Setting up your novel: Theme and Mood

I know there are several ways to write a novel. Tolkien just ran with it. GRRM already knows who sits on the Iron Throne. Each of us have likely at least started a story where we planned it out or which we just sat down and started writing, making up characters and settings as the whims struck. With Nanowrimo so close, however, I’m going to give a little guide that may (or may not) help you with your literary challenge come November.

There is an entity which is oft ignored by authors. Theme and mood are ultimately the driving, intangible, overarching feel and lesson of the story at hand. Sure it may shift a little in a few scenes, but at the end of the book what should the reader come away with? This paints everything else you write.

Mood is fairly simple. Is it up beat? Is it dour? When the reader finishes should they feel like a piece of their soul just died because their beloved king died? And then his son? And the mother? And by the end you’re left wondering what’s the point of life? (You know what I’m talking about) This can change quickly scene to scene, but still there will be an overarching feel the reader has fairly consistently.

Check out more here.
Check out more here.

Theme is where life gets complicated. What does theme even mean? I get breathy when I think of it, it exhausts me so. The theme could be the overall lesson, an image that shows up often, a culture which you pulled information from, or any other very prevalent thing. That’s right, theme is so wide as to get described using the word thing.

Theme as culture

I try to make sure all my worlds have a real world basis. I don’t always keep very true to it, and sometimes it’s a grouping, but I find it gives it far more reality. I recently worked on a world which borrowed heavily from Norse society. The gods were a little different, the basic world was slightly different, but at the end of the day they were my inspiration. However, remember the society doesn’t have a monopoly on their culture, especially in this day and age. Sure they are the primary source and should be used, but the Norse culture has been rehashed a dozen times. When getting into the mindset I read the Edda Pros, sure, but I also played the snot out of Skyrim. I no longer simply read about the gods and the way of life. I was able to live an interpretation of it. And it got people off my back for playing Skyrim. Remember, research can be fun.

Theme as what the reader should perceive

Once upon a time there was a bear who sat down at his tablet and chiseled a story halfheartedly without any central theme for the reader. In the end all the cubs thought he wanted them to maul humans. That’s why bears eat us. Don’t promote bears eating humans: have a central theme.

In school this was that annoying thing called a thesis. The harder part now is you don’t have a the last sentence in your first paragraph telling us what your theme is, you have a hundred or more pages inferring it. Come up with the purpose of your story. Perhaps write down two or three ideas. When you write, this is your north star. It’s to keep your message consistent. Martin is telling us the common people suffer when there’s war. Tolkien is telling us great things can come from small packages and go on an adventure. If you read the books you really like, chances are there is some underlying theme that you follow throughout the book.

Now your theme can also end up like your thesis for your college papers likely ended up: you finished writing, read what you put down, and then wrote your thesis. To have a theme now is just to help guide you. You understand what struggles should be apparent and what type of settings you might desire.

Theme as items

You remember in high school when they told you “This color is used throughout the book because…” and then you started yawning and wondering if you’d get that date over the weekend? Me neither. There was no date. However, writers often use symbolism of some sort to indicate more than the color of the drapes. Figure out which symbols match your feeling and include them. Just jot them off on the side and when you decide to use your theme in the future, check that list to see what you can incorporate. I’m writing a story with gods of life and death. When death was near I would either show the god of death or the goddess of life in disrepair.

The key to all of this is to remember it’s malleable. You’re not writing it in stone, but giving yourself some direction. This will help to set up in the future. It helps give you an idea of what you want to do. Take these as guides which can be removed or replaced at a whim. I’ve just found it helps a great deal to start my novel by first writing down the mood and theme. I also do it for individual scenes, but I’ll touch on that later.

Until then, what is a mood you would like writing about? What is a theme for your readers to take from it and how will you show that throughout your book?


Edgar A Poe“A short story must have a single mood and every sentence must build towards it.”  Edgar Allen Poe

Think back over the short stories you have read, and you will realize the truth lying in these words.  When you think about Poe’s quote, it makes sense from a practical point of view.  In a short story, there is no time to waste with complete character histories or their litany of day-to-day affairs, their numerous ups and downs.  No, when writing a short story, being concise is important.

Short stories have a singular focus, a primary conflict that the entire tale centers around.  Because of this, tone is essential from beginning to end.  This primary focus is the essence of the story.  Whether there is an internal battle resulting in the characters riding a roller coaster of emotions, or whether it is an external struggle like a political confrontation, the entire story must build on the tone created in the first paragraph.  The ending result is to be an intensified moment of lucidity (for either the audience or the character or both) built on the very first notes that started the tale.  This means that your first paragraph is just as important, if not more so, than your last paragraph.  Short story writers do not have the luxury of several beginning pages, or a chapter, to drag readers into their stories.  They have a sentence, maybe four, to really hook a reader by the nose and yank them into the middle of conflict (notice I said MIDDLE of conflict, not beginning).  Their may be some confusion or questions on the part of the reader, use this to your advantage.

Since Poe is the author of the commencing quote, let me use one of his pieces as an example.  The proceeding excerpt is the first paragraph in “The Cask of Amontillado.”

“THE thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult I vowed revenge. You, who so well know the nature of my soul, will not suppose, however, that gave utterance to a threat. At length I would be avenged; this was a point definitely, settled –but the very definitiveness with which it was resolved precluded the idea of risk. I must not only punish but punish with impunity. A wrong is unredressed when retribution overtakes its redresser. It is equally unredressed when the avenger fails to make himself felt as such to him who has done the wrong.”

Cask of AmontilladoThis tale, not surprisingly, ends in death, but the death, in and of itself, is not the most important aspect of the story.  Rather, the how it happened was the most important part.  The reader could probably foreshadow death, or at least a huge calamity, from the beginning of the story.  They did not read the story for a predictable ending.  Readers of short stories read for the INTENSITY.  Essentially, it all comes down to this.  Stories, like the Arts in general, are popular for having readers experience new things – new places, new emotions.

From this very first paragraph, the reader is to understand that the mood is dark.  Furthermore, the dark mood is created by a tone laced with hints of bitterness, vengeance/vindictiveness, and even traces of slyness.  As you continue reading the story, these points are not only continued, but are used as the foundation for the plot, meaning they become a greater and greater thread in the story as the tale progresses.

If this were a novel, we would probably have been given more of a background on the characters as well as snippets from Fortunato’s point of view – his fear and anguish.  However, instead we get a singular view point focused on ONE agenda, ONE act.  This sole purpose assists in intensifying the dark and frigid mood that Poe was trying to create.  The reader has no idea what injuries Fortunato inflicted upon the speaker, and it really doesn’t matter to the story.  It’s not part of the mood.  Poe was not interested in justification on the part of Fortunato, so he left this character relatively silent and in the dark.  As Mark Twain once wrote, he “would like to have written a shorter letter but didn’t have the time.”  This is one of the problems short story writers often encounter during their drafting processes.  Too much information is included by trying to inform the audience, make this or that point clear, erase plot holes, make the characters relateable or understandable, etc.  Unfortunately, what ends up happening is the mood is killed faster than a call from your mother during a heated make out session.  Unplanned distractions end up being assassins to even the best stories.

To further expound on Poe’s quote, I’ll add to it a quote from Joseph O’Connor, “A good short story is almost always about a moment of profound realisation. Or a hint of that. A quiet bomb.”   Think on this for a week.  Think of how it relates to mood as well as what other implications it may have for short stories.