Basics #4: I’m In a Mood
Setting, Dialogue, and Language
You’ve created your cast of characters, outlined your plot, and begun to transform those plot points into effective scenes. What’s the next step? Get moody with it . . .
You may have noticed that each plot point/moment of action is accompanied by some emotional state your protagonist is working through. You can use setting, dialogue, language, and sentence structure to show that emotional temperature. Settings can mirror the imagery and mood you’re going for. Dialogue should reveal emotion and state of mind in subtle and powerful ways. Even the language used in each sentence, and the way those sentences are structured, can layer in mood and emotion to each scene.
Setting - So Much More Than Just a Place
Setting is the location(s) where the story takes place, sure, but it should also create atmosphere, and reinforce the thematic imagery of the novel. An example of this is the watery imagery Franny Billingsley uses throughout The Folk Keeper to evoke the ocean.
Setting also reveals character, because you are what you wear, collect, read. Likewise, your characters are the environment in which they work and live. Setting can also reflect changes in the character. Think about who Katniss is the first time we see her in District 12 in The Hunger Games, and how changed she is when we see her return to District 12 after the games. The physical place hasn’t changed, but the way Katniss moves through the place shows us she’s not the same person.
To make the most of your settings, connect the setting to purpose of the scene. Let’s say the scene you’re writing is the moment when your main character uncovers a family secret: their father is not who he says he is. In fact, when he was in college, he was part of a radical anti-establishment group that staged burglaries at the homes of corporate CEOs, and always spray-painted the letter “C” with a slash through it on the wall. Your character’s dad drove the get away car. When the police caught the group, he happened to be down the street, buying more spray paint. Rather than turn himself in, he ran, changed his name, and tried to hide from his past by starting a new life. Where should the scene where dad finally confesses to your Protagonist take place?
First, ask yourself what emotion your protagonist is going to feel at learning this news. Do they feel betrayed, because of all the lies? Proud, because they share the same anti-establishment world view? Fear, because dad’s criminal past is going to catch up to him, and there will be consequences? The target emotion matters because it is the first point of connection you’re going to draw between the setting and the purpose of the scene.
Let’s say your Protagonist is going to feel fear, because they’re sure the criminal past is going to catch up to dad, and that almost certainly will mean jail time. They’re going to have to make a decision - stay and face up to what’s coming, or keep hiding/running. Now imagine this conversation between Protagonist and dad happening in a variety of different places: the living room at home; outside the police station; over milkshakes at the diner on the corner; in dad’s car. Which “connects” to the feeling of fear? The angst inherent in the choice to face consequences or keep hiding? Likely not the steps of the police station - they wouldn’t be there if dad hadn’t already decided to turn himself in. Milkshakes at the diner is pretty casual - it likely wouldn’t evoke the fear or worry you’re going for. What about the family living room? A possibility, sure, but perhaps not as powerful as dad’s car?
Now put your characters in each potential location - the living room and the car - and watch them like a movie playing in your imagination. Dad used to drive the get away car . . . could that be a subtext in the scene? What if it’s not the family minivan, but a muscle car dad and Protagonist were restoring together? In a small town, where Protagonist knows they won’t be able to escape the blowback from dad’s confession, should he go that route? The imagery of the car - the vehicle that can literally take them out of this small town - might evoke the temptation of running in just the right way to serve your story at that moment. Both dad and Protagonist are going to have to overcome that temptation if they decide to do the “right” thing - facing the consequences isn’t going to be easy, which is just what you want to draw your reader in: hard choices, gut-wrenching decisions, temptation.
Say What? Capturing Character voice in Dialogue
Another way you can convey the characters’ emotional state is through dialogue. Dialogue is part of your character’s unique voice because what we say reflects how we see the world. Think about someone you don’t like. Someone you know, but wish you didn’t. Recall their stupid politics, their rigid way of thinking. How irritating it is to see, much less talk to, this person? What really makes you nuts about them? My guess? It’s their conversation. The things they say that reveal their opinions, their prejudices, what’s really in their hearts.
You want your characters to think and speak in ways that are just as distinctive. Every word they say should be consistent with how they feel, what they believe, and how they understand the changing world around them. Here are some do’s, don’ts, and quick tips to make sure your dialogue is doing all it can to support your story.
Keep it short - People usually don’t speak in full sentences unless it’s an aspect of character.
