The other day, I couldn’t find my fine-mesh strainer to drain the acini de pepe that had just reached al dente perfection. Panicking, I grabbed my big-holed colander, and dumped those peppercorn-size pasta balls right in, hoping somehow they would unify and clump into one big pasta mass, thereby remaining in the colander.
That did not happen.
Recently, my brain is like a colander with too-big holes, and my mental pasta slips right down the drain. Sure, my brain-colander can still contain larger forms of pasta: I can remember the names of my children; the way to make coffee; the place I keep my secret stash of chocolate; other stuff I can’t recall right now. But the smaller, non-essentials slip into the sewer.
Sometimes Ron (the mean guy in my head) taunts me and whispers, Early-onset Alzheimer’s, perhaps? But I think I have memory issues simply because my brain overfloweths with Life-stuff: a husband, a marriage, two teenagers, a loco dog, a very messy house, a basement remodel, a handful of dear friends, my parents, my in-laws, the teenagers’ cross country-track-swimming-soccer-orchestra events, a new teaching job, five classes of whip-smart 7th graders, the 7th graders’ numerous ungraded writing assignments, my novel-in-progress, numerous doctor/dentist/eye doctor appointments, multiple athletic forms, field trip forms, orchestra trip forms; countless discussions with the teenagers about drugs, vaping, drinking, drinking and driving, driving and texting, drinking and texting … it’s all wonderful, dizzying Life-stuff. Inevitably things slip down the drain.
I bet your Life-stuff feels similarly abundant. You, too, might have trouble keeping so many things in your brain.
It’s just as hard for me to hold all of the Writing-a-Novel-stuff in my brain. I get so fixated, for example, on the protagonist’s pursue-it-at-all-costs desire that I forget to remember to do world-building. I focus so intently on exterior changes in the protagonist’s circumstances that I forget to remember the protagonist’s inner transformations. I hum along, happily listening to the narrator’s voice as she sings herself right onto the page, that I forget to remember that nothing–nothing at all–has happened plot-wise for ages and pages.
So we’ll call this Post #1 in a series of posts titled, Things I Forget to Remember While Writing a Novel. Maybe there are things you forget to remember too?
I’d like to start with something that is somewhat overlooked and oft-forgotten, at least by me: Mood.
Mood, however, should not be confused with tone. Tone is the author’s attitude about a particular idea, topic, or event. Mood is the feeling that the reader experiences as she reads. The author’s tone alters the reader’s mood.
I was reminded of mood as my students and I were reading and performing the drama, Twelve Angry Men, a still-relevant story of 12 male jurors who are literally locked in a small room while they decide the fate of a teenager accused of killing his father. These jurors must arrive at a unanimous decision about the boy’s fate.
The room where the entire story takes place is tiny, the scarred-wood table around which they sit is too small for twelve bodies, the fan is broken, the men’s foreheads glisten with sweat, smoke billows like cumulous clouds from cigarettes.
Watching this scene, I feel anxious, trapped, claustrophobic. I need fresh air. I want to escape that sweaty, smoky, cramped place, but I am trapped just as the men are. I think I am suffocating. Can someone please open a window?!?!
Why is it important to foster a particular mood in the reader?
Stories that evoke a mood possess power. As writers, we want to create characters who get under the reader’s skin, we want to build stories that make the reader feel something–positive or negative–intensely. When mere words on paper get a reader to feel something, the reader can’t help but turn pages.
So how do we get readers in the mood?
We can focus on Setting. The simple setting in Twelve Angry Men made me feel suffocated. Likewise, the settings of horror films put me in an anxious, worried, frightened mood (therefore I don’t watch them). Artists do this too. Look at the difference in setting between Picasso’s work “The Old Guitarist” and his “Mother and Child.” Similar colors; very different mood. Setting is a powerful mood-changer.
We storytellers can also affect a reader’s mood through Diction and Detail.
