Pacing and mood

July 11, 2010

If we choose words and sentence structure carefully, we can create a mood and let readers know how our characters are feeling without telling them.

Here’s a passage from Second Nature:

Leaning her head against the back of the couch, she looked out the window.

Snowflakes floated down to earth, forming a white curtain that separated the house from the rest of the world.

Want to take a guess how Griffin is feeling right now? What kind of scene this will be — relaxed or fast-paced?

You probably guessed correctly: Readers who read the novel know that Griffin considers being separated from the world a GOOD thing. The snow that separates them from the rest of the world adds to the cozy feeling and helps create the mood for what will turn into a love scene.

I used softer words (floated) to create that relaxed mood. Paragraphs and sentences are longer in this scene. That doesn’t mean that all sentences and all paragraphs are long.

The setting and weather can be used to show or reflect a character’s emotions. The same setting can be described and seen very differently. Someone who is in a good mood and maybe in love would see getting caught in the rain as romantic. Someone who is already sad would feel miserable after getting drenched. They surely wouldn’t notice the beauty of it.

I could have described the falling snow as a hostile thing to show that my POV character is feeling trapped. For example:

Heavy snowflakes hit the earth, smothering it.

Or I could try for a more playful mood if my character is feeling joyful:

Snowflakes danced along the roof and brushed teasingly over hills and trees.

Or if my character was in a bad mood, maybe sad or pessimistic, maybe she would see this:

Dark clouds, heavy with threatening snow, loomed overhead.

If she was in a good, optimistic mood, hopeful of the future, she would see it like this:

A white blanket of snow covered the hills, giving even Jorie’s old house a new, untouched look.

In a way, that’s a form of “show, don’t tell.” Word choice and pacing can let readers know how the POV character is feeling without having to tell them.


One comment

  1. Great post, Jae.

    I’d like to add…

    Human senses engage with the sounds of certain words; it’s the first context of comprehension. Babies wrestle with listening to spoken words — not for meaning, but for emotional context, to read the person trying to communicate with them, so such speech sense is the most basic of communicative skills. Speak a negative word with sibilant s’s or rolling r’s, you can get a baby to not see that word as negative. Speak a positive word with hard consonance, syllabic dissonance, and the baby will continue to associate it with negativity.

    This becomes sophisticated as we grow and begin to learn the meanings of words, but syllabic dissonance, or smooth-flowing words can still trip us up when the meanings don’t seem to match to the sense elicited by the sounds.

    Negotiators, police, crisis counselors, all learn a vocabulary of words that will descalate tension in individuals and practice using them, to cause the response they want in an individual.

    So… bottom line. Word sound/sense, phoneme combinations, and alliterative or assonance flow, are all poetic tools that even a prose writer is well-served to explore, and master.


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