what is mood in literature?

What is Mood in Literature? Creating Mood in Writing

When we talk about the different feelings that a work of writing evokes, we’re talking about the types of mood in literature. Creative writers are experts at drawing out specific sensations in their writing. When a poem or story leaves you feeling elated, nervous, hopeful, melancholy, or any other particular emotion, then the writer has successfully harnessed mood in literature.

Mood is something that’s written with intent, and it requires the amalgamation of different craft skills in creative writing. The author must hone their word choice, syntax, and style, while also relaying specific subjects and themes in their writing. As such, mood in literature doesn’t just appear, but it’s the result of painstaking—and rewarding—work.

So, what is mood in literature? This article examines the craft of creating mood in writing. We’ll look at different examples of mood in literature and discuss the difference between tone vs. mood. We’ll also look at examples of mood in poetry, and how this differs from prose. Finally, we’ll give craft tips for honing mood in your own work.

But first, let’s define this important literary device. What is mood in literature?

What is Mood in Literature?

Mood refers to the emotions that a text evokes from the reader. When different craft elements are aligned just so, the writer is capable of evoking different feelings from the audience.

Mood: The emotions a text evokes in the reader.

Note, there’s a difference between emotions evoked from the reader (mood) and emotions imposed upon the reader (atmosphere). We will explain this difference in a moment.

Mood is more than just a statement of feeling. If anything, it’s a way of employing “show, don’t tell” so that the reader feels precisely what the story seeks to convey. Take the below example:

Statement of emotion: The land felt bleak and barren.
Emotion evoked through mood: The land sat gray and lifeless, unstirred by sun or rain.

Often, works of literature, especially longform prose and poetry, evoke multiple different emotions. We’ll see this in action through the examples of mood in literature that we’ve provided in this article.

Our Upcoming Online Writing Courses:

from writing circle to poems of gratitude and hope

Writing Circles & Exercises to Spark New Poems (Tuesdays and Saturdays)

with Susan Vespoli

October 5th, 2022

Looking for inspiration? Write, vent, laugh, and honor your writing practice in these generative writing circle workshops.

Isola dei Morti IV_(Bocklin) WikiCommons

The Hero’s Journey For Storytellers

with Gloria Kempton

October 5th, 2022

Structure your story and give it meaning with Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey.

Henri Rousseau Le centenaire de l'indépendance (1892)

Deepening and Organizing Our Stories: Memoir/Creative Nonfiction and Autobiographical Fiction

with Anya Achtenberg

October 6th, 2022

For writers of memoir, creative nonfiction and fiction, with some experience. Particularly helpful to writers in the midst of a longer work.

ghazal poetry course

You Yourself Are the Beloved: Writing with South Asian Ghazals

with Shankar Narayan

October 8th, 2022

The ghazal poem has a rich history with a tricky form to master. Learn the ropes in this inspiring and electrifying workshop.

conflict in writing forward moving tension

Crafting a Story or Novel Chapter Using Forward-Moving Tension

with Sandra Novack

October 12th, 2022

How do writers tell stories with tension, action, and emotion? Learn how to write forward-moving tension in this 5 week fiction course.

Tone vs. Mood in Literature

The words “tone” and “mood” are often used interchangeably, but they’re very different in literature. Tone refers to the author’s attitude towards the subject of the work. It conveys how the author feels about what they are writing about—and this applies for poetry, nonfiction, and even third-person fiction.

Take this sentence from the short story “Bridging the Years” by Kathleen Thompson Norris:

“She and Jim chattered rapturously of French windows, of brick garden walks, of how plain little net curtains and Anne’s big brass bowl full of nasturtiums would look on the landing of the absurd little stairway that led from the square hall to two useless little chambers above.”

The words “absurd” and “useless” tell us exactly what the author thinks of the house that Anne and Jim have hastily found themselves in. The tone of this passage seems, if not judgmental, then certainly a bit mocking.

Tone vs. Mood in Literature: Tone is the author’s attitude, whereas mood is the emotion evoked in the reader.

Sometimes, tone and mood are aligned. If the subject matter of a story is sad, then both the tone and the mood conveyed by the author may be sad, too. But, tone is always the author’s attitude, whereas mood is always the emotion evoked by the reader. Oftentimes, these two do not align.

