“Mood” is a term that gets thrown around a lot – and not always correctly. That’s partly because it’s in everything (movies, books, music, etc.), so even without knowing exactly what it is, many writers use mood automatically. It’s like osmosis – you absorb it and use it without even knowing. If you want to write or enhance a specific mood, however, you’ll need to know more precisely what it is.
Put bluntly, mood is atmosphere. I think of it like the scene of a movie or tv show. If it’s supposed to be creepy, there are probably a lot of high violins playing in the background and deep shadows in the lighting. If the mood is happier, the lighting would be brighter and softer. The background music would be bouncy or light and sweet. Honestly, if you picture a scene from a movie right now and how it made you feel, you’ll have a good idea of how they built that mood (What lighting was used? What location? What music? What was happening?).
In writing, mood is built mostly by word choice and rhythm. Strong adjectives and imagery tend to bring specific moods to mind. “A cold wind blew through to trees, making the branches crackle like scraping bones,” is going to make a more ominous or creepy mood than “A cold wind blew through the trees, making the branches tinkle like icy wind chimes.” The second one is more whimsical and less frightening, and the only difference is the simile. Here is where picturing the movie scene can be particularly helpful. The words you would use to describe that movie scene can make the same mood as the scene.
Using more abstract imagery (like the similes above) often gives a stronger impact than adjectives alone, yet neither one by itself is enough to make the mood of the scene. The second one could end up more frightening in the end because how these word choices combine with the pacing and situation is what builds a truly powerful mood.
Thinking about the character’s emotions can help you decide what pacing is right for the mood you want. When people are upset, their movements and breathing get faster. Whether they’re scared, excited, or aroused, a faster and more impulsive pace is a natural response. When people are calmer or feel more stable emotions, they move at a slower, more leisurely pace. Since those speeds are already associated with certain types of emotions, passages written in those speeds can help artificially inspire the emotions.
How the situation affects the mood completely depends on what the main character knows and feels. Unknowns generally cause nerves or fear. If the character knows what’s going on and has a handle on it, the mood is already set up to be calmer. Since this relies on the character’s emotions, it links very closely with the pacing choice.
True masters of mood combine imagery, pacing, and situation to manipulate their readers’ emotions. It adds an extra punch to any book, and if you’re writing horror, it is a definite must. You may be using it instinctively, yet by consciously tweaking these three facets, you can definitely up the impact.
What mood will you write?