The Mood Ring: What To Do With Mood In Your Story?
Here I am again, arguing with myself. It’s not healthy. Pulling my own hair and slapping myself, that’s easy. Of course, trickier moves prevail (and really impress the judges). How, then, to spit in my own eye? Well, I hock one up, ptoo it into my palm, and then rub it in the ol’ peepers. That gets me points with the judges, because it’s got oomph. It’s got dramatic punch.
And, in a way, that’s what we’re talking about today. The dramatic punch brought on by a heaping helping of em-double-oh-dee.
We’re talking about mood, baby.
The question is how best to utilize mood in your story?
Applying mood to film and applying mood to prose fiction are two different animals. (If you must know, one is a transcendent pegasus emerging from its egg, the other is a cold, gray lump of Tofurkey.) In film, while you can still overdo it with mood, the best films apply mood with a certain visual style — the silver nitrate noir of Se7en, the grungy post-world cuteness of Wall-E, the wide open alienation of No Country For Old Men. (Actually, audio can go a long way, too — consider the jarring, ill-fitting soundtrack to There Will Be Blood.)
A film paints with many brushes: set design, CGI, actors, costumes, music.
A book paints with one brush: your words.
How then to approach mood in prose?
It’s an issue, as with theme, that I don’t have my hands around, yet. I’m not so unclear as to how you might apply mood — a combination of character dialogue, description, and writing style reinforce the mood demanded by plot and character action — but am far less clear on when one should do so. Or, frankly, if one should do so at all.
Hence, a discussion is perhaps in order.
Pro: I Need A Little Something To Get Me In The Mood, Baby
Mood rules, bitches.
Oh, I’m sorry — you don’t want to use mood? No, no, that’s fine. It’s only one of the coolest tools in the toolbox. It’s like a snowblower that shoots nails and duct tape and fire. Hey, you’re fine with that banal hammer, that pedestrian wrench, so be it. Me, I want to have some fun when I write, and fun is when the mood is dripping off the wall.
I got two words for you: Raymond Chandler.
Chandler’s hardboiled crime fiction is sodden with mood, and that’s part of what everybody remembers. The dialogue (“It’s a question of a little money against a lot of annoyance. There has to be something behind it. But nobody’s going to break your heart, if it hasn’t been done already. And it would take an awful lot of chiselers an awful long time to rob you of enough so you’d even notice it.”), the description (“The plants filled the place, a forest of them, with nasty meaty leaves and stalks like the newly washed fingers of dead men. They smelled as overpowering as boiling alcohol under a blanket.”).
You read that, the language comes alive. The scene isn’t just there for you to see, but it’s there for you to feel — humid as a greenhouse, grimy like a dirty bathroom, oozing with mood like an open sore.
That shows an author with certainty of vision. It shows a confident story that knows where it needs to be and what it needs to give to the reader.
Let’s pull back a second and talk about how a distinct lack of attention in regards to mood can be jarring. You ever go to a doctor’s office, a daycare, a day spa, a hotel, whatever, and it looks like they put minimal attention into thinking about mood? Tan carpet, white walls, buzzing fluorescence? The lack of mood is itself a mood (er, I know, shut up), and it can set you off-kilter. Alternately, a doctor’s office painted in cooling blues, a hotel room draped in regal golds and reds, a day-spa made to look like a jade bamboo forest — these things enforce the purpose of the location and further give the user a defined experience. I feel calm at the doctor’s. I feel rich and privileged in the hotel. I feel soothed at the spa.
That’s mood in your fiction. It’s a coat of paint, a color of carpet, some noise in the background. Your sci-fi spaceship (it’s early, because I literally typed that as spacesheep, which is plainly much more awesome) may need to feel cold and isolated, utilitarian in the alienation of space… or maybe you want it to feel like a rich and heady broth of other cultures as many types of people cross the wide gulf of space, bringing with them the trappings of their old lives. Mood brings all that together.
Oh, I’m sorry? You don’t want to bring it all together? You want to drunkenly stumble through your story with no idea where you’re going or what it all means? What’s that? You hate the reader? That’s just mean, but hey, it’s your bag of tricks, not mine. You can remain a weepy, uncertain wallflower all you’d like. Me, I’m in the mood. I’m out on the dance floor. The beat is in me, and so now the beat is in you.
