Some books are tailor-made for sweltering beach days, cool drinks, and hours of blissful nothingness as far as the eye can see. Others are made for dark, foreboding nights by the fire (maybe with a friend nearby in case the monsters under the bed get any funny ideas). Some books give you chills, others make you laugh, and still others make you think.
Authors have a lot of tools at their disposal when it comes to creating an engaging atmosphere for the reader. In this article, we’ll be talking about a story’s mood—what it means, how to build it within your story world, and some helpful literary examples from effective novels.
What is mood in literature?
A story’s mood is defined as the emotional response the story creates within the reader. A story might have one of many moods, like a humorous mood, a somber mood, or an uplifting mood. Writers can use tools like setting, imagery, and descriptive language to create mood, which makes the story even seem more immersive and real.
Creating these emotional responses in the reader is essential in making them care about your carefully crafted characters, conflicts, and plot. While longer works such as novels (less so in poetry and short stories) may utilize different moods in different chapters, most literary works of any length will have an overall predominant mood that the reader associates with that work.
For instance, cozy mysteries and fantasies may have tense moments as the conflicts progress, but the novel as a whole will have an overall mood that’s comforting and safe.
We’ll look closer at the different moods you might encounter, and the different ways of creating mood in a story, below.
What’s the difference between literary mood and grammatical mood?
When writers talk about mood, there are two different things they might be referring to: literary mood and grammatical mood. While they share similarities, they’re not quite the same thing.
Grammatical mood refers to the different ways a sentence can be structured to convey the intention behind it. There are five grammatical moods:
Indicative (It’s raining outside)
Imperative (Put your coat on; it’s raining!)
Interrogative (Do you think it will rain all day?)
Conditional (If it stops raining soon, we could go for a walk)
Subjunctive (I suggested we postpone the picnic due to the rain)
While each of these sentences does have a different feel to it, grammatical mood is a specific set of structural parameters. Literary mood, by contrast, reflects the entire overall feeling of a piece of writing. In this article, we’ll be focusing on literary mood.
What’s the difference between mood vs. tone?
In writing, tone refers to the author or narrator’s attitude in a story, while mood refers to the overall sensation the reader gets from reading a piece of writing.
Specifically, tone is the way the author or narrator’s voice sounds on the page. This is achieved by careful attention to sentence structure, syntax, and particular word choices that give the words a certain feel. A narrator’s tone might be critical, encouraging, romantic, aggressive, playful, or more.
Mood refers to the overall sensation a reader gets from reading a piece of writing. Tone of voice contributes to mood, but mood is much broader than tone and incorporates several different literary elements.
Read more about using tone as a literary device in writing.
What’s the difference between mood vs. atmosphere?
Mood and atmosphere are often used interchangeably to describe the overall sensation within a story or poem. While they overlap and inform each other, there’s one key difference.
Atmosphere is the general feeling that’s present within a story, built up out of literary devices like setting, conflict, and characterization. This is what creates the mood that the reader experiences. In other words, atmosphere is an intentional construction, while mood is an organic response.
For example, you might walk into an old church that has a dark and somber atmosphere, which creates a nervous and reverential mood in those within it. The church itself doesn’t feel nervous—it’s only an architectural structure. However, its parts come together to create an atmosphere, which in turn create mood.
Different moods you’ll find in writing
There are many different ways to describe mood in literature, and a myriad of nuances your reader might experience. Let’s look at the different types of emotional responses a story might have.
Uplifting stories, also known as “feel-good” stories, leave the reader feeling refreshed and hopeful. This is a popular mood for romance novels and women’s fiction, but any genre can be written in an uplifting way. These novels also tend to get a lot of word-of-mouth traction, because they make readers feel good at the end and want to recommend them to their friends.
Here are some of the mood adjectives to keep in mind when creating an uplifting mood for your story:
Humorous novels make the readers laugh at the characters, the world, and sometimes even themselves. But this mood isn’t just about slapstick comedy—a humorous mood involves being playful, lighthearted, and not taking yourself too seriously.
Here are some mood adjectives to think about while trying to capture a humorous mood for your story:
A foreboding mood is a cornerstone of mystery and horror novels, but you can incorporate this mood into a whole range of stories. Some literary fiction uses an overall foreboding mood when they want to get the reader thinking about pressing social or political issues (like 1984). More often, however, foreboding moods will dominate some chapters of a novel, but not others.
Here are some key adjectives to help you build a foreboding mood:
A pensive mood is thought-provoking and introspective. It encourages readers to consider deep philosophical questions about what they’ve read and the choices they’ve witnessed over the course of a story. These novels often make great discussion points for reading groups and book clubs.