For more on tone, check out our article: What is Tone in Literature?

Atmosphere vs. Mood in Literature

Atmosphere and mood have a reciprocal relationship. However, the two are clearly distinct devices.

Atmosphere refers to the general feeling that a text tries to evoke from the reader. This is different from mood, because mood is the actual feeling that’s evoked.

In other words, atmosphere is the sensation imposed upon the reader, whereas mood is the actual feeling produced. For example, the text might have an eerie, unsettling atmosphere, but it will produce an intrigued or excited mood from the reader.

Atmosphere vs. Mood in Literature: Atmosphere is the sensation imposed upon the reader, whereas mood is the actual feeling produced.

Additionally, some atmospheres cannot be moods. The atmosphere of a text might be “dangerous,” for example, but dangerous isn’t a mood. You can evoke a sense of danger—the mood might be “scared” or “anxious”—but the atmosphere isn’t scared or anxious, it’s dangerous.

The two devices rely on the same craft skills, so writers sometimes confuse them. The difference comes down to the readers themselves, how they engage with the text, and the author’s intent.

Grammatical Mood vs. Mood in Literature

To avoid any confusion, this article is not about sentence moods. A sentence mood is a type of sentence that tells you how the sentence should be read. The five types are the indicative (statement sentences), imperative (command sentences), interrogative (question sentences), subjunctive (hypothetical sentences), and conditional (“if” sentences).

These are unrelated to mood in literature, which focuses solely on how emotions are evoked from the reader.

Types of Mood in Literature

Because “mood” refers to an emotion evoked by the text, mood words are often the same as emotion words. Here’s a list of common words that describe mood in literature:

  • Hopeful
  • Excited
  • Melancholy
  • Nostalgic
  • Centered
  • Sentimental
  • Pessimistic
  • Heavy
  • Uneasy
  • Panicked
  • Jubilant
  • Angry
  • Lonely
  • Peaceful

Remember, longer texts tend to evoke multiple moods, so you can find different combinations of the above mood words throughout the literary canon.

Examples of Mood in Literature

The following examples of mood in literature come from published works of literature. Most of these examples were written by living or contemporary authors.

Excerpt from “XIV” by Mahmoud Darwish

Longing is the absent chatting with the absent. The distant turning towards the distant. Longing is the spring’s thirst for the jar-carrying women and vice versa. Longing allows distance to recede, as if looking forward, although it may be called hope, were an adventure and a poetic notion. The present tense is hesitant and perplexed, the past tense hangs from a Cypress tree standing on its rooted leg behind a hill, enveloped in its dark green, listening intently to one sound only: the sound of the wind. Longing is the sound of the wind.

Although the subject matter is one of loneliness and distance, the mood of this passage is comfortable and serene. Darwish demonstrates his ideas using natural imagery, invoking the trees, hills, and the sound of the wind. The result is the feeling that longing is natural, that its very existence is rooted in nature, and that it’s a system of different natural elements both propelled towards and repelled by each other. While the intent of this passage is to demonstrate a complex idea through symbolism, the symbols employed evoke a calm, thoughtful mood.

Excerpt from “And Then There Were None” by Agatha Christie

The others went upstairs, a slow unwilling procession. If this had been an old house, with creaking wood, and dark shadows, and heavily paneled walls, there might have been an eerie feeling. But this house was the essence of modernity. There were no dark corners—no possible sliding panels – it was flooded with electric light—everything was new and bright and shining. There was nothing hidden in this house, nothing concealed. It had no atmosphere about it. Somehow, that was the most frightening thing of all. They exchanged good-nights on the upper landing. Each of them went into his or her own room, and each of them automatically, almost without conscious thought, locked the door….

This passage deftly demonstrates the difference between atmosphere and mood. The atmosphere of the house is modern and bright: everything is clean, clearly lit, and comfortable. But the characters don’t feel that way. They move unwillingly, lock their doors, and feel frightened precisely by the absence of anything frightening. While the atmosphere imposed upon the reader is quiet and clean, the emotion evoked from the reader is anxious, nervous, tense.

