone of the piece will be affected.

Aine said...

For non-writers like me, the ability to create mood through word choice is simply magical (because I can't do it). I am in awe of writers that wield that power effortlessly.

I also have often pondered why many artists tend to express sadness or negative emotions far more often than positive emotions. I wonder if the drive to share happiness is satisfied by actions because of the energy level associated with positive feelings. Whereas, negative emotions drive us to share in a more passive, solitary venue, such as writing or painting.

BernardL said...

I enjoy writing humorous interaction the most. Writing with a nostalgic touch is difficult for me, but the most satisfying, especially if I can avoid letting it sink into pathos. I get the biggest kick out of remaking the real world with my own vision, forcing it to conform. :)

Charles Gramlich said...

Paul, I've noticed in my own writing in recent years a great focus on plot and action than on mood and I need to get back some of that kind of focus. Part if it is that I'm writing more fantasy these days and less horror. Horror is so much about mood.

Vriginia Lady, "forlorn" is such a great word. It conjures up so many images for me.

Bernita,I like that eerie sense of otherworldness myself, and especially love surrealism in that context.

Laughinwolf, getting sucked in is good. I think.

Lana, it definitely works that way with me. I just find it difficult to write a mood I'm not experiencing to some extent.

Aine, I suspect that's exactly it. Happiness is expressed actions while sadness is expressed in contemplation, leading to more artistic pursuits.

Bernardl, I admire those who can do humor. I find it so difficult.

writtenwyrdd said...

So, the writer has a partner in the drive to create a mood. I know, as a reader, I desperately want the writers of the books I’m reading to be successful. I’ll meet them halfway, but they are the ones driving and the first move is theirs.

Oh goodness yes! This is so true!

As far as creating mood goes, I strive for a sense of wonder a lot when describing scenery or the setting. Not sure how successful I am, though! Otherwise, I am trying to evoke what I believe Everyman in today's society would feel in whatever bizarre situation I've got him in.

Heff said...

Damn, I have nothing to offer this post whatsoever ! NEXT !

Steve Malley said...

Me, I crank suspense without much thinking about it. One of the few things comes naturally for me...

Donnetta said...

Charles: I tend toward dark and melancholy on one hand--but then light hearted and child-like on the other. I like to write fantasy/horror and then children's stories. I have never understood it myself. Like to extremes. I don't know where it comes from. So, depending on my mood of the day, I am liable to write according to the mood swing.

Charles Gramlich said...

Writtenwyrd, I think most readers are like that. They really want the writer to succeed because that increases their joy.

Heff, oh, now I'm sure that the word "Donna" puts you in a mood. lol.

Steve malley, a good one to have. I have to work pretty hard at it.

Donnetta, I don' tend to have an easy time swinging between those extremes. Lighthearted comes hard to me.

Travis Cody said...

Mood creation is an area of my prose writing that still needs work. I tend to over-describe, which can completely remove the reader from the co-creation of a mood. So I definitely need to learn better economy.

I think I do a better job with my poetry. I think one of my strengths is to start with one mood and gradually shift to another.

I also think that, like an actor, a writer may tend toward creating more intense moods with high emotion. These can have more possibility and they can be a bit more "fun" to explore in a scene.

David Cranmer said...

You're right that word choice is critical for evoking the exact mood in a passage. The pulp stories I write tend to be agressive and the introspective stories have a somber quality that seems to be easier for me. When it comes to expressing happy, joyous moods in those, I find that more difficult.

Shauna Roberts said...

I'm not sure what moods are easiest for me to express. That's something I'm still struggling with.

L.A. Mitchell said...

For a long time, I haven't understood why I'm happy and optimistic in life, but in the worlds I write, everything is very dark. I guess it's easier to plunder bad experiences. There's a rawness to them that never quite goes away.

I have a huge respect for people who write comedy. The power to make someone laugh must be incredible.

SzélsőFa said...

I too, found that happier emotions are harder to convey. Poems about love hardly, if ever work for me. It makes a really talented poet to do that.

Words that I find inspiring are those connected to elements of Nature: a bright sunshine suggests easiness, a dripping mist uncertainty, sadness...but again, as someone said the task to avoid cliches.

Synchronicity said...

I can never escape mood in my life or my writing so it always comes out very clear. I find that I am usually either comical or wistfully melancholic. Great post...I am really enjoying coming here to read you.

Merisi said...

As a reader, I have never given any thought to the fact that it may be more difficult for the writer to create a happy mood rather than a melancholy one! I shall mull over this one, maybe the one or other thought will come, to share with you, later. Ian McEwan comes to mind, in another context, as a master of foreshadowing. Right now I cannot think of him ever set a happy mood! I'll have to ponder this one!!! ;-)

Thank you for this post, as for so many others. I do enjoy them very much.

Anndi said...

I've found myself writing about melancoly and sadness, but I dislike leaving it at that and feel the need to put a twist in there. I prefer to make people smile. Doesn't always work.

