Characterization and Location: What I Learned Watching Reruns. In part, she said, “Creating a background is a very useful subliminal technique, not only for characterization, but also for mood and contrast.”
And she’s right. Just as you can use your setting to emphasize specific character traits, you can use it to emphasize the mood of a particular scene.
I still remember the first time I discussed this with a fellow writer. She explained that when she wanted a creepy mood, she described a trees branches as claws.
Most writers, at least in part, choose our settings based on the mood we need to create. Need a creepy mood? Then you set your scene in a cemetery. A cheery setting? Try a flower garden. But you can do so much more. As always, it's in the details.
One setting, such as a mansion, can be used for a variety of moods. Grim? Think dark wood, dimly lit rooms and dark upholstery, drapes and rugs. Sad? Add rain coursing down the windows. Romantic? Cut the rain and the dark colors. Lighten the place up with sunshine and throw in some flowers. The details we choose can do a lot toward creating a mood, but these examples still take the easy way out.
Details can be used much more subtly than the above. Think about how to shift the mood given this setting: A drawing room with huge sun-filled windows, flowers and golden yellow upholstered furniture. Yet your heroine senses an undercurrent of foreboding, so you want the mood to be darker, threatening. What kinds of details could you add? Perhaps the scent of the flowers reminds your character of a funeral. Or she spots disturbing details in a portrait that hangs over the fireplace; visible in the painting’s distant background wolves have cornered a stag. Perhaps the pitcher of milk on the tea tray has soured or the butter is rancid.
More difficult, for me, would be a scene that initially seems scary or ominous but is actually much lighter in tone. Perhaps your main character works at a funerary chapel. The building is old, grey stone. The pews are cushioned with somber maroon. What kinds of details could lighten things up? Birds singing outside. Early spring sunlight glimmering through the newly cleaned windows. Perhaps a cup of cheery mint tea.
No matter where your story is set, you can emphasize the details that you need to match the current mood. Why not spend some time brainstorming today about your setting and how it might relate to the mood of your scene.
Author Sue Bradford Edwards blogs at One Writer's Journey.