How to Create Mood in Fiction

We’ve all heard about how mood is incredibly important in fiction (and if you’ve followed my blog for a while, you’ll have heard me repeatedly quote Dean Koontz’s view on the matter), but the process of creating it is something I very rarely see discussed. On one level, I suspect this is largely to do with the fact there is a certain ineffability about it: many writers probably don’t even know how they create it themselves, it is instinctive, natural. They think about evoking certain feelings in the reader and it just happens. Certainly, the best of writers, such as Stephen King, will have reached this point where it is second nature, they don’t even have to think about it: it’s in the first draft. For the rest of us, we do have to think about it, and it’s an important thing to think about, because, if you can carry off mood, your novel/story/poem/script can be forgiven for much else.

As a horror writer, I work with mood a lot and in measurable ways (“are they scared or not?” is a lot simpler than “do they feel warm and fuzzy inside or just fussy or what?”), so I’d like to share my insights into mood with you. Hopefully, it will be of benefit to writers and artists working in all genres.

  • Do NOT tell your reader to feel a certain way, make them. Adjectives like “eerie” or “creepy” don’t work 90% of the time. Instead, describe what you intend the reader to find “eerie” in as much detail as possible, which includes the protagonist/characters’ reactions. Don’t tell us your heroine is “scared”, tell us about the way her skin feels funny, as though its coming loose from her bones. Tell us about that itchy-scalp feeling. That tingly electricity in the tips of the fingers trembling. Imagine you are a painter, not a writer. Small details in paintings are what bring them to life. The strange pointed finger in Da Vinci’s John Baptist portrait. What is he pointing to? God, the skies? Why the knowing look on his face? Does he know something we don’t? The painting is so powerful (and a little scary) because of these details which make it seem living.



  • Think carefully about your lexical choices. Words have meaning not just by definition but by association. In certain langauges, these rules are even formal and grammatical. For example, in Japanese, there are casual, formal and very formal registers of speaking, as well as 3 distinct alphabets. You would use certain words talking to friends in a bar but not in a business room. In English, these rules are less clear-cut and rigorous due to the immense flexibility of the language: both a strength and a weakness. So, we must be very careful about what words we use and what associations they have. For example, if I wanted to describe a sensual scene between two lovers, and I wrote the following, what words jump out at you as being misplaced?

“He ran his fingers down the curve of her spine, his touch soft as a moss clump.”

Okay, that one is rather obvious. But still, let’s analyse what’s wrong with it as it makes a good exercise to articulate one’s thoughts. Here you have a scene you want to be sensual, perhaps even erotic, passionate. By using the image of a ‘moss clump’ to convey the gentleness of his fingers, you are, by association, conjuring images which are completely un-erotic: dirt, decay. Moss is often bright green, which is a bilious colour that makes us think of poison, vomit, sickliness. All in all, it completely wrongfoots the scene. People often describe the writing of 50 Shades of Grey puerile and dreadful, and one of the main things E. L. James does is use incongruous imagery, for example, describing a multiple orgasm as a “washing machine going round and round”. Washing machines are a dull, every day household item that for most people are associated with the tedium of chores: the opposite of something arousing. Though this was a blindingly obvious one, it’s easily done in much subtler ways.

“He ran his fingers down the curve of her spine, his touch soft as butter.”

On the surface, the above is passable. But really, it is the same issue. Butter makes us think of rich, fatty foods – foods which fill us up – immediately switching our brains over to hunger and away from erotic thoughts. You want to find a simile/word choice that congruous with your meaning and explores the mood:

“He ran his fingers down the curve of her spine, his touch soft as whispers in the long night.”

Now we arrive at the main event. I’m not saying the above is exactly Shakespeare (it’s okay I guess), but it is certainly a cut above the other two. Why? Because of two key reasons:

(1) Synesthesia is the act of interpreting one sense in terms of another. It is both a real medical condition (in which people’s sense are confused and so they can, for example, “taste colours”) and it’s a literary technique. On a sidebar, if you are at all curious, I have synesthesia. I can indeed “taste colours” and I see music in terms of colour (Chopin’s Nocturne’s are all deepening ultraviolet sliced with azure raindroplets, in case you’re wondering). Some people have said in reviews this is why my imagery is quite unusual.

