Imagine you’re watching a thriller film.
The protagonist, a detective pursuing a serial killer, has decided to investigate a basement in an abandoned house.
As she slowly descends the rickety stairs, the soundtrack softly dies. The creak of each step is magnified. The lights flicker. There’s a close-up of her face, and you can see the fear in her eyes.
You want to scream at the television “Don’t go down those stairs!” because you’re sure the murderer is lurking below.
With a combination of cinematic techniques, the director has succeeded in making your heart race. They’ve created a suspenseful atmosphere by increasing the volume of certain sounds, pulling the camera in close, and dimming the lights.
But they could create a completely different mood using the same set. Let’s say the lights don’t flicker. The music is bright and cheerful. It’s now a scene in a family film, and Grandma is heading down to the basement to get another jar of her fruit preserves.
Just as filmmakers can create a certain mood with their cinematic techniques, we can set a mood in our writing too.
No matter whether you’re writing a novel or you’re working on a story to include in a nonfiction book or in a speech or on a sales page, it’s essential that you set the right mood for your piece.
Establishing a mood will not only make your writing more enjoyable to read, but it will also help your readers connect emotionally with your words.
Usually, when we write, we’re trying to evoke a specific emotion in our audience. Maybe it’s fear or sadness or happiness or awe.
By creating a convincing mood, we give our readers cues for how they should feel. The mood also helps pull our readers right into the story, just like when you find yourself glued to the screen when you’re watching a suspenseful scene in a movie.
In today’s article, you’ll discover three different writing techniques you can use to set a vivid mood and atmosphere in your stories.
1. Set the mood by carefully choosing your words
When you write your sentences, pay attention to the words that you use.
Even synonyms can evoke very different emotions and mental images and mean very different things.
For example, I looked up synonyms for “puddle” in an online thesaurus. Two words that were listed were “pool” and “splash”.
However, “a pool of light” gives you a very different mental image than “puddle of light” or even “splash of light”.
Let’s go deeper. Say you’re writing about your stay at a stone cottage and want to convey the sense of peacefulness you felt in that place. You might write something like, “The little stone cottage rested at the top of a softly sloping hill.”
The words “rested” and “softly” conjure up that feeling of peacefulness much better than just writing, “The little stone cottage was at the top of a hill.”
In contrast, here’s how Emily Brontë describes the farmhouse Wuthering Heights in her gothic novel of the same name:
…One may guess the power of the north wind blowing over the edge, by the excessive slant of a few stunted firs at the end of the house; and by a range of gaunt thorns all stretching their limbs one way, as if craving alms of the sun. Happily, the architect had foresight to build it strong: the narrow windows are deeply set in the wall, and the corners defended with large jutting stones. Before passing the threshold, I paused to admire a quantity of grotesque carving lavished over the front, and especially about the principal door…
The words “stunted”, “gaunt”, “defended”, “jutting”, and “grotesque” give the scene an eerie mood and a sense of foreboding. This is definitely not a house I’d want to stay at on a vacation.
Notice also Brontë’s wonderful simile. She says the thorns are stretching their limbs “as if craving alms of the sun.”
Similes and metaphors are another excellent way to set the mood in your writing. Let’s look at them next.
2. Set the mood with similes and metaphors
Similes and metaphors help you take your description to another level by comparing two unlike things to each other as if they were alike.
The only difference between them is that similes use the words “like” or “as” (the wind sounded like a moan) and metaphors do not (the wind moaned).
They’re a fantastic way to set the mood in a paragraph because they allow you to introduce imagery that already has a specific connotation in the mind of the reader.
For example, comparing a person to a “serpent” usually conjures up a negative image: “Her body twisted like a serpent as she danced.” But comparing someone to a “sparrow” would have a completely different connotation: “She danced across the room as lightly as a sparrow.”
In this article, I showed how F. Scott Fitzgerald expertly used similes and metaphors in his writing to set the mood.
Here’s one example from The Great Gatsby:
The only completely stationary object in the room was an enormous couch on which two young women were buoyed up as though upon an anchored balloon. They were both in white and their dresses were rippling and fluttering as if they had just been blown back in after a short flight around the house.
Those similes help us better visualize the scene. Here’s what the paragraph would sound like without them:
The only completely stationary object in the room was an enormous couch on which two young women were seated. They were both in white and their dresses were rippling and fluttering.
A bit boring, right? Without the similes, there isn’t really anything to make that scene stand out.
But with those similes, Fitzgerald established a mood for the paragraph. Although he wasn’t writing a fantasy novel, his use of similes about balloons and flying women lets him give this scene an otherworldly feel.
You can do the same thing in your writing. Let’s say you’re writing about how you felt trapped in your job and decided to make a career change.
You could use the metaphor of a prison to help your readers better understand the way you felt. You write about how you felt shackled to your dead-end job, and maybe you compare your boss to a jailer. (He must have been pretty awful!)
In a way, your metaphors and similes create a mini-story within your story.
3. Set the mood with your sentence structure
Third, and finally, you can set the mood with the pace and structure of your sentences.
For example, sandwiching abrupt short sentences in between very long sentences can help create an air of suspense, tension, or anxiety. Here’s an example from Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451:
He felt his smile slide away, melt, fold over, and down on itself like a tallow skin, like the stuff of a fantastic candle burning too long and now collapsing and now blown out. Darkness. He was not happy. He was not happy. He said the words to himself. He recognized this as the true state of affairs. He wore his happiness like a mask and the girl had run off across the lawn with the mask and there was no way of going to knock on her door and ask for it back.
That long sentence at the end without any punctuation reads at a breakneck pace. There’s no comma telling you to pause for even a second. And so it powerfully conveys the character’s agitated thoughts.
This fantastic quote by the writer Gary Provost explains why varying sentence structure is so powerful:
This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety. Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals–sounds that say listen to this, it is important.
Want to make your readers feel a sense of languor or of breathless excitement? Experiment with the structure and pacing of your sentences.
While I’ve used examples from masterful writers throughout this article, these three techniques are simple and straightforward. You can start using them right away to establish a strong mood and atmosphere in your writing.
That mood and atmosphere will help your writing come alive. Your readers will be able to more fully immerse themselves in your writing. And thus you’ll be more effective at sharing your message with the world.
If you enjoyed this post, please share it with a friend who you think might find it helpful too. I’d also love to hear from you in the comments how you will use these techniques. Thanks for reading!