“Time has not stood still. It has washed over me, washed me away, as if I’m nothing more than a woman of sand, left by a careless child too near the water.” — The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood
When I talk about workshopping my writing, it usually involves revising with a particular element in mind. One of the first rounds I do entails paying close attention to mood, tone, and figurative language. Actually, this is three mini-passes, but I find it impossible to separate these elements because they are so closely related. Let’s get to it, shall we?
First, let’s talk about the revision process. Generally, I do not write a rough draft with these things perfectly outlined or developed. My first drafts are swooping, hastily erected lean-tos that I eventually evolve into a fully realized building. I call this my skeleton draft and I go back afterward and add elements such and mood and tone layer by layer. Some people differ from me in this. Some have detailed outlines that include these items and they deftly craft them into their first draft. I think the best thing an author can do is try out different writing techniques until he or she finds one that works. If you are one of those strange creatures who has detailed outlines that identify the mood, tone, and figurative language before you write, this workshop will not be as intensive for you and you will likely be able to skip some steps. Or you can use this workshop to help you outline.
Mood: The atmosphere of a poem or scene in a story, and the emotion it creates in the reader. Mood comes from tone, figurative language, setting, word choice, and sensory details.
After I have finished my skeleton draft, one of the first things I do is go back and identify a mood for each scene. I ask myself several questions:
- What is the most important event that happens (or the main point)?
- What is going on in the world I have built that impacts this scene?
- What emotions do I hope to evoke in the reader?
Now that you have a basic idea of the mood you want to convey, the real work starts. Let’s touch briefly on setting and word choice, as these will segway into the other elements of mood nicely.
Setting: Your setting is a perfect opportunity to build up the atmosphere that surrounds your characters. If you are workshopping a draft, you already have at least a partially developed setting, but don’t be afraid to change it if the setting isn’t working for you. Here are some questions to consider:
What setting would best convey the mood you hope to create? Do you have it or do you need to make some adjustments?
What elements of your setting can you use to help convey the mood you want? Focus in on those elements.
Let’s look at an example from Charles Dickens Pickwick Papers:
“The river, reflecting the clear blue of the sky, glistened and sparkled as it flowed noiselessly on.”
In this, the mood is one of serenity and Dickens focuses in on those elements that remind the reader of that feeling.
As you consider setting, you need to think about sensory detail: taste, touch, sight, sound, and smell. Try to engage the senses to help evoke the mood, the more, the better. Here’s an excellent example of sensory details contributing to mood:
“I would wake with her weight tilting our mattress, her Shalimar settling over me when she leaned to kiss me and pull up the chenille bedspread, which had a nubble like Braille under my hands…I could feel through the bedspread the faint heat of her body as she sat a few inches from where I lay, that heat was all I needed.” -Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club
Because sensory details are subjective, they can be tough to describe. This is one place figurative language comes to the rescue, and we will address this issue once we begin talking about figurative Language. I also stumbled upon this great resource about sensory details and thought I would share:
Word Choice: Choose carefully! When revising, go through your scene with a fine tooth comb and make sure that you are picking words that evoke the mood you are looking for. Keep in mind the connotation of the words you choose:
Childlike versus youthful versus childish versus young. If I call you youthful, it comes off entirely different than if I call you childish. One is good, and one is bad. There are implications in both. The youthful person is vibrant and exuberant. The childish person is immature and petty.
Figurative language will help you in this arena too!
Now, let’s talk about tone. Tone and Mood often get confused as they are closely related. Often times the tone will be similar to the mood, but this isn’t always the case. Remember that tone is going to refer specifically to your speaker and your characters and how they view the world around them.
Tone: The speaker’s attitude toward the subject. Tone comes from word choice. Specifically, how the speaker thinks and feels about what is going on and what he or she experiences.
There are two different things to think about with tone, your characters’ dialogue (inner and outer) and your narrator’s voice. These may be one in the same (1st person) or entirely different.
Setting and word choice come into play in tone as well. The process of word choice is the same as it is for mood. Consider how your character/speaker feels and choose words that reflect that.
