Sunday, February 17, 2013

Why Your English Teacher Was Right All Along

I pulled this off of Facebook last night - it happened to pop up in the timeline of one of my writer friends as I was contemplating how to talk about setting the mood in a story.

We all remember these arguments from English class, right? The teacher would painstakingly guide us through the intricacies of simile, metaphor and analogy. We discussed theme, symbolism and - come test time - we were asked to delve into the texts and draw our own conclusions. Inevitably frustrations would arise. How can you be graded on something as vague as what the author meant by blue curtains? These are not the hard and fast answers of math and science. How could anyone lay claim to a "correct" answer unless the author steps up and says, "yes, I totally that."

Unfortunately, the author is much more likely to shrug and say, "if that's what you see in it, great!"

I was surprised, though, that this writer posted it, along with a comment that they would never write a story where the color of the curtains meant anything.


Because - and I'm truly not wanting to criticize this person - if you take that stance, you're missing out on myriad opportunities to convey mood in a story.

The thing is: mood is about emotion.

We all know this, right? "I'm moody today." "He's in a terrible mood." "The mood of this crowd is turning ugly."

Mood is something we sense. You walk up to a table when your two friends have just been fighting and you feel it right away. We could go into all the cues that lead you to that conclusion, but suffice to say that listing them in words doesn't create that same sinking feeling of knowing you just walked into a tense moment.

This is where movies and music have it easier than writing. Music taps directly into our emotional wiring. There's a reason we call it "mood music." Movies have the ability to send complex visual images that pan over a variety of shapes, colors and, yes, symbols that cue the subconscious. The opening images and music of movies tell us the mood.

How do we convey mood in writing? Carefully. And with subtlety.

There's a reason "It was a dark and stormy night" is considered a cliché opening. It's intended to convey a mood, but does so in a very blatant and clumsy way. The subtle way is to use cues that speak to the subconscious, just like movies and music do.

Which means that, yes, the curtains being blue really does matter.

Imagine this bedroom. Make it a simple one. Give it blue curtains. Maybe those filmy light blue curtains from the 50s. I get a certain feel from that. Now change them to sunny, ruffled curtains. How does the feeling of the room change? Now turn them into dark navy and red tartan curtains. What is the room like now? Maybe there are no curtains and the window is bare. Maybe the glass is covered by that blurry plastic stuff that people attach by melting with a blow dryer for cheap insulation. Could be the window has those ubiquitous white plastic Levelor blinds, thick with dust and studded with dead flies. What if those blinds are blond wooden plantation shutters instead?

Feel how each of those choices informs the bedroom in a different way. The wise writer takes advantage of every opportunity, great or small, to inform the reader about the world the characters move through. There's an old saying, "God is in the detail." It's one of those phrases that gets passed around so much that no one is really sure how to attribute it. The point, however, is that the sublime aspect of any creation is in the fine detail. Details combine to make the whole.

In short, why would you have your curtains be blue for no reason when you could use the color, style, age, fabric, condition, cost, and function tell me worlds about the person who lives in that bedrooom and how they feel about their lives with one tiny detail?

I've picked just one way to convey mood and there are enough to write a book on the topic. I'm sure my bordello mates will have other methods to share as the week goes on.

I'm totally in the mood for this!


  1. Never thought so much about curtains in such a short burst of time LOL. But you make excellent points...

    1. see? you'll never look at curtains the same way again!

  2. My question for the writer would be: If there isn't a reason for saying the curtains are blue, why mention the color at all? Color and texture and specifics give the story life, but if that specificity isn't necessary - if it detracts from the story - for petesakes, don't throw it in there.

    And that's my two cents for the morning. (As well as the energy from my last two functioning brain cells... It's been a busy day already. Naptime!)

    Great post, btw, Jeffe. =o)

    1. lol - you have a good point, B.E., though that's really another topic altogether. Random, meaningless details can clutter a story. Largely because we are so trained by the storytelling media to pay attention to details. Worthless details can distract from a mood. Destroy it, even.

  3. I would have immediately agreed with the Facebook image before I read your post. Because I am a reader only, I hadn't really thought about it one way or the other. I just want to know what the characters are doing and when they will see each other again! However, I truly enjoy books that have more subtle detail and allow me to put myself in the story and really feel a scene. I want to be cold when the characters are cold or hot when the characters are hot. The writers that take the time to set that up for the reader will suck me in. Maureen A. Miller is one author that does a fantastic job of doing this since a lot of her books are very weather-related. She has the dark and stormy night like in ENDLESS NIGHT but doesn't say it in those words. She has the hot South American jungle weather in JUNGLE OF DECEIT that practically had me physically sweating. It is interesting reading your blogs here and I like how you all have different thoughts on similar issues.

    1. I think that's exactly how it should work, Amy. As reader, we don't want to think about the blue curtains, just that the room is depressing.