Tips for Setting the Mood in Your Novel | NY Book Editors
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How to Set the Mood in Your Novel

FEATURED How to Set the Mood in Your Novel

That may sound like a silly question. How can a novel set a mood? But novels do create a mood, and that mood will affect how the reader feels about your story and its characters. It will also impact how the reader processes the main ideas of your story.

We tend to focus on the big money elements, such as plot, tension, setting, character development, and theme. Although mood isn’t as celebrated as these other elements of your story, it’s just as important.

While mood isn't as celebrated as other elements of your story, it's just as important.

Let’s discuss what mood is and how to create the right mood in your novel.

What is Mood?

Mood goes beyond the atmosphere of your novel. Mood is the feeling your novel inspires in the reader.

Whether your reader comes away from the novel with a chuckle, or a heaviness of heart-- it’s likely to be the mood that’s responsible.

You see, mood can influence context, how you experience the story, and what you take from it. For example, in a story where people are stranded on a desolate island: the mood could be Gilligan’s Island, or it could be Lost. Similar circumstances, but the two stories produce a profoundly different emotion.

Through the course of your novel, the mood will change. It’s likely to shift, as the reader connects with the narrator, develops empathy for the protagonist, and experiences the ups and downs of your exquisite storytelling. Your story’s mood can jump from jubilant to sorrowful and then back again.

Remember that mood doesn’t have to be constant, but it does need to be ever-present.

Why is Mood Important?

For your reader’s sake, it’s key to strike the right mood in your novel. You must create a mood that enhances the story you’re telling, whether that story is sad, terrifying, romantic, or joyful.

Conveying mood (or making the reader feel the way you want him to feel) is a huge part of storytelling.

When you tell a story, you want people to feel a certain way when hearing or reading it. For example, if you’re relaying a funny story to your best friend-- you want your friend to feel happy and even laugh while hearing it.

It’s the same way with a novel. If you’re telling a sad story, you want the reader to sympathize with the protagonist. You can do that by first striking the right tone, which will then create the right mood. We’ll discuss tone more in the next section.

Another reason why mood is important? It enhances the reader’s experience.

As a writer, your goal for the reader should always be emotional reaction. The reader needs to feel emotionally attached to the story, the characters, the plot, and the possibilities.

And because mood is how the reader feels when reading and processing your story, you’ve got to set the stage for the right mood.

The right mood will help the reader immerse completely into your world of characters. It will give them a personal and visceral connection to the story.

How is Mood Different from Tone?

Let’s talk about tone.

Tone is not the same as mood.

While mood deals with the reader, tone deals with the writer and/or the narrator.

The tone of a story is how the narrator feels about what’s happening in the story. Sometimes, it can be connected to the mood, and in other times, it can be in stark contrast to the mood.

For example, let’s say you have an unreliable narrator who happens to be a serial killer. He or she may use a matter-of-fact, or even humorous tone when depicting events. As the reader, the tone may make you feel uncomfortable, unsettled, or weirded out-- that’s the mood!

And that’s also an extreme example. Generally, if the narrator can be trusted, the mood and the tone will be similar.

Now is probably a good time to bring up voice. Voice is different from tone. Your writer’s voice is your own-- it’s the unique style in which you tell your stories. You’ll carry your voice with you to every book your write. It’s tethered to you as an author and doesn’t change.

However, tone can change from book to book, character to character, scene to scene.

I like to compare it to that old saying “tone of voice”. Your tone can change, but your voice is uniquely and consistently yours, no matter the tone.

Start Here

Getting back to mood, let’s talk about how to set the right mood for your reader.

Start by answering this question: What do I want the reader to feel when reading my novel?

Is the answer: Delighted? Suspenseful? Hopeful? Helpless? Desperate?

Whatever the targeted sentiment, be intentional. Write towards that emotional. And during the self-editing process, check your work against that specific emotion. After a peer critique, inquire about the reader’s emotion. Is the same as the emotion you were hoping to create?

If not, edit until you get the right emotion.

Why do you need to have an emotional goal?

Emotions tie the reader to your story. Finding the right emotion(s) will also strengthen your story, and make it more engaging. Without a defined emotional goal, your story will feel loose, unfocused, and unintentional.

4 Ways to Establish Mood in Your Novel

Here are four simple ways to establish mood in your novel.

1. Explore Theme

What’s the theme of your novel?

Not sure what theme means? The theme of a novel is its big idea. It’s the meaning of your story, and the interpretation you’re hoping to communicate.

A few popular themes in literature are:

  • The circle of life
  • Empowerment
  • Fading beauty
  • Love and sacrifice
  • Self-reliance
  • True love conquers all

Oftentimes, the theme of your novel can set a mood for the reader. For example, when you choose a story that focuses on the theme true love conquers all, your reader may feel angry, optimistic, melancholy, nostalgic, and ultimately gratified. By focusing on the theme, you can impact the right mood to your reader.

2. Use the Setting

Setting can set the mood.

Let’s say your protagonist is lost. As darkness falls around her, she reaches:

  1. A dilapidated mansion overtaken with weeds and ivy. It’s seemingly abandoned except for the one faint light the emanating from an upstairs window.
  2. A well-built log cabin that’s nestled deep in the woods. Smoke billows from the chimney, and she can hear a sitcom playing in the background.

In both of the above examples, the protagonist reaches a house, but the mood is different. You can use setting to make the reader feel a sense of foreboding. Or the setting can suggest safety. And depending on the journey you’d like to take the reader on, the mood you create could betray and misdirect the reader.

In both of the above examples, the protagonist reaches a house, but the mood is different. You can use setting to make the reader feel a sense of foreboding. Or the setting can suggest safety. And depending on the journey you’d like to take the reader on, the mood you create could betray and misdirect the reader.

3. Choose the Right Language

The choice of words you use make a huge impact on how the reader feels about the characters and each scene.

For example, a character laughs. You can choose a term like “cackle” or “giggle” to describe the laugh. One (cackle) suggests a shrill, unpleasant sound. The other (giggle) suggests an innocent, or even nervous, sound.

Your word choice directs the reader on what to feel about the character, the scene, and more.

4. Set the Pace

Finally, the pace of your novel can affect mood. Pacing captures the energy of the scene.

When you choose short, terse words and sentences, you’ll cultivate a rushed mood in your narrative. You may choose short words to indicate a range of emotions from excitement to anger.

Alternatively, if you use lyrical, long-winding sentences, you can cultivate a contemplative mood. Wordiness will slow down the narrative and has the subtle power to make the reader feel hopeless, trapped, or completely immersed.

Over to You

Which of the above is your favorite method for establishing mood? Or, do you have another method we didn’t discuss? Let us know in the comments!

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