Here are some mood adjectives to think about when writing a story with a pensive mood:
You’ll notice that some of these moods can overlap, and some, like pensive, can be positive or negative. Remember—you can have more than one mood in your novel, depending on what you’re trying to communicate in each given moment.
You may find it helpful to write down some of these mood examples before you begin writing a new scene, and to take a moment to consider how those words make you feel. If you give yourself a clear idea of precisely what specific mood you want your reader to be feeling, those emotions will come across stronger on the page.
Examples of mood in literature
To see how this emotional quality looks in practice, let’s look at a few novels that have successfully evoked rich moods for their readers.
The Princess Bride, by William Goldman
“Good-by, little Domingo,” Yeste would say then. “Although I die in your hut, and although it is your own stubborn fault that causes my ceasing, in other words, even though you are killing me, don’t think twice about it. I love you as I always have and God forbid your conscience should give you any trouble.” He pulled open his coat, brought the knife closer, closer. “The pain is worse than I imagined!” Yeste cried.
“How can it hurt when the point of the weapon is still an inch away from your belly?” Domingo asked.
“I’m anticipating, don’t bother me, let me die unpestered.”
Domingo grabbed the knife away. “Someday I won’t stop you,” he said.
The mood in this moment is sharply in contrast with what’s actually happening. Dude is preparing to off himself(!), and yet there’s never the sense that he’s in any real danger. The scene uses a playful mood to reveal the dramatic nature of Yeste’s character, and the comfortable nature of the friendship between the two men.
The juxtaposition between the implication (i.e. unfathomable pain) and the reality (a small temper tantrum) makes the reader laugh and feel that everything will be alright in the end.
Other Birds, by Sarah Addison Allen
Oliver winked at Zoey, who almost tripped down the stairs. Sometimes the dynamic of their relationship was so comfortably platonic that she wanted nothing to change, like when Oliver sat with her on her balcony in the evenings after work. Most of the time they simply stared out at the garden, every once in a while turning to smile at each other as if they couldn’t quite believe this was their life now, that they were actually adults being trusted to navigate this world on their own. But once, he’d reached over and taken her hand and kissed it for no reason she could think of. It was as if she’d touched something electric, and she’d found herself thinking she would be perfectly okay if everything changed.
This moment at the end of the protagonist’s coming-of-age journey is hopeful, nostalgic, whimsical, and peaceful all at once. The moment itself is very small, but the author takes her time to explore its feelings and nuances.
This example shows how you can create a powerful mood by really leaning into an instant in time and fleshing out what it means—where the characters have come from, and where they’re going next.
Spells For Forgetting, by Adrienne Young
A few more days, and the ferries would stop. The orchard would be closed for the winter, and this year, it couldn’t come soon enough.
The sharp snap of a limb made my steps slow, and I looked up to where a flash of something skittered ahead, disappearing around the bend in the road. A familiar prick crawled over my skin and I knew that feeling—like a sudden fever.
When I was a child, the island’s whispers had been like the sound of my mother humming to herself as she crouched in the garden, or the familiar groan of waves crashing on the rocky shore. But I’d learned a long time ago that sometimes they brought unwelcome fates.
This Pacific Northwest gothic novel uses a powerful setting (a spooky island in the mist) to enhance its mood and themes. Pay attention to how the word choice creates an ominous mood—words like winter, crawled, fever, whispers, the groan of waves crashing—as well as the way the author uses sharp consonance to heighten the tension—words like sharp snap, skittered, prick, and rocky.
This early scene has a general feeling of foreboding and makes the reader want to pull their blankets in closer to find out what happens next.
Examples of mood in poetry
Mood is a huge part of the experience of reading and hearing poetry as well. Here are some poems that create particularly effective moods for the reader.
“Litany,” by Billy Collins
You are the bread and the knife,
the crystal goblet and the wine.
You are the dew on the morning grass
and the burning wheel of the sun.
You are the white apron of the baker,
and the marsh birds suddenly in flight.
However, you are not the wind in the orchard,
the plums on the counter,
or the house of cards.
And you are certainly not the pine-scented air.
There is just no way that you are the pine-scented air.
This poem was written as a satire of the overly descriptive love poetry that has been so popular throughout history. It begins as soft, romantic, and whimsical, and then takes a sudden turn as the speaker puts on the breaks and sets limitations on their romanticism. It moves from formal language to jarringly colloquial: “There is just no way that you are the pine-scented air.” This creates a familiarity with the reader, as if they’re sharing in a private joke.
“The Eve of St. Agnes,” by John Keats
She hurried at his words, beset with fears,
For there were sleeping dragons all around,
At glaring watch, perhaps, with ready spears—
Down the wide stairs a darkling way they found.—
In all the house was heard no human sound.
