No matter what the genre, a good writer needs to set the mood for readers. Whether it’s a creaky old house or the tense moments leading up to a final confrontation, atmosphere can make or break the experience in any piece of writing. It makes the story believable.
In the following excerpt from The Art & Craft of Writing Christian Fiction, author Jeff Gerke walks us through (withexamples) using specific word choice and description to paint the kind of picture that keeps readers turning the page or glancing over their shoulder. Moreover, he shows us how we can use the same setting for three different places, but, by adding and changing detail, create drastically different moods. In this sense, the settings become different because the mood and atmosphere have changed.
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Here’s an example in setting mood through word choice. I’m going to describe the same place three times but set three different moods. The place: a house in the suburbs.
A shadow lay over the yard like a grave cloth. The grass was long and unkempt. Against the bole of a withered oak lay a child’s ball shrouded by the creeping Bermuda. The features of the house shimmered in the blaze of the afternoon, blurred beyond recognition to the unwary stranger.
Okay, a bit cheesy, maybe, but you get the point. Not a fun place to go.
Zinnias blossomed against the cherry tree beside the front porch, their sun-kissed inner circles wreathed in bashful pink. At the base of the grand oak, a mother rabbit led her furry litter out from the shade of a rhododendron’s lacy leaves. She sniffed the breeze with delicate nostrils, brushed her eye with a paw, and bounded into the sun.
Ah, a more pleasant place, yes? A Disney moment.
The dirt showed through the grass in brown scars. The grass that remained was brittle and sharp, like a smoker’s eyebrows. Signs remained of the home’s luxuriant past—the garden path, the children’s toys, the “Home of the Week” sign out front—but they lay wasted. An American flag still fluttered on its pole, but the sun had washed it out to a milky translucence, and its trailing edge was shredded. It hung from only one tether, twisting in the wind like a castaway’s last cry for rescue.
I was describing the same place in all three passages: A yard, grass, some trees, and stuff on the lawn. But I created vastly different feelings for the scene that could then take place there.
I did this by means of three tricks. First, I selected different details to point out each time. All the things I mentioned could be there in the yard each time—the flag, the bunny, the child’s ball—but by plucking out specific details that supported the mood I was after, I was able to construct different images in your mind.
Second, I made heavy use of word pictures and comparisons. You’ll notice I never resorted to personification, in which I could’ve brought inanimate objects to life (“the weeds tried to choke the joy from the yard,” that sort of thing). The similes were sufficient.
Third, I chose my vocabulary carefully. In the first one, I used words like grave cloth, bole, shrouded, withered, and creeping. In the second, I used blossomed, furry, bashful, and bounded. (Plus a bunny—you can never go wrong with a furry bunny if you want to paint a happy mood.) In the third, I used wasted, brittle, and cry, plus images of regret and loneliness.
Actually, I did a fourth thing to create the mood I was after. This one’s so subtle I didn’t realize I was doing it until I stepped back and took a look. I used words that “sounded to the eye” like other words that helped paint the picture I was going for. For instance, I used shimmered when I was thinking shivered. I used cherry to sound close to cheery. And I used lacy to sound like lazy, as in relaxed.
Pretty cool, huh? I’ve gone a bit overboard to illustrate, but you can achieve the same effect with a less heavy hand simply by being mindful of the mood you’re trying to create.
You can do this to convey the narrator’s mood, too. Indeed, you could combine both advanced techniques in this book into one. You’ve got a viewpoint character who is the narrator, and now you want to illustrate his mood, so you do so by having him describe things in ways that reveal his inner state. Now we’re really at heady altitude.
The same house and yard might look all three of these ways at different points in the story depending on how the viewpoint character is feeling at the moment. We all see things we want to see—or fear—and your characters are no different.
So try it. Do you have a scene you want your reader to perceive as happy, frightening, or sad? Do you want the reader to arrive at the scene feeling wary, disarmed, or flush with young love? Then take out your paint kit (your thesaurus) and begin selecting your palette.
It should work the other way around, too. If you’re about to write a scene that is supposed to be scary, be mindful of the images and vocabulary you use to describe the setting. You should probably remove the happy family of bunnies, in other words.
Your words are setting a mood for your scenes, whether you think about them or not. I’m just asking you to think about them. You want your descriptions to help set the mood you’re after, not work against you.
Descriptions are like paintings. An artist will choose her tools carefully. The brushes, the canvas, the paints, the colors, and more. All of these help her convey the image and feeling she wants to create in the painting.
So it is in your fiction. It’s the words and images you choose in your description that convey the mood you want to create for your scenes. Be mindful of your tools, and paint away!
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Cris Freese is the associate editor of Writer’s Digest Books.