Setting, Tone, and Mood
Establishing the setting, tone, and mood for your book is an essential element—without these things, the story will feel incomplete to readers. If you search these literary terms on the Internet, you’ll find lots of different definitions, some of them contradictory. I found the following definitions the most consistent.
Setting—the time and location of the story. For the purpose of this discussion, it also includes weather and political/social/cultural environment.
Tone—the narrator or character’s attitude toward the subject matter.
Mood—the element(s) that evokes specific feelings, emotional tones, frame of mind, or attitude in readers.
One of the first things the reader needs to get a sense of is setting—in particular, the time and place in which the events take place. Setting not only serves as a backdrop, but the particular time and place of the story can also give it context that sets it apart from other stories.
Establishing setting is more than just inserting a time and place. The right setting has the ability to bring life to the story.
At 7 pm, she drove down the back road that led to his house.
In this example, the setting (time, 7 pm; place, a road) has been established, but it’s rather mundane and uninteresting.
The sun had recently disappeared over the western horizon—later in the day than she had wanted to meet up with him—and when she turned onto the desolate dirt road, she saw his house looming in the distance.
This rewrite includes the same setting—same time and place—but now brings life to the scene that the first one didn’t offer.
Some stories—especially those in historical and fantasy novels—are almost as much about setting as they are about characters or plot. In George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones, setting is central to the story. The various settings—castles and war camps—affect how the characters act. Well-constructed settings evoke images, establish mood, and can supplement characters’ motivations and feelings in the moment. While paragraphs of description can establish a setting, other techniques may also be used to bring readers into a story world. Here are some things to consider when creating the setting.
Time: calendar date, season, era, clothing styles, car models, lingo/slang, mannerisms, moralities, music, theater
He climbed into his 1936 Boattail Speedster and turned on the radio. Glenn Miller was crooning the last few lyrics of “Fools Rush In.” He looked in the mirror, adjusted his fedora, and headed for the Roosevelt rally.
Location: surroundings, people, animals, landscape, scenery, nature, actions, obstacles, threats
Hundreds of people had gathered in Times Square to watch the demonstration. Police inched their way toward scores of protesters who had blocked the candidate’s motorcade. Some demonstrators cursed at the occupants of the longest limo in the procession. Others hurled eggs at it. A steady chant persisted throughout the demonstration—“Hey, hey, ho, ho. This S.O.B. has got to go!”
Weather: heat, cold, wind, precipitation, fog, sun, clouds
Without warning, the rain came down in sheets. Marie ran back to the car with Richard close behind her. But instead of opening the door for her, he gently pushed her against the vehicle and kissed her. Heat from their bodies rose like steam in the moist air.
Political, social, and cultural surroundings: cultural influences, economic classes, religious beliefs
He walked past abandoned cars, boarded-up houses, and barefoot children playing kickball in the street. His heart pounded as he walked up the crumbling concrete stairs to his father's home, not knowing what to expect if his dad actually opened the door and invited him inside.
When setting is used solely to establish a time and place for the story or scene, it may not have to be referred to again. However, if expanding on it is essential to the story, or it’s been a long stretch since the time or place has been mentioned and you deem it necessary to remind readers of it as to not get confused, the setting bears repeating.
The following excerpt from The Summit by Harry Farthing is an example of when the effects of weather are pertinent throughout the scene where sixteen-year-old Nelson Tate ascends the highest summit of Mount Everest.
Denying the bitter, tooth-cracking cold; the racing, freezing wind; the rattle of snow crystals it carried, his addled brain was telling him instead that he was in a beautiful garden of his parents’ house.
And then, later in the chapter…
Pushing the kid’s ski goggles up off the bridge of his nose and unhooking the straps of his oxygen mask, he pulled it away. The edges ripped from the teenager’s beardless cheeks, taking ice and a little skin with them.
He shivered as he felt the bitter cold of the frozen fingers touch his warm skin.
Tone in writing refers to the narrator’s attitude toward the subject matter. There are two aspects of tone in narration—the overall tone of the narrator, and the different tones required for specific scenes. In either case, tone will affect how the reader receives the message being communicated and hopefully deepen the reader’s connections to the story or events of the scene.
Establish the overall tone of the book early on, in the first few sentences, and continue with it throughout the book, changing it only to signal a change in the character.
Tone may be expressed in many ways: through specific words, through the arrangement of the words, or through description. When done effectively, a character’s tone (attitude toward a certain subject matter) will evoke an intended emotion in the reader. If you’re familiar with the expression “It's not what you said but the way you said it,” you know what tone is. Or if you have listened to a teenager mumble indiscernible words with unmistakable tone, then you get it as well.
Following is an example of the emotionless tone created in the first paragraph of Chapter 1 in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five.
