Mood (MOOduh) is the atmosphere surrounding a story and the emotions that the story evokes in the reader. Any adjective can describe a mood, both in literature and in life, such as playful, tense, hopeful, dejected, creepy, lonely, amusing, or suspenseful.
Every work of writing will have a predominant mood that represents the entire piece. However, longer pieces such as novels can have different moods throughout the piece depending on what is happening in the plot.
Literary Devices that Create Mood
Several literary devices come together to bring mood to light: diction, imagery, setting, and tone.
The word choices an author makes are crucial to establishing the mood, as every word—even words with similar meanings—has its own implication. Describing an abode as an “abandoned, creaking shack” is quite a different mood from a “secluded little cottage,” even though both phrases are describing similar objects. The former has an unsettling mood while the latter creates a pleasant one.
Imagery uses words that appeal to the reader’s senses to create an image they can almost experience. An author who describes a meadow as having colorful flowers, a soft, whistling breeze, and warm sunlight is creating a relaxing mood through sight, sound, and touch. On the other hand, a dark, cold room with fleeting shadows and an unidentified high-pitched scream establishes a frightening mood.
Setting is the time period and physical location in which the story takes place. Setting helps determine the mood early in the story because it’s one of the first things readers experience. If the story takes place in a hospital, it’s probably going to have a sad, uncomfortable mood, whereas a scene in a theme park will have an exciting, happy mood.
Tone and mood are often confused because they both describe the emotions of a written work. The tone or attitude of the author sets the mood of the piece and determines what the reader will feel. If an author has a sad tone, they most likely want the reader to have an empathetic or sad mood. In The Hunger Games, when Katniss is waiting for the games to officially begin, the suspenseful, nervous tone creates apprehension and concern in the reader.
But, tone and mood can be different. If an author is upset that someone played a harmless prank on them, they might have an angry tone, but the mood will be humorous to the reader.
Mood and Atmosphere
Mood and atmosphere are often used interchangeably, but there is a slight distinction between them. Mood pertains to how the reader feels about the piece, while atmosphere describes a lingering feeling in an environment. Mood helps create atmosphere.
Mood Determined by Genre or Theme
Different literary genres have pre-established moods that readers can expect. These common moods are established by the subject matter and theme of the genre. Romance novels tend to have lighthearted, uplifting moods for most of the story with a heartbreaking mood for the climax of the plot. Spy thriller novels are known for their tense, ominous moods.
When writing a novel in a known genre, it can be intriguing to create a mood that subverts what’s expected; for example, writing a humorous spy thriller or a depressing romance. This can surprise the reader and make the story stand out.
Why Writers Use Mood
Connection to any written material comes from how the writer makes the reader feel. When the mood establishes that emotional connection, it helps readers understand what the writer is trying to convey. Even when the reader can’t remember specific details of the story later, they’ll be able to remember how the piece made them feel.
It can also help the reader understand the theme of the piece. For example, a book about war might have a tense and depressing mood, which brings the reader into the story and helps them feel what the characters might have felt.
Mood Outside of Literature
Music is a powerful mood creator. So powerful, in fact, that the mood of a song is more dependent on the music than the lyrics. The popular nursery rhyme “Ring Around the Rosie,” for example, has such a happy tune that children dance in a circle while they sing it. However, the lyrics reference symptoms of the bubonic plague—a topic with a decidedly darker mood than the music.
Music is also a key component to establishing mood in movies and television shows, as the background music helps the audience determine how they feel about a scene. For example, Grey’s Anatomy occasionally has happy, peppy music playing in the background of a character meltdown to let the audience know it’s a funny moment not to be taken too seriously. Likewise, a death scene will have dark, ominous music to make the audience feel sad.
To demonstrate music as an effective mood creator, people changed the background music of the movie trailer for Elf to reflect an entirely different mood. The video editor changed this whimsical Christmas movie’s joyful, humorous mood into a thriller movie with a creepy mood simply by changing the music.
Examples of Mood in Literature
1. William Shakespeare, “Sonnet 130”
My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
Shakespeare’s mocking tone gives this sonnet a humorous mood. While he is sincere in his description of his love, he uses common phrases such as “eyes like the sun,” “white as snow,” and “rosy cheeks” to communicate his dislike for standard poems, and readers in turn find it amusing.
2. Johanna Spyri, Heidi
Heidi ventures up the mountain with Peter and the goats and finds a picturesque scene awaiting her:
The child sat without moving, her eyes taking in the whole scene, and all around was a great stillness, only broken by soft, light puffs of wind that swayed the light bells of the blue flowers, and the shining gold heads of the cistus, and set them nodding merrily on their slender stems.
The imagery of the “blue flowers,” “soft puffs of wind,” and “shining gold heads” creates an idyllic, peaceful mood.
3. John Green, The Fault in Our Stars
Hazel Lancaster is being forced to go to a support group named God’s Heart because her doctor thinks she’s depressed about her cancer diagnosis. This is her description of those meetings:
So here’s how it went in God’s Heart: The six or seven or ten of us walked/wheeled in, grazed at a decrepit selection of cookies and lemonade, sat down in the Circle of Trust, and listened to Patrick recount for the thousandth time his depressingly miserable life story— […] they thought he was going to die but he didn’t die and now here he is, a full-grown adult in a church basement in the 137th nicest city in America, divorced […].
The setting helps determine the depressing, downhearted mood in this example with the “decrepit selection” of food, the “church basement,” and even the “137th nicest city in America.” Readers get the feeling of a rather pathetic support group. The diction is also important here. Words and phrases like “decrepit,” “wheeled in,” and “depressingly miserable life” help set the mood.
Further Resources on Mood
Writers Write has 140 examples of mood in literature.
Improve the mood in your own novel with Now Novel’s tips on creating a strong atmosphere.