Now, back to the important stuff: literary technique. In the above example, I am interpreting kinesthetic touch in terms of sound; his touch is soft as a “whisper”. Another example, and one of my favourites, is Jacques Brel’s song Amsterdam (performed originally by Scot Walker and later covered by Bellowhead) in which he describes the “rancid sound of the accordion”. Rancid, refers to a taste. But, we all know what “rancid sound” sounds like, don’t we? Especially when it comes to accordions. The brilliance of synesthesia, and why all creatives should strive towards it, is that it is one of the best ways to create mood around. In the example of the “rancid sound”, you can just picture the dingy, sordid little bar in which the piss-smelling accordion player is floundering his way through some old French tune he only half knows. Mood created. Job done. You only needed 2 words to do it.

So, it’s worth experimenting with this technique. The test of whether it works is simple: do we know what it means? If there is any obscurity, the synesthesia has failed.

Reason (2) the above example works is because it is in unity: “whispers” are intimate, and so, by association, we understand his touch to be intimate. The fact these whispers are happening at “night” suggests they are conspiratorial, secretive, and often when something is secretive, our mind leaps to the sexual. The fact the night is “long” suggests a night of lengthy romance like something straight out of a storybook. Think of Ovid’s lente lente currite noctis equi (slowy, slowly horses of the night ride) a plea for  the night to slow down so that two lovers can enjoy their passion for longer. It’s an old image, but one that is ingrained in us, the idea of the whole night whiled away in passion. Here, rather than cornily and explicitly referencing it, I am evoking it through a subtle allusion, which actually makes it more potent because it works on the brain subconsciously.


  • This brings us nicely onto my third and final hint/tip for creating mood: using unconscious dream imagery. Our brain has internalised certain symbols. In fact, we think in images. Hence that amazing psychology test in Blade Runner to determine whether we are an android or not: “I want you to imagine a desert…” Machines are incapable of this imagination, and therefore, can be found out via their inability to picture the series of images that the interrogator prompts them with. Jung and many other psychologists understood this concept of the unconscious and the way it works with symbols (interpreting subliminal messages around us every day without us even knowing). Learning how to access this symbolic language is key to evoking mood, because what do we remember most about dreams? The feeling they evoke. We remember feeling terrified, or lost, or confused, or full of beaming joy. Dreams have such strong mood: particularly when they are nightmares that evoke a sense of inevitable, crushing dread.

So how do we draw on this visual language? Well, it’s not easily done. There is something instinctive about the way certain writers know how to focus in on seemingly innocuous details and suddenly make them land with immense power. Vandermeer does it particularly brilliantly in his Southern Reach trilogy in which an apparently pointless side story about a fish and a crab in a small pond becomes microcosmic of the whole plot. My best advice here is – corny as it sounds – practice. Practice writing a story in the most bare, prosaic, plain-spoken language you can:

“Tom goes to the shop. Tom is angry and confused. Tom pulls out a gun and aims it at the shopkeeper. Tom threatens the shopkeeper and asks for the money in the till.”

– then, re-write the story using only symbols.

“Tom’s shadow on the car park tarmac is deeper than black. He enters the shopping centre and thinks about magpies he saw this morning rooting through his trash for anything shiny and worthless; he thinks about the way they stab sharply at the black bin-liner, then peer at it, blank. He reckons they would feel no different piercing flesh than plastic.”

This is just an example, but as you can see I have foreshadowed the robbery Tom is about to commit by using the symbol of the magpie (whom we all know likes shiny objects). It’s a stretch, but this is just an example to show you how it could work. Now, it’s up to you to go back to your lab and make it happen!

So, let’s wrap this up: that’s a lot to think about!  I hope you found it useful. Thanks very much for dropping by. If this is your first time stopping by, please consider following me on Twitter @josephwordsmith or on this blog by clicking “follow”.

If you have any thoughts, please share them in the comments. Let’s get a conversation going. What are your favourite mood-evoking books? Films? Music? I’m dying to hear them all.

Until then,


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