How To Establish Mood With A Metered Voice

Shakespeare was the best at this (is). You can induce emotions in the reader with the arrangement of the sounds that you use in your word choices. If you need the reader to feel excited, you can build a quick pitter-patter into your rhythm; if you need the reader to feel slow and melancholy, you can stretch out the words and sounds to create a funeral pace.

Let’s Get Started!

Meter and Rhythm

Every word that you choose is a small piece of music; the vowels and consonants combine to create a beat. Look at these different words, and at the way they break into patterns of emphasis: shivering, molten, reams, chest, steadily. Both the length of individual words, and the softness or hardness of each consonant at the beginnings and ends of the words determine the overall effect of the language on the mood.

Here are some examples of rhythmically-arranged prose. Read each excerpt, and see what emotional effect the language creates in you.

Reams of strange, watery blood from the sky land, and shivering chunks of molten gold light under the floating earth flew up at the approach of the two furious kings.

 

Four pigeons quarreled over the corner of a turkey sandwich.

 

I first decided to kill my father when the snow was falling outside my window. I was watching the flakes fly hither and yon, and a vivid picture of my mother’s shears, sticking straight out of my father’s chest, filled my vision. I could see the blood pumping steadily, surely out of the place where the scissors pierced, and I wanted, I longed to hold the handles of the shears, and to wrench them out of the hole.

The Context of Individual Words

One of the reasons writers are constantly advised to read so much is that individual words have very specific social connotations; each word is like a collage of emotions, pre-established stories, and unique flavors. For example, if I choose to use the word “quixotic” in my fiction, I need to be familiar with Cervantes’ work, with the popular musical adaptation of the novel, Don Quixote, and with three or four of the most notable depictions of the main character by actors.

If I choose to ignore the long and storied history that has become attached to any word containing the construction, “quixo,” I risk looking like a fool, and introducing elements of nuance and emotional tone into my fiction that destroy the effect I was going for. (For example, if in my heroic saga I mention that my dashing protagonist has a quixotic bent in his personality, he may begin to seem ridiculous to my readers.)

Instead of telling writers to read widely, it would, perhaps, be more to the point to tell them to read a great deal of what we may term source material; the farther back to the original branding and emotional connotation of a word you can go, the more power you gain, and the more range you will have in your use of words.

Combining Strong Words for a Harmonic Effect

If we know that words have many specific emotions and flavors pre-attached, and if we become aware of the effect of consonant and vowel sounds on the mood of the writing as a whole, we can begin to make powerful word-music.

Let us look at the master of this music, Shakespeare. I want you to take note of the repeated ‘n’ sounds, the constant soft vibration of the voiced consonants, and the occasional, very spiky use of the ‘t’ and ‘k’ plosives.

‘Tis not alone my Inky Cloake (good Mother)
Nor Customary suites of solemne Blacke,
Nor windy suspiration of forc’d breath,
No, nor the fruitfull Riuer in the Eye,
Nor the deiected hauiour of the Visage,
Together with all Formes, Moods, shewes of Griefe,
That can denote me truly.

Bear in mind that this speech is one sentence; it is a very drawn-out, complex thought, but it is one thought, and each addition to the described behaviors adds urgency, speed, and emphasis to the whole. The contrast of the hard ‘c’ and ‘k’, in combination with the dense use of ‘s’ contributes to a simultaneously biting and hissing effect.

Tying it all together

When you use rhythm and meter in your work, it is important to be aware of the overall tone and effect of the story as a whole. Each story will function best when it maintains a musical consistency from beginning to finish; when a piece of fiction changes the rhythmical palette partway through, the reader becomes jarred and annoyed. You can avoid this kind of harmonic upset by establishing for yourself the total emotional range of the story, and making rules of creation for yourself that pertain to the specific work in hand.

And now, to finish

Deliberately arranging words to create mood and emotional resonance in the reader is an excellent way to add sophistication, depth, and lasting impact to your work.

You’ve been reading a blog about writing by Victor Poole. These are some of my books.

Advertisements

How To Pace Your Writing

On pacing.

Bad Writing (terrible, jostling pace):

Yori flung the saddle over the great black horse. He put the saddle bags down. Blue-face pushed open the door, shouting as he clattered over the wood floor.

“Hey, they’ve lost our deposit.”

Yori tugged hard at the leather piece.

“Argue with them,” Yori directed. He looked at the swinging door, where Gorm, the landlord, entered now.

“You’ve lost our money,” Yori offended.

“Not my fault,” Gorm said, wheezing. Blue-face glared at Yuri. The horse nosed at hay.

“How?” Blue-face demanded, whirling at last. The fat inn-keeper scowled.

“Those thieves will pay for what they’ve done,” Yori declared. Gorm’s face fell.

Good Writing (strong, steady pace):

Yori flung the thick saddle over the great black horse. The stirrups and girth strap jangled against the saddle skirts; the mare snuffled noisily, her pitch-black nose thrust into a net of hay.

Yori went out of the stall, and retrieved the saddle bags from a hook on the wall. Blue-face, his eyes popping with fury, and his magenta hair bristling with passion over his sky-colored skin, pushed open the door to the stable. The dyed elf shouted as he clattered over the wooden floor of the stable.

“Hey, they’ve lost our deposit, Yori!”

Yori glanced at Blue-face’s livid expression, and hid a smile as he slung the saddle bags over the mare’s back. He buckled the leather, and Blue-face let out an impassioned “tcha!” The colorful elf stomped into the stall, and fitted the girth strap through the ring. He tugged hard at the leather piece.

“Argue with them,” Yori suggested. A crashing of wood came from the end of the stable. Yori looked at the swinging door, where Gorm, the landlord, had blustered in.

“You’ve lost our money,” Yori observed.

“Not my fault,” Gorm said, wheezing. Blue-face glared at Gorm, and then grimaced at Yori. The black mare snorted noisily, and pushed her nose deeper into the hay.

“Half my silver has gone as well,” Gorm told them. The inn-keeper, Yori saw, had been staring at the obviously empty saddle bags.

“He thought it was us,” Yori murmured under his breath.

“Well, that’s a fine kettle of fish!” Blue-face said loudly, whirling on Gorm with burning eyes. The fat inn-keeper scowled.

“I’ll pay what I owe you,” Gorm said grudgingly. “I thought as you’d stolen my silver, we’d be pretty fair if I kept what was yours.”

“I didn’t touch your dirty old silver,” Blue-face snapped.

“I can see that now, lad,” Gorm said.

“Don’t patronize me!” the elf retorted.

“What will you give me, to find what’s lost?” Yori asked. Gorm studied his face, and a sharp gleam was in his eyes.

“Room and board up to a week, when you pass through,” Gorm said.

“Done,” Yori said. “Take the mare out to the stream for water,” he told the elf. “She doesn’t like the stuff here.” Blue-face took hold of the black mare’s lead, and began to back her out of the stall. “What if the thief is one of your own?” Yori asked. Gorm snarled.

“I will not harbor thieves,” the inn-keeper declared.