Science fiction and fantasy stories transport us to a whole other world. And immersing us in a fantastical place needs more than just great world-building — it needs a sense of mood. The best speculative fiction authors are experts at conjuring the mood of a particular time or place.
But what's the difference between summoning a particular mood, and bringing to life an emotional state? And how can you excel at both?
I feel like most of us know the difference between mood and emotion, but it's easy to mix them up in practice. In particular, it's easy to fall into the trap of substituting mood for emotion.
The simplest way to differentiate between mood and emotion is that mood is an extension of setting, whereas emotion comes from a specific character(s). You can create a mood by describing a scene as a whole, or even just by describing the weather and a series of incidents. Meanwhile, emotion means getting inside the head and heart of one or more people. The two often bleed together or support each other, but they require different skillsets.
Here's a great example of pure mood, George R.R. Martin describing the scene in King's Landing on the eve of the Battle of Blackwater, in A Clash of Kings:
The southern sky was black with smoke. It rose swirling off a hundred distant fires, its sooty fingers smudging out the stars. Across the Blackwater Rush, a line of flame burned nightly from horizon to horizon, while on this side the Imp had fired the whole riverfront: docks and warehouses, homes and brothels, everything outside the city walls.
Even in the Red Keep, the air tasted of ashes.
And here's an example of pure emotion, from Shards of Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold:
Cordelia could not remember if she'd screamed. No matter. Odds were no one paid much attention to screams coming out of this room anyway. She felt frozen and bloodless in her hands, face, feet; her heart hammered.
Classic science fiction, fantasy and horror is full of mood, from the eldritch dread of H.P. Lovecraft to the brash, confident tone of a pulp space opera. We've all read stories that were pure mood, with very little in the way of character development. We've also all read stories that were long on emotional intensity but not much for creating an overarching mood.
So let's drill down a bit more into the difference between emotion and mood, and then talk about techniques for creating both. Plus how the two can reinforce each other.
Here are a few generalizations about mood versus emotion:
Mood is in the reader's head, emotion is in the characters'
Like all generalizations, this one isn't always true, but often is. Mood can involve the feelings of a set of characters, or the collective feelings of a whole community. It can also convey the emotions and ideas of a whole community, going back decades or centuries, as reflected in architecture and local traditions. But fundamentally, mood is something that's going on in the reader's head. It's the closest the narrator can come to imposing a point of view, distinct from any characters', without actually just lecturing the reader.
Mood is diffuse, emotion is focused
If it's just based on one specific person's body language or sensations or out-and-out emotional expressions, then that's emotion. The moment you broaden it out to include multiple people, or a bunch of trees and random forest animals, then you're dealing with mood instead. Mood is sort of like the incidental music in a TV show or movie, that helps set a scene or plays during a set piece to help guide the audience to a particular state of mind.
Emotion has to come from somewhere, but mood really doesn't
People's emotions don't always have clear-cut causes, in fiction any more than they do in real life. But most of the time, you at least have a sense of emotional progression, and an inchoate notion of why someone feels the way they do. Or if a character bounces from joy to weeping in every other chapter, then that tells you something about that character. In any case, part of a character feeling true to life is that their emotions feel consistent or believable.
But mood can be somewhat arbitrary, based on the needs of the story. You can use mood to foreshadow coming events without having the mood, in itself, come from anything that's already happened. If all your characters are celebrating, but suddenly the narrator is focusing on ominous shadows in the corner, you're creating a mood that has nothing to do with the story. (Yes, that's a terrible example. Sorry about that. Don't really start describing ominous shadows while your characters are all celebrating, unless your story features evil shadow creatures.)
Mood is a function of narrative voice, emotion is about inhabiting your characters
And here's where they blend together a lot more, at least sometimes. You can have a character watching the scene in a town, and observing the mood of everybody and everything around, and it feeds into the character's own feelings. (More on this later.) Still, the creation of a coherent mood is usually the biggest task of a narrator. Even a first-person narrator, who is obviously filtering everything through one character's perceptions, will create a larger mood when describing a scene. Emotions, meanwhile, come from a tight focus on one character and his/her inner processes.