Excerpt from “The Goldfinch” by Donna Tartt

Strange, I thought, as I jumped a sheet of water at the curb, how a few hours could change everything—or rather, how strange to find that the present contained such a bright shard of the living past, damaged and eroded but not destroyed. Andy had been good to me when I had no one else. The least I could do was be kind to his mother and sister. It didn’t occur to me then, though it certainly does now, that it was years since i’d roused myself from my stupor of misery and self-absorption; between anomie and trance, inertia and parenthesis and gnawing my own heart out, there were a lot of small, easy, everyday kindnesses I’d missed out on; and even the word kindness was like rising from unconsciousness into some hospital awareness of voices, and people, from a stream of digitized machines.

“Alienated” best describes the mood of this passage. The last line, in particular, clues us in to the narrator’s feeling of separation from the rest of the world—that simple kindnesses felt distanced, as though dispensed by machines. This feeling coincides with ruminations of the past and present, and the realization that the world has marched on while you were trapped in some sort of fugue. The narrator examines all of this as though from a distance, even though it is his own lived experiences, suggesting both an alienation from others and an alienation of self, making the mood of this passage particularly lonely, perhaps even unnerving.

Examples of Mood in Poetry

“Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver

Retrieved from The Dew Drop.

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting—
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Through natural imagery and an emphasis on the world’s beauty, “Wild Geese” offers the reader hope, connection, and tranquility. The poem reminds us that we all have a place on this strange planet—that, to quote Ocean Vuong, “loneliness is still time spent with the world.” While the subject matter of the poem might be loneliness or disconnection, the mood is serene and hopeful, allowing the reader to find comfort in their solitude.

“We Stopped at Perfect Days” by Richard Brautigan

Retrieved from All Poetry.

We stopped at perfect days
and got out of the car.
The wind glanced at her hair.
It was as simple as that.
I turned to say something—

This is a poem where form is the biggest contributing factor to mood. Short poetry doesn’t try to baffle or dupe the reader, it simply offers what is. What does it mean to physically stop at a perfect day? The poem doesn’t say, but phrases like “perfect days,” “wind glanced,” and “simple as that” make this poem feel calm and joyful, like running through the hills on a clear summer’s day. (I myself feel like I’m in a Studio Ghibli movie.)

“The Hum” by Maggie Smith

Out of her collection Goldenrod.

It’s not a question
without the mark: How do we live
with trust in a world that will continue
to betray us. Hear my voice
not lift at the end. How do we trust
when we continue to be betrayed.
For the first time I doubt
we’ll find our way back. But how
can we not. See how the terminal
mark allows a question
to dress as statement and vice versa.
Sometimes if I am quiet and still,
I can hear a small hum
inside me, an appliance left running.
Years ago I thought it was coming
from my bones. The hum
kept me company, and I thought
thank god for bones, for the fidelity
of bones—they’ll be there
until the end and then some.
Now what. How to continue.
I’ve started calling the hum
the soul. Today I have to hold
my breath to hear it. What question
does it keep not asking
and not asking, never changing
its pitch. How do I answer.

This poem does an expert job of manipulating mood through, ironically, sentence moods. Rather than posing questions, it poses declarative statements, asking the reader to look at the world completely unadorned. It then applies this grammatical transgression to the body, wondering if the soul quietly asks statements that resonate through our bones, if our soul knows something our bones are trying to grasp. The mood of this poem can best be described as urgent, imploring us (without asking us) to consider the statements our own souls are trying to tell us, to consider how we continue to live in this world.

Tips for Creating Mood in Writing

Mood forms from the gestalt of different literary devices. As you write and revise your stories and poems, consider these five tips for creating mood in writing.

1. Creating Mood in Writing: Style, Syntax, & Word Choice

Writers craft mood with careful attention to language. Lime green and forest green have starkly different moods. So do the words “melancholy” and “despairing”: melancholy feels lonely and thoughtful, like wandering through a dark field. “despairing” is more sharp and abrupt, a sadness intensified in a moment. Precise moods require precise language.

Have you noticed how short sentences read faster than long ones? Have you noticed that long sentences, with a series of clauses connected by commas, can build an eerie, foreboding mood—especially when the sentence is describing something in setting, or in the psychology of a character? The way you play with sentence lengths and structures also contributes to the emotion evoked from a reader.

Studying language and how to manipulate it is essential to crafting mood. Even if you only write prose, I highly encourage you to read and study poetry, if only to learn how to use language with proper tension, pacing, and flow.

