When you’re a filmmaker, setting the mood is pretty easy; all you need is a little bit of scary music to terrify your viewers! But when you’re a writer, you must use the most precise words to convey that same feeling of impending doom.
Take a look at how Avi—a master writer and one of our favorite mentor authors—sets a mysterious, eerie mood at the beginning of his medieval fantasy novel, The Book Without Words:
“It was in the year 1406, on a cold winter’s night, when a fog, thick as wool and dank as a dead man’s hand, crept up from the River Scrogg into the ancient town of Fulworth. The fog settled like an icy shroud over the town, filling the mud-clogged streets and crooked lanes from Westgate to Bishopsgate, from Three Rats Quay upon the decaying riverbanks to Saint Osyth’s Cathedral by the city center. It heightened the stench of rotten hay and offal, of vinegary wine and rancid ale. It muffled the sound of pealing church bells calling the weary faithful to apprehensive prayers. In a neglected corner of town, at the bottom of Clutterbuck Lane, with its grimy courtyard and noxious well, against the town’s walls, stood a dilapidated two-story stone house. The first-level windows were blocked up with stone. A single second-floor window was curtained.”
Avi never tells his readers that this place has an ominous atmosphere, but we certainly feel it. Let’s dissect the different strategies he used to convey the mood in his paragraph of description.
Avi uses two similes to describe the fog. It is not just a simple morning fog that clouds up the streets for a few minutes in the morning! It’s a fog that is blanketing the village in a not-so-pleasant way. Reading the words “dead man’s hand” in the first sentence of the novel immediately jars the reader.
“… a fog, thick as wool and dank as a dead man’s hand…”
“…fog settled like an icy shroud.”
Carefully chosen adjectives turn run-of-the-mill, innocuous items like streets, courtyards, and wells into the picture of gloom and doom.
crumbling city walls
dilapidated two-story stone house
Although Avi only describes the setting in this opening paragraph (we have yet to meet any characters), verbs make the village move, which only adds to its mystery!
“…crept up from the River Scrogg…”
“It heightened the stench of rotten hay and offal.”
“It muffled the sound…”
Focus on what makes the setting unique by touching on the five senses.
Sight: “The first-level windows were blocked up with stone.”
Smell & Taste: “…the stench of rotten hay and offal, of vinegary wine and rancid ale.”
Touch: “cold winter’s night”
Sound: “the sound of pealing church bells”
Naming places in your story can be a lot of fun. The words “rats,” “clutter” and the sound of the word “Scrogg” have a certain connotation that gives the reader a sense of what this place might be like.
Three Rats Quay
Now examine a paragraph of setting description that you’ve used in your story and try using these strategies to help you set the mood!