I recently read a YA novel that, despite the positive press I’d heard, fell flat for me. It took me a long time to figure out why the novel didn’t work: it had a great, kick-ass heroine with a troubled past, an interesting hero, great chemistry between the leads, and an interesting premise (the heroine can see “ripples” in time, an ability that presages her ability to travel through time). All of this should have added up to something great, right?
Finally, I figured it out. It wasn’t the fact that not much happened for the first 2/3 of the book (I can deal with that). The real problem was the mood.
For the first 3/4 of the book, the mood was up-beat, witty, with occasional moments of mystery. Despite hints of the heroine’s dark past, most of the book had a light mood and I felt like I was on fairly safe generic ground: the quirky teen romance with a bit of supernatural thrown in.
So even though the hero repeatedly warned the heroine that the villain was dangerous, I didn’t really believe it. There was nothing about the mood of the first part of the book that signaled danger to me. So when the very real danger arrived, it felt off to me–even unexpected.
I remember hearing Kathleen Duey speak at a writer’s conference, explaining that the genre of the book should be established within the first several pages, if not on the first page. I think she’s right. And I think that mood is part of establishing the genre.
If you’re writing a fantasy novel, something fantastic should happen soon. If we’re in a futuristic dystopian world, both the setting and mood should signal that within a few paragraphs.
But wait, you say. I’m writing a contemporary paranormal romance where the main character doesn’t realize that paranormal is real for several chapters.
I say, that doesn’t matter. You can still use mood (and setting) to signal to the reader (who of course, is far more savvy than your main character) that something Is Not Quite Right.
The British have an expression, “Start as you mean to go on,” that seems perfectly apt here. Start your novel as you mean to go on. Give the reader hints as to the genre, mood, and overall tone of the book from the very beginning. I think those hints ultimately make the reading experience more pleasurable.
After all, one of the key parts of persuasion is to change a listener’s mood. Similarly, the seduction of your readers starts by putting them in the mood.
What are your thoughts on mood? What stories have you read where the early establishment of mood sealed your enjoyment? What stories have you read where the mood failed you?