For more on style, check out these articles:

2. Creating Mood in Writing: Show, Don’t Tell

The “Show, Don’t Tell” rule is inextricably linked to mood in literature. “Show, Don’t Tell” means that you create immersive experiences for the reader, rather than describing a sequence of events. It’s the difference between watching something on TV and feeling like you’re there inside of the screen.

“Show, Don’t Tell” is best demonstrated through this quote by Anton Chekhov:

Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.

To create powerful, evocative moods, create sensorily immersive experiences through “Show, Don’t Tell.” Learn more about this important craft device at our article “Show, Don’t Tell” in Creative Writing.

3. Creating Mood in Writing: Hone Imagery

Imagery creates doorways for the reader to experience what happens in the text. Although the word “imagery” sounds visual, it actually encompasses all sensations: sight, touch, smell, sound, taste, and even motion and internal feelings.

We are innately visual, sensory thinkers. A clear blue sky often invokes a positive feeling, but what if that sky sits above groves of leafless trees? How about the awful smell of rotting things, the excitement of running with the wind, or the terror as a pit drops in the center of your stomach?

Finely crafted imagery is essential to building mood, and also a key component of “Show, Don’t Tell.” Learn more here: Imagery Definition: 5+ Types of Imagery in Literature.

4. Creating Mood in Writing: Be Intentional

What mood do you want this scene to have? How about this paragraph? This stanza? This line?

Mood in literature is constructed with intention and attention. The writer hones every part of the work to evoke specific emotions from the reader. This is one of the trickiest parts of writing, and is a key reason why writers should revise, revise, revise, and revise again.

As you write and, especially, as you edit, always ask yourself what mood you’re trying to evoke. Mood contributes to how the reader engages with the text, so for any author to get across their message and ideas, mood is essential!

5. Creating Mood in Writing: Surprise the Reader

Don’t always go for moods that the reader can predict. We expect a wedding to be happy, a funeral to be sad, a first date to be exciting, a haunted house to be scary, etc. But, what if we subvert expectations?

A sad wedding, a joyful funeral, a boring first date, and a funny haunted house are all ways you could entice the reader to tune in. The juxtaposition of setting and mood is ripe with possibility. And, when you create unexpected moods, you give the reader opportunities to feel those moods more deeply, and to ask questions about the story that’s unfolding.

Above all, be playful with the moods you craft in your work. Such playfulness will surely keep the reader engaged long after the story or poem has ended.

The Elements of Mood in Literature

The following are just some of the tools, devices, and elements that contribute to mood in literature, including mood in poetry.

  • Word choice
  • Imagery
  • “Show, Don’t Tell” writing
  • Syntax and sentence length
  • Writing style
  • Subject matter
  • The personality of the speaker / narrator
  • Storytelling elements like setting, narrative pacing, conflict, and tension
  • Poetic elements like line and stanza breaks, rhythm, and poetry form
  • Tone and atmosphere, which are distinct but help inform the mood of a work

Master Mood in Literature at Writers.com!

As writers, we can’t always tell how our work reads for the reader, or what emotions it might evoke. That’s why the feedback in a writing class can be instrumental in sharpening your poetry and prose. Take a look at our upcoming writing classes, where you’ll receive expert feedback on the writing you receive, helping you shape the moods you harness in your writing.

2 Comments

  1. F. E. Sterling on September 14, 2022 at 3:11 am

    Mr. Glatch, I so appreciate your informative article on Creating Mood in Writing. I am a retired MS level psychologist. As a researcher and therapist my professional writing had to be precise, objective and third person. That professional underpinning forms the foundation with which I’ve grappled for the last 30+ years. I wrote my first poem when I was 63 years of age—a lengthy, pastoral, doggerel-muse—partly to confess to myself my own inscape—and too, give vent to the very issues you have addressed—in an attempt to rejoin the subjective world I had set aside for 35+years. Thank you for your encouragement.

    • Sean Glatch on September 14, 2022 at 3:38 am

      Hi F. E.,

      Your research sounds fascinating! If you keep writing poetry, I’m sure you’ll uncover many new things about our weird and wonderful brains. Thanks for commenting–I’m so happy to hear this article inspired you.

      Warmest,
      Sean

Leave a Comment