Setting the Mood With Milieu


This is the second part of a series, after Setting the Mood With Expectations.

Another mood-generating device authors use is milieu.

What is milieu

What I mean by millieu is the same thing Orson Scott Card means, when he talks about the 4 different types of stories. Briefly, Orson Scott Card talks about the millieu story, idea story, character story, and event story, depending on what story element is at the root of the story idea.

The milieu is the world surrounding the characters, not only the setting but also culture and society, governement and religion, family and traditions, everything.

Moody milieus

I’m not necessarily talking about using a milieu story to generate a mood. But I am saying that some milieus have their own mood associated with them. For example, cultural milieus frequently generate a strong feeling. The movie Moonstruck has a strong feeling about it, because it is about an Italian family in New York City. Similarly, Smilla’s Sense of Snow is set in Denmark, and Smilla grew up in Greenland. Someone recently told me the novel was the coldest story he’d ever read.

Your mileage may vary. Each of us is likely to react slightly differently to a given milieu, depending on our own histories and taste. Still, milieu is an important element. That’s why authors instinctively feel the need to build layers of complexity into their fictional universes.

In The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, on the island of Santorini, in Greece, especially in the novel, Lena always the artist is overwhelmed by the visuals of the island, the colors. (You get a sense of this in the film as well.) How the sympathetic characters react to the milieu will affect how the audience reacts.

In Robert Heinlein’s novel The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, the characters live on the moon, and the society there is normal for them. When they visit Earth, you get a feeling of oppression, even though their Earth is very similar to ours. Humans tend toward neatly whitewashed evil. It’s all a matter of perspective. We get to see our society through their eyes.

By the way, calling on sympathy to manipulate the audience’s feelings is something well known to politicians.

How to do it

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

  1. Identify the emotion you want the audience to feel.
  2. Ask what elements of the milieu would invoke these feelings in the audience.
  3. Write these elements into the story.

Sometimes, you don’t need to identify a specific feeling. Sometimes, you only care that it’s a strong feeling. Cultural milieus are great for this.

If you do have a specific feeling you want to encourage, consider using character sympathy to drive audience reaction:

  1. Identify the emotion you want the audience to feel.
  2. Ask what elements of the milieu would invoke these feelings in the character.
  3. Write these elements into the story.

An example

Here’s a short piece that I intended to feel reminiscent. (By the way, this is based on my own memories of Longwood Gardens, in case you’ve been there yourself.)

A little dark-haired girl, perhaps 6 years old, ran by and almost knocked Jenna over. And Jenna smiled. A man called out after, but the girl wasn’t listening.

“Sorry,” he said to Jenna.

“That’s okay.” She smiled even more broadly. “I was a little dark-haired girl once, too.”

When she was little, Jenna’s family every summer visited this same tourist trap. But to her it was not just a tourist trap. It was a memory. As a girl, she romped down the same red-brick path. She smelled the same flowers, all red and purple and gold. The same hot sun radiated on her long, black hair. The same sweat beaded on her face, waiting for a gentle scented garden breeze to cool it. In the distance, Jenna could just make out the chimes tower signalling the hour.

She stopped a moment, letting the sun beat down on her. Then she sighed and continued on.


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