All this happened, more or less. The war parts, anyway, are pretty much true. One guy I knew really was shot for taking a teapot that wasn't his. Another guy I knew really did threaten to have his personal enemies killed by hired gunmen after the war. And so on. I've changed all their names.
Your writing can take on many different types of tone. Here are just a few:
Humorous: “I don’t know how other men feel about their wives walking out on them, but I helped mine pack.”—from Breaking Up by Bill Manville
Detached: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”—from One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez
Suspenseful: “A sudden hush fell on the crowd as Mr. Summers cleared his throat and looked at the list. ‘All ready?’ he called. ‘Now, I'll read the names—heads of families first—and the men come up and take a paper out of the box. Keep the paper folded in your hand without looking at it until everyone has had a turn. Everything clear?’"—from The Lottery by Shirley Jackson
Peaceful: “It was very late, and everyone had left the cafe except an old man who sat in the shadow the leaves of the tree made against the electric light. In the daytime the street was dusty, but at night the dew settled the dust and the old man liked to sit late because he was deaf and now at night it was quiet and he felt the difference.”—from A Clean, Well-Lighted Place by Ernest Hemingway
Nervous: It was a low, dull, quick sound—much such a sound as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton. I gasped for breath, and yet the officers heard it not. I talked more quickly, more vehemently but the noise steadily increased. I arose and argued about trifles, in a high key and with violent gesticulations; but the noise steadily increased. Why would they not be gone?—from The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allen Poe
Sarcastic: I notice the food. The rolls and apples are untouched, but someone’s definitely picked away part of the cheese. “And you ate without me!” I really don’t care, I just want something else to be mad about.
“What? No, I didn’t,” Peeta says.
“Oh, and I suppose the apple ate the cheese?” I say.—from The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
To test your writing for the appropriate tone, read it aloud, or have another person read it to you. Make sure the tone matches the essence of the story or individual scene.
Mood (sometimes called atmosphere or ambiance) in literature refers to the overall unsaid feeling or emotion an author creates for the reader through descriptive writing—an intangible presence that creates an emotional response in the reader and allows for greater understanding of what the author is trying to convey.
In this excerpt from Brokeback Mountain, author E. Annie Proulx shows what kind of characters the two cowboys are and the isolation in which they live. This atmosphere alludes to the way each man approaches life.
They were raised on small, poor ranches in opposite corners of the state, Jack Twist in Lightning Flat, up on the Montana border, Ennis del Mar from around Sage, near the Utah line, both high-school drop-out country boys with no prospects, brought up to hard work and privation, both rough-mannered, rough-spoken, inured to the stoic life. Ennis, reared by his older brother and sister after their parents drove off the only curve on Dead Horse Road, leaving them twenty-four dollars in cash and a two-mortgage ranch, applied at age fourteen for a hardship license that let him make the hour-long trip from the ranch to the high school. The pickup was old, no heater, one windshield wiper, and bad tires; when the transmission went, there was no money to fix it. He had wanted to be a sophomore, felt the word carried a kind of distinction, but the truck broke down short of it, pitching him directly into ranch work.
Atmosphere determines the emotional experience the reader will have. I believe the example above would leave most of us feeling sympathetic.
Many different elements contribute to mood: a character’s diction; the setting; and the descriptions of people, places, and things. Writer/producer Paul Shapiro may have said it best: “The mood is the aura created by many sentences. It exists nowhere on the page. It exists everywhere around the page.”
The established mood—whether it leaves the reader feeling joyful and content or angry and frustrated—should always be there. Creating the right mood in fiction is an important and powerful tool to use to engage readers and make them feel like they are part of the journey.
Alice in Wonderland is a fitting example to illustrate mood changes in fiction. Overall, the mood is whimsical, lively and cheerful, often innocent and childlike. Other times, the mood is curious and inquisitive, or satirical and sarcastic, or fearful and scary—all brilliantly shown through fantastical imagery, setting, and Alice’s actions and conversations.
· Whimsical/childlike—as shown in the unprejudiced and innocent way Alice approaches everything she encounters once she enters Wonderland.
· Bizarre—when Alice sees a white rabbit carrying a watch and wearing a waistcoat, she decides to follow him.
· Scary—not only does Alice continuously find herself in situations that scare her or threaten her life, but she also meets the Queen of Hearts, whose famous catchphrase is “Off with their heads!”
Sometimes just the title of a book creates a certain mood. Think about HP Lovecraft’s titles—At the Mountains of Madness, The Crawling Chaos, The Dunwich Horror, and The Whisperer in Darkness. Even without knowing anything about these stories, one can guess the mood.
Mood evokes emotional responses in readers, thus ensuring their emotional attachment to the story. Once readers are emotionally connected to the story, they can better understand the message you are trying to convey.