Think of a story you’ve read that you keep going back to.
We bet if we asked you, “Why that book?” you’d tell us it’s because of how the book makes you feel.
It’s not that the author forced an emotion on you.
They just guided you in the direction of a particular mood.
Wondering how to describe mood, exactly?
It’s what you feel when you’re reading a story.
And, hopefully, it’s exactly what the author intended.
What Is Mood in Literature and Why Is It Important?
If the tone is tied to what the author feels, the mood is what you, as the reader, feel when you read the author’s words.
The author sets the tone, and if they do it well, you pick up on the mood intended. And it stays with you even after you close the book.
When you tune into the author’s intended mood, you feel more invested in the story — feeling as present for each scene as the characters and empathizing with them.
Mood helps make the story personal.
How Is Mood Created?
A skilled author uses all five of the following story elements to create a particular mood:
- Genre — The overall mood readers expect from a particular fiction genre
- Setting — The description of a story’s or scene’s time and place
- Style / Diction— The author’s use of words, sentences, and punctuation
- Tone — The words that communicate the author’s attitude toward something
- Viewpoint — First, second, or third-person point of view
For tone, the author carefully chooses words to evoke the types of mood they want to set, using what they know or drawing from a list of mood words like the one in this post.
In doing so, they create an atmosphere that enters the reader’s consciousness along with the words.
Mood Examples in Literature
Enjoy the following examples of mood and how each author creates it, using the elements at their disposal: setting, style, genre, tone, and viewpoint.
Example #1: Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
Lewis Carroll uses extraordinary imagery, lighthearted language, and unusual turns of phrase to create a whimsical mood, presenting strange characters as if they were ordinary and expected.
“She stretched herself up on tiptoe, and peeped over the edge of the mushroom, and her eyes immediately met those of a large caterpillar, that was sitting on the top with its arms folded, quietly smoking a long hookah, and taking not the smallest notice of her or of anything else.”
Example #2: The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
Tolkien starts the book by painting a picture of a homey scene — with a cozy, welcoming, and well-furnished hobbit hole — to create a mood of comfort and security.
“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.
“It had a perfectly round door like a porthole, painted green, with a shiny yellow brass knob in the exact middle. The door opened on to a tube-shaped hall like a tunnel: a very comfortable tunnel without smoke, with panelled walls, and floors tiled and carpeted, provided with polished chairs, and lots and lots of pegs for hats and coats – the hobbit was fond of visitors….”
Example #3: Hamlet by William Shakespeare
Shakespeare sets an ominous tone for the play right from the beginning by setting it at night with the sudden appearance of the dead king’s ghost, who reveals to Prince Hamlet, his son, that he was murdered by his own brother, the prince’s uncle.
Hamlet’s character is pensive, melancholy, and suspicious for most of the play, adding to the suspenseful and foreboding mood throughout.
Marcellus Peace, break thee off. Look where it comes again.
Barnardo In the same figure like the King that’s dead.
Marcellus Thou art a scholar. Speak to it, Horatio.
Barnardo Looks it not like the King? Mark it, Horatio.
Horatio Most like. It harrows me with fear and wonder.
Horatio What art thou that usurp’st this time of night,
Together with that fair and warlike form
To which the majesty of buried Denmark
Did sometimes march? By heaven, I charge thee speak.
Marcellus It is offended.
Barnardo See, it stalks away.
Horatio Stay, speak, speak, I charge thee speak!
Even without stage directions, the reader can easily pick up on the fear and foreboding in the castle guards when they see the ghost of their departed king.
Example #4: The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
The main character, Hazel Lancaster, is on doctor’s orders to attend a support group named God’s Heart, supposedly to address the depression she has over her cancer diagnosis.
Here’s how Hazel describes the support group:
“So here’s how it went in God’s Heart: The six or seven or ten of us walked/wheeled in, grazed at a decrepit selection of cookies and lemonade, sat down in the Circle of Trust, and listened to Patrick recount for the thousandth time his depressingly miserable life story— […] they thought he was going to die but he didn’t die and now here he is, a full-grown adult in a church basement in the 137th nicest city in America, divorced […].”
Notice how the bolded words make it obvious how Hazel views her time there — and how little it’s likely to help with any depression she might have.
Example #5: Sonnet 130 by William Shakespeare
Though this example comes from a poem, it offers a clear example of how the author’s choice of words create a mood — in this case a humorous one.
Here Shakespeare uses clear, blunt language to give the reader a taste of reality, poking fun at poetry that exaggerates the beauty of their female subjects.
My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun; Coral is far more red than her lips’ red; If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun; If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head. I have seen roses damasked, red and white, But no such roses see I in her cheeks; And in some perfumes is there more delight Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks. I love to hear her speak, yet well I know That music hath a far more pleasing sound; I grant I never saw a goddess go; My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground. And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare As any she belied with false compare.
101 Mood Words to Use in Writing Fiction
In the following list of words to describe mood, you’ll find those that run the spectrum from positive to negative since enough of them are somewhere in the middle.
18. Depressed / Depressing
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45. Hopeful / Hopeless
68. Painful / Pained
73. Powerful / Powerless
84. Sceptical / Skeptical
87. Sick / Sickened
97. Trustful / Trusting
Now that you’re better acquainted with mood and how to create it, what authors have you read lately who used all five elements to set exactly the mood you were hoping to find.
After all, sometimes we just want a book that makes us feel calm, comforted, and safe. Other times, we want a story that leads with a mystery or with heart-pounding tension.
What mood are you trying to set for your story? And what words will help you do that?