A chain-droop’d lamp was flickering by each door;
The arras, rich with horseman, hawk, and hound,
Flutter’d in the besieging wind’s uproar;
And the long carpets rose along the gusty floor.
This much older poem depicts a mediaeval love story between an impressionable young maiden and a rapscallion of a teenage boy (coincidentally, the basis of many of literature’s most famous romances); at this moment, they’re fleeing together as the girl’s family sleeps off their drunken revelries from the night before. In this context, “dragons” is a metaphor for her brothers, who will probably slaughter the poor bloke if they wake.
This excerpt uses dark, threatening imagery such as the sleeping dragons, the “darkling way” of their escape route, and the “besieging wind” of the storm outside to create a thrilling and ominous moon for the reader. Each suspenseful, gothic-infused moment leaves the reader clinging to the page, waiting to find out what happens next.
“A Brave and Startling Truth,” by Maya Angelou
When we come to it
We, this people, on this wayward, floating body
Created on this earth, of this earth
Have the power to fashion for this earth
A climate where every man and every woman
Can live freely without sanctimonious piety
Without crippling fear
When we come to it
We must confess that we are the possible
We are the miraculous, the true wonder of this world
That is when, and only when
We come to it.
This entire poem is bursting at the seams with hope for a better future. Angelou makes allusions throughout to warfare, cruelty, and fear, but her core message is that these things can be overcome with strength, resilience, and love. She uses the fourth-person “we” to create a sense of solidarity in the reader, and uses key mood words like “miraculous” and “wonder” to instil a feeling of optimism and renewal.
How to enhance your story’s mood
Mood comes down to a number of different factors which all come together to create a larger, broader sensation. Here are some of the literary devices you can use when establishing mood that will tug on the reader’s emotions.
Pay attention to setting
As any writer of the gothic will tell you, setting is huge when it comes to creating the desired mood in a story. Think about the eerie feeling evoked by Dracula’s castle, or the ominous mood around a decrepit summer fair overrun with vermin and rust.
You can link setting to character too as a way of creating an emotional connection to the story. For instance, you can evoke a sad mood or a sense of nostalgia by sending your protagonist back to their childhood home—a place of carefree happiness that they will never know again. Look for ways to use place and memory to enhance the mood of your story.
You can read more about setting in literature at our dedicated article.
Use evocative imagery
Often, the emotions evoked in a story come from the way the writer engages their senses. A writer can create a tense atmosphere by appealing to a reader’s visual sense with dark shadows, or convey a happy mood by appealing to a reader’s olfactory sense with comforting scents of home. Although we often think of sight when we think of the word “image,” vivid sensory imagery can be perceived in all sorts of different ways.
When approaching a scene, think about the way different sights, scents, sounds, and other sensations make you feel. You can even brainstorm before you begin by writing down some images that are associated with certain emotions—which may even lead to new twists and turns in your story.
For more ideas and ways to dive into each of these senses, head over to our lesson on imagery here.
Carefully plan your word choice
The right words, and even sounds, can have a big impact on the emotion evoked in the reader. Poets know this very well, but it’s a great tool for fiction writers too. Consider things like diction, dialect, and syntax—the arrangement of words in a sentence.
Certain words or narrative styles are instinctively associated with certain moods. For instance, onomatopoeic language creates a whimsical mood in a story or poem, while words with a lot of hard consonants (Ds, Ts, and Ks) tends to create more of a tense, erratic atmosphere. You can experiment with the way different words, sounds, and phrases make you feel a certain way by listing all the words that come to mind when you think of a chosen mood.
Think about your story’s genre
Genre preconception also plays a large role in the mood of a literary work. Much of this comes down to how a book is marketed—its cover and its place in the bookshop. If a reader picks up a horror novel, they’re expecting to feel anxious, thrilled, and tense. If a reader picks up a romance novel, they’re expecting to feel romantic, lighthearted, and playful. If you know what genre you want to write in, you can pinpoint the sorts of moods your readers will be looking for and enhance them to make even more of an impact.
This doesn’t mean you can’t invert the reader’s expectations and create something entirely different—for instance, a mystery novel that’s unexpectedly poignant and uplifting. But it definitely helps to be aware of these expectations so you can use them or thwart them in an intentional, creative way.
Mood works to elevate your story to the next level
A story’s mood is something a lot of writer’s overlook because we’re not necessarily aware of it as readers—at least not consciously. But mood can make a huge difference in the way we perceive a literary work. Whether through sensual, fantastical imagery or through precise, targeted word choice, you can bring mood into your own work for an even stronger emotional response from your readers.