Monday, February 18, 2013

Setting the Mood

The notion for this week is setting the mood, either for writers or as part of a story. For me, both are rather significant. If I’m in the wrong mood, writing can be a chore. I don’t like when that happens but it does happen. If the mood is wrong in the story, I’m obviously not going to get my point across very clearly and that is most decidedly a problem.

Listen, I can work through the pain as it were. I have more than once. Writing has always been my solace, really. When my wife passed a way a few years ago it was writing that I leaned on as much as anything else. Friends and family did a lot, but at the end of the day my escape and my chance to evaluate what I was going through came from the same source I have used for most of my adult life: my writing.

For me it’s normally as easy as listening to the right music, watching a few movies or even just going for a drive. Hop in the car and head into the north Georgia mountains for a day trip or cruise down to southern Georgia for a day, listen to the music of my choice and get lost in my thoughts without any major distractions and when I come back to it the next day I’m ready to write. Not nearly all of writing involves sitting in front of the keyboard for me. A lot of the process is internal and takes place without my fingers touching so much as the space bar. It was during a long-distance trip that I heard the right sequence of songs to trigger the ideas behind my young adult series SUBJECT SEVEN, and during another such jaunt that I plotted most of SMILE NO MORE. I think a lot of times it’s just a matter of letting your imagination run rampant without too many ways interruptions. Mind you, I don’t have a family to bounce into the room and catch my attention. These days it’s just little old me.

When it comes to setting the mood in the stories, well, that’s a different thing entirely, isn’t it? On that front you have to use your words, and yes, you have to use the right setting, too.

So here’s a short example of setting the mood as it were. At the end of the day you can decide if I did it the right way or the wrong way:

Mike Cahill Ran for all he was worth, his legs pumping furiously and his precious bundle held tight to his chest. Emily cried, her breaths washing over his neck and chin every time she gulped in enough breath to let out another wail of dismay.

The air was bitingly cold, leaving plumes of mist to escape Mike’s mouth with every exhalation. His lungs felt rimed with frost, and every breath he took in seemed to sand the inside of his throat. There was little light, the night’s stars and moon hidden by thickening, pregnant clouds, but his eyes had adjusted enough to let him see the shapes of trees and bushes as they blurred past, and to let him catch most of the obstacles ahead of him.

He knew the area well enough from years of coming here when he was younger, before the stories started.

“Come on, come on, where the hell are you?” He shouldn’t have wasted his breath, but the words crept out of his mouth of their own volition. Jenny should have been back with the Jeep ten minutes ago and now everything that could go wrong had.

The sounds of something heavy charging through the brush to his left and from behind him, spurred him to run faster still. There was more than one of the damned things following him: it was almost enough to make him just give up.

They hadn’t believed the stories. None of them had. This was just supposed to be a little Halloween lark, a good time and maybe a scare or two. Now, half an hour after they’d reached Ford’s Mill and the allegedly haunted lake, three people were dead and whatever the hell had killed them was chasing after him and his daughter.

A branch snapped to his left and Mike saw a dark shape drop low, running on all fours again. They seemed to move faster that way, as if running on their hind legs wasn’t a natural thing for them to do. He couldn’t tell for sure. He hadn’t seen them very well.

He’d been too busy watching Larry and Megan and Victor getting torn apart as he grabbed Emily from her crib and moved toward the back door of the cabin. He could still hear their screams echoing through his head like bullets bouncing around a steel drum.

Whatever was behind him lashed out and caught the back of Mike’s heel. The heavy hiking boot saved his flesh, but the impact was enough to send him off course. The tree he should have slipped past with ease blasted into his right shoulder. He heard a soft, wet crunch coming from the afflicted area. Heat exploded down his arm and almost immediately was replaced with an electric tingle that died down to numbness. Mike let out a grunt as he spun around, trying desperately to stay upright.

Had he been alone, he might have managed to keep his footing, but there was Emily to consider. As soon as the numbness started spreading past his elbow, Mike shifted her weight to his left side. Protecting her was an automatic gesture that bordered on instinct. As he compensated for the shift, his left foot hooked an exposed root from the same tree and Mike went down hard.

The ground reached up and slammed into Mike’s face. The leaves and mulch of the forest shoved themselves into his open mouth, his nose and his eyes. The taste of decay and mildew covered his tongue and the same odors saturated his nostrils. His eyes stung from the debris and a new pain cut a bolt of lightning across his forehead as he slid and something sharp punched through flesh and scraped across bone.

Emily’s screams stopped, her body struggling, pinned under his weight. Mike tried to shift, but none of his muscles responded. He tried to breathe, but the impact had stolen his wind and nothing happened.

“Uh-Uhemily. Baby.” Fear pressed down on him, a weight as massive as a house and Mike finally managed to push himself up on his good arm as he looked down at his infant daughter.

For a second there was nothing but the shock to his system and then he felt the tickle of her breath across his neck and heard her tiny lungs bleat out a cry of confusion and outrage. So tiny, so delicate and somehow still alive.

His right arm was useless, a heavy burden of lifeless flesh and grinding bones. His sides ached from running and Emily looked up at him her eyes wide and confused.

They crept closer, the things in the woods, their breaths rancid and their bodies dark with blood-stained fur. The wind shifted enough to let him smell their bitter odor, a perfume of ash and dead things.

The first drops of nearly frozen rain fell from above as he looked down at his little girl, his life, and struck Mike across the back of his head and neck.
“Please…Please…Not this. Don’t hurt her. Don’t hurt me.”

The shape closest to him took another step forward and placed thick black claws on the ground only inches from where he trembled.

Okay. That’s it. Just a quick scene.

Want to review? Here ya go.

Mike carries his little girl as he runs from something in the woods. He trips and falls, and manages not to crush his daughter in the process.

Really, that’s all that happened. If I did any of my job the right way, I might have evoked a little empathy for poor Mike or even for Emily.

If I did it the wrong way, you don’t give a good damn about what happens next.

The idea in this particular exercise was to give you as much sensory information as I could without letting it overwhelm the scene. Mike’s eyes aren’t the best in the dark, so I tried to use his other senses more completely. He didn’t see them beasts coming, but he heard them. He couldn’t stop from hitting the tree, but he definitely felt it.

Just a reminder that there are different senses that can and should be used to describe actions, people and events. Those elements together are what sets the mood. In the interest of full disclosure, by the way, the exercise above was done by me a while back and presented in part on the website Storytellers unplugged. I tweaked it a bit, but it's same basic piece. Now and  then I feel the need top repeat myself. 

James A. Moore 


  1. Oh, I definitely want to read more. You did an excellent job of putting me into Mike's head, so I could sense what he was sensing. :shiver: Now I need to know if the things kill him and his baby or if they somehow get away.

  2. What a great excerpt! I had to go pull on my big fuzzy sweater after reading it!