Look at the narrator’s opening lines in Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl:
When I think my my wife, I always think of her head. The shape of it, to begin with. The very first time I saw her, it was the back of the head I saw, and there was something lovely about it, the angles of it. Like a shiny, hard corn kernel or a riverbed fossil. She had what the Victorians would call a finely shaped head. You could imagine the skull quite easily.
Ick. Flynn’s choice of words and details describe not his wife’s smile, face, or hair, not her laugh, intelligence, or warmth. Rather, the narrator describes the wife’s head as a shiny, hard corn kernel, a riverbed fossil. The narrator also mentions the angles of “the” head. Later, he refers not to “her” skull but to “the” skull.
This diction is intentional. The details are creepy. How clinical! How detached! As a result, I feel uncomfortable and unnerved. Something is very wrong. And I keep turning pages to understand what it is.
Syntax can also be used to evoke a particular mood: the length of a sentence, the patterns and structural repetition of sentences, the arrangement of details in a sentence, even a sentence’s punctuation (or lack thereof) can impact the reader’s mood.
In Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, for example, Strout plays with sentence structure (as well as setting, diction, and detail) to evoke a mood in the reader. The novel starts,
For many years Henry Kitteridge was a pharmacist in the next town over, driving every morning on snowy roads, or rainy roads, or summertime roads, when the wild raspberries shot their new growth in brambles along the last section of town before he turned off to where the wider road led to the pharmacy. Retired now, he still wakes early and remembers how mornings used to be his favorite, as though the world were his secret, tires rumbling softly beneath him and the light emerging through the early fog, the brief sight of the bay off to his right, then the pines, tall and slender, and almost always he rode with the window partly open because he loved the smell of the pines and the heavy salt air, and in the winter he loved the smell of the cold.
Feeling the lilt and roll of the sentences, I am happily bumping along with Henry, riding shotgun in his car. Even the shifts in verb tense transport me between present and past then back to present. The gentle melody created by the sentence structure comforts me. I feel nostalgic, serene.
Compare this syntax to a scene later in the novel where Olive is being her cantankerous self after the death of Henry, her husband:
She didn’t like to be alone. Even more, she didn’t like being with people.
It made her skin crawl to sit in Daisy Foster’s tiny dining room, sipping tea. “I went to that damn dopey grief group, she told Daisy. “And they said it was normal to feel angry. God, people are stupid. Why in hell should I feel angry? We all know this stuff is coming. Not many are lucky enough to drop dead in their sleep.”
Olive is angry, irritated, and salty, a tone conveyed through the blunt diction, and choppy sentences. Olive’s thoughts and words come in rapid fire. But instead of making this reader feel angry, irritated, and salty, I laugh. And then my heart aches. And then I feel exasperated. What a funny woman. What a terribly sad woman. What a ridiculously-irritating woman! Why does she have to be so nasty?
I feel all that in one brief passage. Mere words can dramatically alter my mood. Remarkable!
Today, June 12th, my mood is both weary and cheery. It’s been an exhausting school year, and much pasta has slipped down the drain. My summer break, however, officially starts Monday, and as I have had roughly 30 minutes to write since last August, I am excited to return to my dusty work-in-progress.
So how about in the next few weeks you and I remember to think about the mood we want to generate in our works-in-progress? And with that, I turn this over to you …
Will you share a particular excerpt from a work of fiction that evokes a particular mood? Or better yet, please share a short passage from your work in progress. Yes! You share, then we will describe our mood after reading your excerpt. Come on! It’ll be fun!
Thank you, dear writers, for reading and commenting.
Moody photo compliments of Karel Macalik.
About Sarah Callender
Sarah Callender lives in Seattle with her husband, son and daughter. A crummy house-cleaner and terrible at responding to emails in a timely fashion, Sarah chooses instead to focus on her fondness for chocolate and Abe Lincoln. She is working on her third novel while her fab agent pitches the first two to publishers.
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Author: Sarah Callender