Play a game with me for a moment and pretend that you’re sitting in a movie theater, and a picture of a field, grass blowing in the wind comes into view.
Trailers for the new films have begun.
The music starts, and immediately you know what kind of movie this is going to be – or you at least have an idea.
A certain type of score would have you looking on the horizon for zombies. Another would have you looking for a couple racing through the field, laughing and smiling together. Another would be the pre-empt to an explosion.
Take the examples of theater seating in the graphic – each one has a VERY different feel, even though they’re all theater seats.
Too bad we can’t supply our novels with scores, huh? And unless we’re picture book or graphic novel writers, we don’t get pictures either…
We’s stuk wif usin’ wordz.
I began re-reading Pet Sematary (Cemetery) by Stephen King, and it got me to thinking about mood.
What is it about the beginning of this book that sets the tone for a horror story?
I mean, really… Here’s the bullet list of what happens:
- A family moves into a house.
- They visit the friendly, elderly neighbors who offer them goodies and beer.
- The kid happily explores the new house. The younger kid is unsure, or not born, or… I can’t remember now, I re-read a few months and SO many books ago…
- The dad begins his job.
- The family take a hike up a flowered hillside and through a lovely forest to a little cemetery where kids bury their pets.
So, why does the hair on my neck stand on end as I read about the family’s trek through the woods? Or when they cross the highway to their friends’ house? Or when the door creaks during the day? Or when the elderly neighbor is telling a story?
Is it because I know this is Stephen King?
Is it because the blurb revealed more information than blurbs normally do? (Random thing to never forget – sometimes MORE information can up the tension, not lessen it)
Is it the odd hints that the neighbor mentioned? Or the fact that a large truck had killed more than one living thing in front of the man’s new house?
Or is it more subtle? Is the tone hidden in subtext?
Did the author use words that aren’t used in general fiction but in horror?
The tone or mood of this book is created using ALL of these things. Given the bullet points of things that happen in the first third of that book, the novel could be a general fiction, literary fiction, coming of age, romance, MG adventure, almost anything… But because of the small clues laid out by the author, that novel sets up the horror from the beginning.
Mood comes from setting, language, actions, and thoughts of the MC, and the words the author chooses to use to convey those things.
What does your character notice in the room? Is it the pretty inspirational cross-stitched image? Or the knife that sits on the edge of the counter?
Do legs create a feathering caress as they cross, or do they cross like bent scissors?
Does your MC notice lips, eyes and build, or do they notice the escape routes in a room?
Very often an allusion or mention of death is made near the beginning of a horror or thriller. Very often the idea of kissing, swooning, love, or forevers is brought up in a romance. A hint of longing for something more interesting often accompanies the beginning of an adventure novel.
I still remember when I was in a class at a writing conference, and the teacher said – I always think about what I want the reader to feel when I sit down to write a scene.
And those words totally struck a chord with me, followed by a very loud DUH.
HOW DO I WANT MY READER TO FEEL WHEN THEY READ THIS SCENE? Excited to see the new guy the MC will notice? Anticipating the next clue? Covered in goosebumps afraid for the MC to move forward?
Lay clues in movements, gestures, reactions, setting, dialogue, which all tie in to characterization. (YES, this post comes from a lover of fab characters).
My two pieces of advice are this:
- Read first chapters (or whole novels, of course) of books similar in feel to yours.
- Study authors who are brilliant at subtext and craft.
Michelle Hodkin, V.E. Schwab, King, Gaiman, Laini Taylor, Adam Silvera, and Maggie Steifvater are all authors whose words I love. They’re all people whose novels have a very particular tone that is reflected in word choice EVERYWHERE, right from page one.
There are a TON more names that could be added to this list – I’d love to hear yours.
Jolene Perry is the author of 9 nationally published YA titles. She edits queries at Quirks and Commas, and occasionally posts about writing, being a literary agent intern, and writerly life, on Been Writing? You can find Jo on her website HERE.