Setting Sets the Mood

Setting sets the mood in a story just as efficiently and vividly as character. If I combine the two components, not only do I set the mood, I am well on my way to hooking readers’ attention and immersing them in my story.

Below are three examples of how descriptions of setting in the opening paragraphs establish mood and the personality of the main character.

“The Cloak” by Robert Bloch

The author sets the mood right away for this Halloween story. “The sun was dying, and its blood spattered the sky as it crept into a sepulchre behind the hills.” These are the thoughts of Henderson, who is looking for a costume shop in 1930’s New York City. He scolds himself for his flight of fancy and then describes the sunset as just “dingy red”.

Henderson likes the idea of all the ancient terror Halloween evokes but still wants to be a rational, twentieth century American. The short story combines and clashes the age-old legends of vampires with a high society costume party. In four short paragraphs, Mr. Bloch has established the setting, the mood of the story and the character, and a great amount of tension.

“The Crime Wave at Blandings” by P.G. Wodehouse

“The day on which lawlessness reared its ugly head at Blandings Castle was one of singular beauty”. In the first paragraph, Mr. Wodehouse goes on to describe a fine summer day in England. The second paragraph completely changes course by discussing how fans of thrillers don’t want pretty descriptions. They want the who, what, where, when, why, and how of the crime, and the author had better get on with it.

Mr. Wodehouse has created not just the image of a tranquil summer day but the breezey tone for a comic story about members of an earl’s household taking potshots at an annoying guest with an air gun. The description lets readers know exactly what kind of story they’ve settled down to read, and the author doesn’t disappoint.

“A Rose from the Ashes” by JPC Allen

I wanted my first scene to establish a lonely, eerie mood for my YA Christmas mystery. My main character Rae is a amateur photographer. This influences how she sees the world. When describing the sunset on a December evening, she thinks about how “gashes of blood-red light seeped through the clotted clouds, creating an ominous background for the gray, stone building that was rumored to be the scene of a murder.”

To emphasize the loneliness of the place, as well as the Rae’s loneliness, I use “a few caws from crows and sighs as the wind sailed through empty window frames.” I’m making my setting work hard, providing a background for the action, developing my main character’s personality, and creating symbols to represent my character’s feelings.

At the end of the story, I wanted to let readers know something unusual is going to happen. Rae is back at the “gray, stone building,” which is an abandoned children’s home, on Christmas Eve. The moon is almost full on a frigid, clear night and brings “an otherworldly silver sheen, like the home and all the land outside was bathed in a fairy spell.” Rae is hoping she will find her father, and he will accept her. The otherworldly light represents the main character’s hope and foreshadows the plot twists.

A Word About Symbolism

In Description and Setting by Ron Rozelle, he recommends not consciously working in symbolism. If you do, the symbolism will seem obvious and heavy-handed to readers. So how do you include symbolism if you can’t do it consciously? Mr. Rozelle says to write your story the best you can, and then when you review it, you may find that settings or characters or objects have naturally become symbols.

That happened in my story, but I didn’t realize until I was helping my oldest child with an extremely tough question for a language arts assignment. He had to find passages in a story that showed a change in a character through a change in how he or she viewed a setting. We were both stumped. Then I remembered my short story, which had just been published. How Rae views the abandoned children’s home reflects her feelings at the time, at first lonely, then hopeful.

I was surprised I’d included symbolism in my story. And happy that I helped my oldest complete his homework.

What stories have you read in which the setting sets the mood particularly well?

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