“It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”
–Paul Clifford, Edward Bulwer-Lytton
What’s the first thing you think when you see a painting? The middle usually draws your eye, but it’s the outside colors that set the mood of the picture. Warm colors show us a bright, cheerful story while the opposite gives us a cold, dreary idea. And with that, you create the mood of a story. The outside, the setting, is the flavor. Without that, you can have a hard time creating such a distinct emotion.
One could argue that the effects of actions in a narrative drive what the mood is. But the backdrop of the story drives what the characters do. Even if you have massive killings in a book, a setting that sharply contrasts that idea will muddle the darker parts. Pockets of black on a white canvas, while more noticeable, are still subject to the bright background. It all depends on how much is present.
Same with the setting.
Readers usually judge the literature from the first page. The first sentence is even more key in producing the correct atmosphere. Most start out with action, but it is in these actions that we as the reader begin to understand the place. If blood and guts are strewn everywhere, the picture is a little grotesque. The same can be thought of if the fighting is still gruesome, maybe verbal.
Mood is broad, but easy to connect the dots with. Dismembered body parts won’t have the same effect as two people quarreling over the last bit of food in a drowned wasteland. Or will it?
It is in finding the right spark to your setting that you can create a certain niche of your mood. Rain is common in a miserable setting. What if you want a dreary, almost sluggish city? Make it hard for the character to get up in the morning. Make the rain noticeable. Make the thumping on the roof a numb sound as the character shuffles his or her feet cross the cold wood.
Sunshine makes a happy feeling, making characters want to dance around outside, joyful and jubilant. The reader becomes excited too, or at least hopefully.
It is in the words that we choose the mood. It is in how the setting is described that we create the mood. A writer can detail every good thing in the slums, resulting in a more positive light. Instead of showing every bad thing in every alleyway, we get a page long exposition of how residents do good in their humble abodes. A more hopeful mood will rise from the muck.
Both the dreary and the hopeful can be used in writing; it is in knowing when to show these that the overarching mood comes into play. This all circles back to how much of a color is on the canvas.
Garbage laid everywhere will evoke a sense of waste and uncaring in the place. Clean streets will do the opposite, giving the reader a “utopian” sense, considering most cities are rife with these pleasantries.
Actions may be the result of mood,
but it is the setting that gives readers the core understanding of the mood. More is better, never less. Know how to balance the opposite, giving friction and conflict to an already well realized place.
More thoughts on the opening line HERE
2 thoughts on “The Importance of Setting, Part 2: Mood”
Great post. Setting the scene makes drawing the reader into the story much easier. However, too much detail can slow the pace to a crawl. Balance is key.
Good post! I’m wondering about this though: “Actions may be the result of mood,
but it is the setting that gives readers the core understanding of the mood.” Are the actions really the result of the mood? When a story is very action-packed and if the setting is rather bleak (say an abandoned facility), I’d argue a lot of the mood (or ambience of the sitch) or “core understanding” of it comes from the action, how the heroes fare against the foes, how much blood is spilled, how afraid or psyched the characters are… And the people quarreling over food sounds like action, and they set the mood just as strongly or even more so than dismembered body parts, or rain. Dialogue can set the mood too. Quarrelling people make for a bitchy mood.