The reason I started thinking about this topic in the first place was because these are both incredibly difficult things, and there's no right way to do either of them. Setting a mood and conveying your characters' individual emotional states are both crucial to making a story or novel feel immersive and intense, instead of just a recounting of a bunch of stuff that happened.
And as with a lot of other things to do with writing, a lot of the key is attention to detail. You don't have to bombard your readers with descriptions of everything that everybody is wearing or eating — in fact, sometimes less is more when it comes to description — but having an ear, eye, or nose for details will massively enhance your ability to create a mood. If you describe tons and tons of details without managing to convey a mood, then you may need to step back a bit — although sometimes, you may just want to have a lot of detail that you'll call on later.
And so will being able to capture the little details that convey what someone is feeling — including all those little tricks of subjectivity that happen in your head when you're overcome with an emotion. (Like the way your thoughts go in circles when you're upset, or the way you might not notice you've been sitting on your hand for half an hour and it's gone to sleep.)
In fact, maybe it's helpful to think of this as two types of immersiveness: into a scene generally, and into a specific character. The key to that, in turn, is finding ways to be immersed yourself. So you need to find ways to inhabit the scene as fully as you manage to inhabit a particular character within the scene.
Obviously, if you're doing first-person or tight third-person narration, worrying about mood beyond that character's own nose is less crucial — but your viewpoint character should probably still be aware of the general mood. And as we've already discussed, mood is a big part of scene-setting.
You don't have to know what mood you're setting out to create, any more than you have to dictate your characters' emotions a priori. Sometimes it's actually way better to imagine the scene first, let it take shape in your mind through a collection of details, and then see what kind of mood that brings to the narration. Likewise, you don't always know how your characters are going to feel about something until you do a lot of the work of imagining them in the situation.
Part of the trick is knowing when to do either one, and when to do both. Sometimes, it's enough to create a general mood, and let your characters be swept up in it. A classic example is the "planning for battle" scene, where everybody is talking quickly and trading bold quips and cunning strategies. You don't necessarily need to delve into how one particular person is feeling, when the general mood of "here's how we'll storm the castle" is carrying you forward.
Meanwhile, sometimes the only thing that matters is how one particular character is feeling, and what's going on in one person's head. And the only details about the outside world that you need to worry about are the ones that reflect or affect that one person's emotional state.
But most of the time, you shouldn't create a pervasive mood and kid yourself that you've conveyed how a particular character is feeling. Unless your major characters really are just swept up in the general mood of excitement or despondence, they're going to feel sort of one-dimensional. In fact, a character who is never anything but caught up in what everybody else is feeling is a bit player, not a protagonist. Those sorts of people can stand in the back, follow the crowd, join the angry mob, or whatever.
And also, if you only ever tell us what your protagonist is feeling, without bringing the outside world to life, then your protagonist will come across as navel-gazing. And at worst, you'll feel like you're putting on the equivalent of an avant garde theater piece where the scenery is intentionally fake and all the supporting characters are played by one or two put-upon actors with an endless series of wigs. Even if it's just a series of gracenotes, you need to give us some taste of what other people are feeling.
If you can manage to do both things, mood and emotion, then there are obvious benefits beyond just the fact that your scene will feel as well-developed as your main characters. They can play off each other, sometimes in harmony and sometimes in discord. To stick with the music metaphor for a second, think of the general mood as being your string instruments, laying down a general chord progression, and then the individual characters' emotions as more akin to your wind section, playing a melody over that. (Okay, done with music metaphor now.)
Often being aware of mood and emotion lets you put them at odds, which is where the juicy stuff comes in. Everybody in the room is feeling bold and excited about the coming raid on the fortress, except your main character who's secretly filled with misery because she thinks her brother is going to die.
Or else, your main character feels hopeful and full of excitement, but you've already laid the groundwork for things to turn out horribly — and thus, you can set the scene in a way that belies the protagonist's optimism. Sometimes, even if the main character is the only person in the room, her emotions can still be at odds with what the reader is feeling, based on how you've set things up. These sorts of juxtapositions can be incredibly powerful, and let the reader know the main character is about to step in something unawares.
Being a master of both mood and emotion can grant your writing awesome powers — just as leaning too heavily on one or the other can sap the life from your prose, and make either your characters or your world feel insipid.
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