But you know, when I'm in need of a mood lift I go for the really good cry. I know... odd.

I don't know if I need to be in the mood I want to convey, but it's essential that I've lived it and can find it in myself.

Anonymous said...

Mood is my favorite part of writing. What to put in as desciptions, how people act, the colors and sounds of the scene...all wonderful tools (and more) at our disposal.

Monique said...

I have to set a scene, not so much a mood. Also an atmosphere through sound effects. Again completely different.

In a novel I look for a good story teller. Someone who can bring me to another world.

Charles Gramlich said...

Travis, I think you're right, writers go for the bigger emotions because they are writing heightened drama.

David Cranmer, yes, my Taleran books are certainly pulpy and there's not a huge amount of introspection. It's more cram on the action. Maybe that, too, partly explains the more somber moods.

Shauna Roberts, it's rather fun to test for those borders, and then to push them.

L.A. Mitchell, maybe too, it has something to do with the need for drama in writing. No one wants to read a book about a person who is just happy and doesn't need to do anything.

Szelsofa, For sure. Words that convey nature really effect mood for me.

Merelyme, wistful is a good mood and I can do that one. Comical is very hard for me.

Merisi, I think it's true. And maybe because of the need for conflict in fiction, which often engenders negative emotions.

Anndi, I find that when I run back through the memories of times when I was in a certain mood, I tend to automatically start to reexperience the mood.

Jason Evans, yes, I think it's just so critical. And selecting the words to convey it is enjoyable.

Monique, it depends a bit on the genre for me. In Sword & Planet I want the story more. But in horror I definitely want the mood.

J. L. Krueger said...

Dark moods are definitely easier for me. I can capture grief and a sense of horror (not Steven King horror, but the horror of witnessing/experiencing a traumatic event).

I can capture the stress of a struggle, but elation in victory takes work. Usually my characters are simply relieved to have survived the conflict.

I really have to work at happiness.

AvDB said...

I can draw out a relationship, tear two people apart, string them along and wring their hearts like tiny little sponges, but man, is it hard when I finally have to get them together.

Barrie said...


laughingwolf said...

or something, anyway! :O lol

virtualjourney said...

I find mildly satirical humour fairly easy to write; and oddly enough often sense a twist of tongue in cheek humour in your 'dark pieces' but that might be the effect of UK/US language shift.

Phrases that have layered meanings affect me either way.

Has the fact that depression seems to be more connected with the verbal left hemisphere got anything to do with writing more in that mood state?

Charles Gramlich said...

J. L. you and me both.

Avery, hum, maybe horror is your element then? lol.

Barrie, Humor is tough.

Laughingwolf, I hear you.

Julie, I can do that sometimes, but not as a regular thing. Again, I have to be in the right mood for sure.

Chris Eldin said...

Charles, your Monday post was beautiful melancholy. I hope you are feeling better, although I personaly see nothing wrong with the mood you described. I don't know why, but I think it's healthy (in small doses).

That type of writing is hardest for me. My goal as a children's book writer is to make kids laugh. There's enough shit in this world. I'll leave it to other children's writers to make them cry.

X. Dell said...

U think darker moods might be easier for a writer to depict compellingly than lighter ones simply because narrative thrives on tension. Less tension in happier times.

The previous post really evoked the mood of darkness. There, the gray sky isn't passive, but seems to envelop the car as you drive. So the sad songs and thoughts of doom seem to follow naturally.

Charles Gramlich said...

Chris Eldin, thanks. I can see your point about children's writing. Definitely I would prefer my kids to mostly read light-hearted stuff as youngsters.

X-Dell, I think that is an important element. Conflict comes out of someone not getting what they want, which could lead to darker emotions, whereas happiness doesn't suggest conflict.

Tom Evans said...

That's why it's easier to write convincingly about misery, but tougher to write about something like contentment in a way that isn't hopelessly lame...

BernardL said...

'I admire those who can do humor. I find it so difficult.'

Your post on the 'Princess' was very funny. All it takes is the right inspiration, Charles. :)

JR's Thumbprints said...

I find my best writing is confrontational ... mostly sprung from anger, sometimes from humor, sometimes from curiosity. I'm not sure it always works in setting up the conflict, but that seems to be my M.O.

Charles Gramlich said...

Tom Evans, yes, I think so. contentment drives no conflict.

Bernardl, I'm glad you thought the princess was "funny." I do find it easier to write sarcastic humor than any other kind.

JR, when I was younger, anger and sadness were what drove me first to put pen to paper.

Sarah Hina said...

I find that a common theme for me is writing about longing. Romantic longing, the longing for meaning, stronger family, etc. That striving to forge connections is something I keep returning to.

I love your word choices. Even taken alone, they conjured up exactly the feelings you had in mind.

Anonymous said...

It means nothing just to say something without feeling, and it is true that there is no use writing if you.. now I'm lost, mood change I guess.. thanks for the blog