Chuck over at Terrible Minds was writing about mood the other day, and it made something click. Mood is how the narrator feels about the story.
Not the author (although that’s often the case; see the ouvre of Robert Heinlein).
The idea really only makes sense to me now that I’ve beaten myself up over rewriting Alien Blue. The POV switches from first person (Bill) to third person in the frame story, and the frame story narrator bored me to tears. Bill’s a great narrator; he jokes around, pulls your leg, tells outright lies, leaves things out, and switches from despair to bad puns and back again.
I wrote, well, I wrote something on the note I don’t care to repeat, the kind of thing that ought not to be repeated to ladies and wasn’t that funny anyway, and handed it to Miss Dewey. “Sam should be at the bar by now,” I said. “Why don’t you give him a call and have him brew up some coffee for these folks? It might improve their temperament.”
Here are what I think are the elements of mood here: Bill won’t tell the dirty joke to his audience (a woman), but he will share it with Miss Dewey, who reads the note. Bill is in the middle of hornswaggling some people, and switches to a redneck speech pattern. Bill’s remembering this moment with fondness, both for Miss Dewey and for his own cleverness.
The third-person narrator in the frame story started out as just me, flailing around. Then I realized there was one character common to all the scenes (Mimi). I used her voice to color but not control the scene – it’s as if she were telling the story but referring to herself in third person. She’s not as great a narrator; she’s too observant, too unemotional, and too willing to not jump to conclusions. And Bill’s POV is still coloring the scenes.
Bill said, “God damn it” and beelined over to the man, jerking him upright and hissing angrily at him. The man, whose filthy, ragged shirt and pants were smeared with either wood stain or blood, grabbed Bill’s arm hard. Bill sagged at the knees, wincing, and the man had to hold him steady. Bill passed a hand over his heart and shook his head, then pointed the man toward a side door. The man slumped away, almost tripping over his own feet, pulling himself along table by table.
Mood: Mimi isn’t as experienced a storyteller as Bill; she’ll tell instead of show. She’ll use adverbs. She doesn’t know whether the goop on the guy’s clothes is blood or wood stain and is unwilling to judge until she finds out for sure (although where or why the guy would have been in contact with wood stain is anybody’s guess). She sees action, not emotion, and doesn’t react as much to what’s happening, even though what happens here surely upsets her. At this point in the story, she’s at her limit. Her sense of humor has been sucked out of her (not that the reader can know this, at this point, but the reader will find this out later). All she has left are the facts, with which she’s trying to figure out what Bill’s up to.
So what’s the difference between POV and mood? Here’s Bill again:
I was upstairs in my bachelor pad sleeping off the celebration for passing my inspection when the phone rang down in the bar. I didn’t stay awake for more than a few seconds, just glanced at the clock and yelled at the drunks to go to bed. The next time the phone rang, I was having this dream about knocking the inspector on the floor and making him eat fruitcake, so I ignored the noise and went back to sleep, smiling.
My guess is the narrator depends on the POV and mood depends on POV, so POV and description are like a hurricane and flooding, like a blizzard and frostbite.
Mood is a great tool for foreshadowing, too. Here’s Bill’s next paragraph:
The next time the phone rang, I wasn’t smiling, because the inspector had turned into a zombie after I fed him the fruitcake. And when I went back to sleep, I dreamed the inspector’s fat zombie wife was chasing me with a hook on a rope, and I was up a tree. The phone rang again, and I’d fallen into a river, but the zombies had floated down after me. I bet you didn’t know zombies float.
Fruitcake is no good for you, by the way.
I didn’t write this section because I needed a way to show what the story was going to be like (foreshadowing), but it worked out that way. I actually had that dream (sans fruitcake), and it sounded like exactly the kind of thing Bill would dream about (but with the fruitcake). Also, I wanted to show Bill not getting out of bed when the phone rang. That’s what answering machines are for, right? I know you’re not supposed to start out a story with a dream. You’re also not supposed to put a story in a bar. And there are any number of other “rules” I broke, okay?
Bill knows how the story is going to go. And, at this point in the story, he wants to tell the story, knows it’s unbelievable, knows his audience has to sit there and listen, yet wants to impress her. So he’s trying to make her laugh, trying to set her up for just how strange this is. He knows who is audience is and wants specific things from her, wants the story to do specific things to her. And he’s determined to push through the situation, live or die, until he can’t go any further. (I’m a sap for perseverance.)
By the end of the story, his attitude has changed a little; he’s drawn strength from telling the story and is comforted that everything he’s done won’t just disappear, even if what he’s planning doesn’t work.
The lines went on and on, and we were down to champagne glasses and coffee mugs. Mel wove through the crowds and picked up what empties she could find and ran them through the sink. In the end, I had to send a couple of people over to the courthouse to pick up styrofoam cups, two per customer. But we made it.
Mimi, too, has changed by the end of the story.
The heat held through September into October, with day after day of 90-degree heat. Already-dead grass turned gray. The wind ripped like a blizzard across the gullies and brush, calling up dust devils and making people wince every time they went outside. The fire department volunteers froze every time the phone rang.
She’s done. She doesn’t know what’s happened, but she feels overwhelmed by failure nonetheless. She’s doing the wrong thing. But she isn’t limited to what she’s seeing, moment by moment. She uses metaphor instead of adverbs. (I didn’t do this on purpose; I just tried to see things from her POV.)
Mimi’s attitude changes again, but I couldn’t find anything that didn’t give away the plot. That’s right – just the feel of the description, the mood, gave away how things were going to go.
In conclusion – mood comes from the narrator, and how the narrator feels about the story, which the narrator communicates via what the narrator notices and doesn’t notice. Two people seeing the same scene report it differently; how they report the scene is the POV, which is made up of the narrator’s mood coloring or flavoring and even selecting the events reported. Mood can change or not throughout the story, depending on whether the narrator’s feelings about the story change. In the end, mood is the narrator telling the audience how to feel about the story.