There are two moods in fiction. An overall mood, which could be described as tone, tying the piece together, and shifting moods to accommodate the characters and scene.
When you open a book and examine a scene two things will help convey the mood. The slant of the words or the temperament of the character - take Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl.
The picture Dahl is painting at the beginning of the story is pretty grim. You have a starving family living in a shack. The parents and their little boy Charlie sleep on mattresses on the floor, while Charlie’s four grandparents occupy the only bed. Their shabby house is drafty in winter and they subsist on potatoes and watery cabbage soup. It’s the stuff of dire articles calling for charity or donations or rather it would be depending on how you word it. Dahl is smart he sets the mood right away. And the mood is - casual. Here he is introducing the characters -
This is Charlie.
How d’you do? And how d’you do? And how d’you do again.
He is pleased to meet you.
The descriptions remain upbeat-grim, like a black-humored fairy tale. He describes the house as being on the ‘edge of a great town.’ Even if he means great as in large it could also mean great as in terrific which is pretty optimistic, considering the townsfolk allow such poverty. And though the house is drafty in winter - ‘In the summertime, this wasn’t too bad.’ And although the plight of their food leaves their tummies horribly empty - they look forward to Sunday’s for the second helpings.
The dark humor carries the book, warning its reader not to take anything too seriously as this will be a story in which a girl will be turned into a blueberry by malfunctioning gum.
Here’s another moody paragraph from the amazing Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake.
Like a vast spider suspended by a metal cord, a candelabrum presided over the room nine feet above the floor boards. From its sweeping arms of iron, long stalactites of wax lowered their pale spilths drip by drip, drip by drip. A rough table with a drawer half open, which appeared to be full of birdseed, was in such a position below the iron spider that a cone of tallow was mounting by degrees at one corner into a lambent pyramid the size of a hat.
Let’s take it apart to understand how Peake achieved this eerie surreal mood.
First off though it’s apparent he’s describing a room, he’s highlighting only the most important and curious features: a candelabrum and a drawer full of bird seed. The setting has a surreal touch which Peake exemplifies by comparing the candelabrum to a vast spider.
Notice it’s not just a spider but a vast spider, and it doesn’t just hover over the room it presides over the room. With two words - vast, and presided he has doubled his ominous tone.
Spilths - so old world, so perfect. Notice how he drags out this sentence - very much like time passing by the drip of candle wax. Had he just stated wax dripped from the arm ends, he would’ve spoiled the magical mood. This is further realized by the repetition of drip by drip.
The last sentence is of interest for its exactness of description vs its generalism - a rough table ( general ) drawer half open ( exact ), appeared to be ( general ), in such a position ( exact ), mounting by degrees at one corner into a lambent pyramid ( exact ), size of a hat ( general ). This wavering tone ties the peculiar passage together by colliding both realism and whimsy. A dreamworld ideal in which everything seems so real but isn’t.
How to establish mood
1. First off discover what kind of mood you would like to create before fleshing out a scene. Sometimes genre will give you a push in the right direction - mystery - an ominous tone, romance - flirty. Sometimes character’s mood will also help. A depressed character suggests a melancholy mood, a happy character a lively mood. Even if there is a clash of setting with emotion - unhappiness at a wedding - drag it down. Highlight the unusual. Warn the reader this isn’t the typical wedding mood.
2. Let background/setting do double duty. Think of it this way - when a woman wants to create a romantic mood, she usually alters the bedroom setting; she lowers the lights, she perfumes the pillows, she drops a little trail of rose petals and chills a bottle of champagne. Chances are you know what on her mind. Give your reader the same treatment. Build up a setting that clues them in.
3. Use sentence structure and variation to exemplify mood. "It ain’t whatcha write, it’s the way atcha write it." - Kerourac. Tone and mood go hand in hand. And tone is all about the way atcha write it. Attack a sentence from a different angle. If you’re going for high energy action, use short bursts or for a more languid mood try lazy, long descriptions. Never keep them all one or the other, though. The majority in an action scene should be short - but mix it up. One writer kept interrupting sentences to show chaos. On a small scale it was wonderful.
4. Words. Precise words help in anything ( style, tone ) and even mood. If you’re characters are having a romantic dinner each menu will change up the mood - if it’s herb roasted lamb chops or firey pozole with pulled pork tacos - the reader is getting a slightly different impression. Vagueness or deliberate cryptic voids will also help to establish a different kind of mood, one of suspence, suspicion or even mystery or confusion.
5. The Five Senses. Think of all the things that pertain to the five senses we use to alter our moods - aromatherapy, back rubs, light boxes, Abba records, the pint of rocky road ice cream during a break up, the blast of alcohol during a success. Sight, smell, taste, touch, hear they all affect our moods. Notice that what makes Charlie Bucket’s poverty so torturous is not just the fact that he lives near Willy Wonka’s but that he can smell the rich chocolate coming from the factory.