Setting the Mood With Expectations

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How do you write moody stories? How do you imbue your prose with overwhelming emotion? It’s all about manipulating the feelings of the audience. Over the next couple of weeks, I want to look at different ways to set the mood. This week, using expectations to set the mood.

Breeding fear

What I mean by expectations is that which the audience thinks could happen. It’s not necessarily what will happen, but it is what is being hinted at.

For example, in C.J. West’s thriller Sin and Vengeance, he establishes early on what one of the characters, Randy, is capable of. I was on the edge of my seat in terror of his shenanigans. And as the character further develops, I grew to fear him increasingly more. I felt helpless in the face of this character, and terrified for the protagonist, the sympathetic character, who must go up against him. This sets the tone of the whole novel.

Sin and Vengeance manipulates our emotions in order to give us a memory of a feeling. This, I think, is what “mood” really is, a memory of a feeling.

So one way to generate mood is to set expectations about what’s going to happen, or at least what could happen.

H.P. Lovecraft also did this well in his story “The Shunned House”. He builds up an image of this house as having something terrible: Anyone who lives there meets an untimely death. Lovecraft was a master of building up an horrific element and wrapping it up in the plight of the characters. In this story, we just know our characters are destined for something terrible, and we fear for them and with them.

The X-Files also did this well. We loved Mark Snow’s moody soundtrack. But music is an abstract art form. Alone it can’t set the mood. It can only enhance the mood. What set the mood was the fact that any moment, Mulder and Scully might encounter a horrifying and deadly foe. This especially bugged me when they split up to work on two different branches of a case. Even though being together never decreased the danger, I felt better not having to go into a terrifying situation alone.

Other emotions

We can also apply the same technique to other feelings. If we had a sympathetic character who was trying to accomplish something, for example, as he overcame a tiny obstacle the audience would share his feelings of accomplishment and hope.

Consider Laura Whitcomb’s excellent novel A Certain Slant of Light (about which I cannot rave enthusiastically enough). The main character is dead, a ghost, and as a ghost she can hear and see what happens in the world, but she can’t feel objects or smell or taste, and no one else can hear or see her. Then someone does see her and hear her, because he is another ghost living inside a human body. And so we have hope that our protagonist can find a fuller existence. She falls in love with this other person, and when she then finds a human body to inhabit, we experience with her all the great feelings of love and passion and fulfillment. And we also fear the day they will have to leave these bodies, even though she avoids thinking about that eventuality. And we hope they can find some existence together, either as humans or in some other afterlife. (If you don’t understand, read the novel; then you will.)

How to do it

You can use the following three steps to write mood into a story:

  1. Identify the emotion you want the audience to feel.
  2. Ask what expectations in a sympathetic character’s story would evoke these feelings in the character.
  3. Give the character reason to expect these things.

Alternatively, you can make the audience feel for the character, because they know something the character does not or has a perspective he doesn’t have:

  1. Identify the emotion you want the audience to feel.
  2. Ask what future events in a sympathetic character’s story would evoke these feelings in the audience.
  3. Give the audience reason to expect these things.

An example

(Note: I know I said in the podcast I’d write a couple stories to demonstrate. As it turned out, just the beginnings seemed to make the point.)

Here’s the beginning to a story that illustrates using the character’s reaction to set the mood. The feeling I want to evoke is fear. Establish a character who is afraid of something. Then make him face the thing he fears. Note that he can face it with bravery— Bravery is being afraid and doing it anyway. Still, the audience will experience the same tension they know is under the character’s tough exterior.

Logic did not matter. Ever since he was a young boy, ever since his black cat playfully reached out an grabbed him, as cats do, John had been terrified of dark passages and black cats. This was a deep-seated phobia.

Sometimes, people asked him why he became a zookeeper and why he loved the panthers. He wasn’t sure himself. Maybe it was a twist of fate. Or maybe it was his subconscious facing his fears.

Whatever the reason, just after the zoo had closed for the night, the panther had escaped, and now John was in charge…

-TimK

About J. Timothy King
J. Timothy King

I'm the eldest of three siblings, a stay-at-home father of two daughters, the husband of a wonderful wife, and an indie author of life-expanding character fiction. When not writing, I read, watch old TV and movies, play bass guitar, and tend to my family in our Boston-area apartment.

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