Setting is slightly different. With setting, consider how your character interacts with the setting and how they feel about it.
Here is an example of a tone that does not match the mood of the scene (which is sad) from Charlotte’s Web:
“But I feel peaceful. Your success in the ring this morning was, to a small degree, my success. Your future is assured. You will live, secure and safe, Wilbur. Nothing can harm you now. These autumn days will shorten and grow cold. The leaves will shake loose from the trees and fall. Christmas will come, and the snows of winter. You will live to enjoy the beauty of the frozen world, for you mean a great deal to Zuckerman and he will not harm you, ever. Winter will pass, the days will lengthen, the ice will melt in the pasture pond. The song sparrow will return and sing, the frogs will awake, the warm wind will blow again. All these sights and sounds and smells will be yours to enjoy, Wilbur—this lovely world, these precious days…”
Whew! Now that we have talked about mood and tone let’s talk a bit about figurative language and how it can help. Remember that figurative language conveys meaning that is deeper and implied, rather than literal. Literal: The sky is big and blue. Figurative: The sky is a vast ocean stretching out to the horizon. Figurative language is excellent at helping convey mood and tone because it is heavy with emotion. There are many types of figurative language, but we will focus on just four for today: simile, metaphor, personification, and synesthesia.
Simile: Comparing two dissimilar things using “like” or “as.” Ex. “Her face was as beautiful as the sun/Her eyes were like the stars.”
By drawing a comparison between to different things, the reader is forced to find the commonalities. This helps to clarify your mood, tone, and imagery in an interesting way. Consider the following example:
“. . . she tried to get rid of the kitten which had scrambled up her back and stuck like a burr just out of reach.” — Little Women, Louisa May Alcott
Metaphor: A direct comparison between two things that suggests, figuratively speaking, that one object is another one. Ex. “Her face was the sun/Her eyes the stars.”
A metaphor works in the same way as a simile, but it is more powerful. Often times, a metaphor will run throughout a piece of writing, especially in poetry. A couple of these examples include the poem “For whoso list to hunt” (the deer represents a woman and hunting the quest to gain her love) and The Story of the Eye (The eye and all round things represent the meaningless of life and the ceaseless pursuit of a fulfillment. It’s a really strange story. Also really gross.). Consider the following example:
“Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player / That struts and frets his hour upon the stage / And then is heard no more…” — Macbeth, William Shakespeare
Personification: Giving something non-human, human traits or qualities.
We do this quite often, to the point where we often don’t realize it: The biting wind, the dancing daffodils. We can take it a step further by personifying ideas and abstract concepts such as love and death. Consider the following example:
“I hide me away to the woods—away back into the sun-washed alleys carpeted with fallen gold and glades where the moss is green and vivid yet. The woods are getting ready to sleep—they are not yet asleep but they are disrobing and are having all sorts of little bed-time conferences and whisperings and good-nights.” — The Green Gables Letters, L. M. Montgomery
Synesthesia: Using once sense to describe another. Her laughter tasted like a warm summer day, all bright and fizzy and out of control.
Use this one sparingly, but it can be extremely powerful when it comes to conveying mood and word choice. Consider the following example:
“With blue, uncertain, stumbling buzz, / Between the light and me; / And then the windows failed, and then / could not see to see.” — “Dying,” Emily Dickinson
Figurative language can be an excellent way to help you describe those pesky sensory details that can be so hard to nail down. Consider the following from Toni Morrison’s Paradise:
“She spoke of fruit that tasted the way sapphires look…”
Your final workshopping or outlining task is to go through and identify some figurative language that will help you to convey the mood and tone for each scene.
Can’t get enough of mood, tone, and figurative language? Complete the writing activity below. Have a really great example in some of your writing that you would like me to feature on my blog? Submit it here.
Writing Prompt: use the images to inspire your writing. Consider mood and tone as you write. Create figurative language to describe the images (don’t forget sensory details). Once you have written for a certain tone or mood, try describing the picture(s) using a different tone or mood.
By Jebulon – Own work, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47485777
Public Domain Photo by: George Chernilevsky