Like my penis.
(That just went off the rails. Let’s move onto the next argument.)
Con: Mood Is An Unforgiving Hammer, So Stop Hitting People With It
Fine, the paint-and-carpet metaphor works. Let’s go with that.
You ever sell a house or buy a house, here’s what the experts all tell you:
Tan carpet. White or cream walls. Neutrals all around. Why is that? Because it lets the potential buyer envision her new home without being forced to imagine the home of the current sellers. The details are her own. By filling in the elements in her own mind, she takes ownership of the home even before she decides to take ownership of the home.
Less is more in fiction. The reader doesn’t know it, but the reader wants to do work. You can’t detail every aspect of the world — it’s not the writer’s job to describe every carpet fiber, or talk about every character walking the street, or put into play each and every line of dialogue. It’s a targeted strike — the necessary elements must be put into play, and the rest is up to the reader.
So it is with mood.
Mood paints with a confident brush, sure. But what happens when the reader doesn’t like that tone of red, or that pale jade you’ve chosen? You’ve made a stark choice and now you might pay for it by turning off readers. Okay, sure, you might also appeal to some readers, but isn’t it better to please the maximum number?
Let’s use as our example some big names:
Stephen King, Dan Brown, Dean Koontz, J.K. Rowling.
Their works are not heavy with mood. King in particular lets the reader largely set the mood — most of his work reads like, well, most of his other work. He sets the stage with a situation, with characters, with dialogue, but he doesn’t really paint with the mood brush all that much. The language is simple, direct, his descriptions clear. We aren’t told how to feel. We feel whatever we want to feel; it’s our choice how to respond.
This may sound like I’m attacking King for this. I’m not. In fact, all of the writers mentioned are giant motherfucking nuclear bomb booksellers. By using mood minimally — if at all — they are opening their works to the greatest number of readers, readers who don’t have to worry about that color of red, or the way that plant looks in the corner. The room is empty enough so that they imprint themselves on it. They do the work, and so they become invested.
Suck on that, Wendig.
The Truth As Always Is The Middle Path
For the moment — and this may change as I continue to develop my fiction — I think a middle path is best. Raymond Chandler’s good clean fun, but you read some of his descriptions, and while it does invoke a mood, it doesn’t necessarily constitute a clean image. It smelled like boiling alcohol under a blanket? Okay, I guess I get a feel from that, but I don’t know what it means. It’s so odd a choice it threatens to slam the brakes on the narrative. (Almost, but not quite. I’ll still note that Chandler thrills me, even when he confuses me. His writing is a treat, a unique experience.)
Alternately, while I am a fan of King, I do sometimes wish more of his work took a confident hand in painting a picture. The Dark Tower series is better for this than some of his other work — I’m not saying he’s terrible with mood, but sometimes I read his novels (Needful Things comes to mind) and feel like I’m working with cardboard and white paste. Interesting characters wandering a blank world.
The middle path for me is the work represented by authors like Robert McCammon or Joe Lansdale; they know when to let the story just be the story, but they also know when to occasionally swipe a stripe of color across the tale. They don’t hammer on mood every paragraph, but they revisit it from time to time, leaving you with a feeling that carries you through to the next instance, and the next after that. It’s less about painting all the walls and putting in crazy carpets, and more about a keen accent here, a notable elemental inclusion or exclusion there. It’s just enough so you know where you’re at, and enough to feel the mood without realizing it’s being fed to you. Readers, in my experience, don’t like to feel controlled — they don’t want you to grab their hand and drag them down the path, they want to walk the path themselves. So it’s up to you to put all the parts in place and let them come to the elements on their own.
That’s my thought for now, at least. Some projects demand more mood than others. Crime fiction (hey, quick plug, don’t fail to check out the Do Some Damage crew) drinks up the mood really well, so genre may have implications. Even still, for now I’m settling on mood-as-accent rather than mood-neutral or mood-as-fresh-coat-of-paint.
I’m curious, as always, to hear your thoughts. How do you use it? How do you feel about it when you read something pregnant with mood, or something utterly devoid of it?
It’s even worth discussing in terms of running games. When is it appropriate to harness mood, and when is it best to let the players (as with readers) create their own feel from the experience?