No speeches. Do you really like reading them in Shakespeare? Exactly.
Make it carry more than is actually said, meaning layer in subtext.
Use it to increase conflict and tension. For example, have the character say one thing but think another. If everyone agrees, you don’t need dialogue. If your main character is just buying a donut, we don’t need to hear them order. That’s what narrative is for.
Use (but don’t over-use) mottos or catch phrases as a way to encapsulate the character’s frame of mind. Make these mottos or catch phrases unique. Example: “Live while you can” - quickly puts you in the character’s frame of mind, but how could your character express that same concept in a unique way?
Each character must have a unique voice, just as each human speaks differently from one another. Keep a list of each character’s phrases, word choices, etc. Compare them - do all the characters sound alike?
Let it reveal character. Always. Aspects that reveal character could be vocabulary choice, speech patterns, level of optimism/pessimism, indecision/impatience/reflective/no filter/blurts things out, educated or not.
Treat it like a Uhaul - Dialogue isn’t there to carry all the stuff you can’t figure out how to say elsewhere.
Use it to sneak in exposition (see the last Basics post for more on exposition).
Say the obvious.
Use it to bring the reader up to speed on things the characters already know. None of that, “It’s just like in third grade when we got in trouble for starting a food fight,” stuff. If both characters were there for the third grade food fight, would they really remind each other it happened in such an obvious way? Probably not. (More on how to weave in backstory in the next post).
No meet & greets; start the exchange where the conflict starts.
Don’t recap everything that happened in the last scene because the reader already knows it all. If a simple transition sentence - “Jane’s shocked when I tell her what just went down” - will do, great.
Avoid dialect unless is it’s absolutely necessary. Even then, is it absolutely necessary?
Minimize dialogue tags. Use “said” or “asked” only, and only when needed to clarify who is speaking.
Read your dialogue out loud. It’s a great way to tell if it’s working and sounds natural.
Eavesdrop for inspiration. Notice how people really talk to one another in different types of conversations and use that understanding when crafting your dialogue.
Slang is much more powerful when used selectively because the character’s emotional state demands it. Don’t use it just to shock the reader or amuse yourself.
Go for honesty. There can be a tendency for writers to hold their characters back, and not let them say what’s on their mind. While it’s true that in real life we often don’t say things, it’s often not best choice for the story. If you’ve got a flat, dialogue-heavy scene, try letting your characters say what they really feel, express what’s really on their minds. Often, more interesting things happen in the exchange when they do - things that need to be dealt with . . . which is exactly the stuff of good plot.
A line anyone could say is a line no one should say. Your characters need to be unique and individual. If the content is something that needs to come out, make sure it’s being said in a way that’s still unique and character-specific.
Using Language and Sentence Structure Effectively -
Word choice, sentence length and structure, even paragraph breaks, can all contribute to the experience the reader is having. This will be covered more in the post on revision, but for now keep these general concepts in mind:
Word choice - Soggy, dank, soaked, moist, dripping, saturated, foggy and drizzly are all ways to say “wet.” Do you have different reactions to each word, or do different images come to mind when you read each one? Using the word that matches the mood of your scene, or mirrors the challenge your protagonist is facing, keeps the reader more firmly in the world of your story.
Sentence length and structure - Long sentences that seem to drift and meander, or ones that are full of dreamy, esoteric words that blend and obfuscate, create one type of experience for the reader. Short ones? That break up syntax. Or hit like beats? Totally different feel. Using sentence structure and language to your advantage is like a hidden superpower. Use it wisely and often. Enough said.
If you have questions or would like more in-depth information about setting, dialogue or use of language and sentence structure, email TipsForTeenAuthors@gmail.com, or post them in the Tips For Teen Authors Facebook group.
About The Author: Andrea Custer has been working with teens and tweens for the last several years - first as an Odyssey of the Mind coach, then teaching creative writing to middle graders and young adults at the local community center. She mainly writes YA in both the contemporary and historical fiction veins. Andrea divides her time between writing, exploring Los Angeles in search of odd happenings she can use in her novels, and getting lost in the aisles of her local bookstore. Find out more at andreacusterwrites.com, WriteTogether.Today, and TipsForTeenAuthors.com. You can also follow her on Twitter @ACwritesinMB, Instagram at andreamcuster or tips4teenauthors, and Facebook at Andrea Custer, Author.