Mood is the lifeblood of writing, and children will readily pick up the principle with this illustrative gag. Putting on a spooky voice, you tell this story:
‘It was a dark and stormy night, and the robbers sat round the campfire, and the first mate said to the other one, “Tell us a story, mate.” And the second mate began: “It was a dark and stormy night and the robbers sat round the campfire, and the first mate said to the other one, ‘Tell us a story, mate.’ And the second mate began. “It was a dark….”
You see where this is going and so does your audience. It takes about 3 times through for them to realise it’s a circle, at which point, you make the switch.
“It was a dark and stormy night and the robbers sat round the campfire, and the first mate said to the other one, ‘BOO!’”
Shock, relief, laughter. Works every time, even if some people are expecting it.
This is mood, or atmosphere. The spooky voice creates expectation. What’s going to happen? You get interest followed by tension, which then turns to realisation, fright for the shock, and then the relief of laughter kicks in.
A writer controls this with words alone. The opening to a story will give the reader an immediate feeling about what to expect. If the writer has done a good job, they know at once what sort of mood the story is going to generate.
The writer is then at liberty to throw in twists that change the mood and atmosphere, but without disappointing expectation. If you promise funny, sad or scary, you need to deliver. Otherwise your reader is liable to throw the book at the wall.
Getting children to understand this when they are writing a story can be difficult. What works is to get them to imagine themselves in the story. English GCSE quizzes on atmosphere and mood can help!
If they were in that situation, would they be laughing, scared, sad? Keep it simple. Then ask what makes you laugh? What would scare you? What would make you sad?
The minute they come up with an answer, that’s the piece of description they need to put in. For example, they might be imagining themselves in a forest, and what scares them is the sounds of the wind in the trees and the rustling in the bushes. So they just put that in:
“The wind whistled in the trees, and there were rustlings in the bushes.”
At once you have scary and the reader will be able to imagine themselves in that exact situation, expecting something to happen. It doesn’t matter if nothing happens for a while, as long as the scary noises keep coming: a snapping twig, a slither in the bushes.
When something does happen, it needs to come as a shock. Something flies out at the characters: a big black bird, a madman, or a sudden roar from the bushes perhaps.
If you now want to twist the mood, put the shock there and then make it funny. For example, there’s a roar and something rushes out at them, which turns out to be a tiny wild boar with a big voice. Relief equals laughter, and the mood has switched.
Mood is the only reason anyone ever wrote that it was a dark and stormy night. It’s what makes a story come alive and steers the reader into feeling what the writer wants them to feel.
Do you have any questions about education? If so, you’ll find the EQ Knowledge Bank a valuable resource. It’s a library of articles, each one aimed at answering a specific question asked by parents. And it doesn’t just cover education – you’ll also find plenty of advice, tips and guidance on parenting issues such as promoting self-confidence in your child, protecting them from bullies and keeping them safe online. It’s well worth a look.
Guest Blog by Elizabeth Bailey
Coming from professional theatre, Elizabeth Bailey taught drama for many years alongside her writing career. Multi-published, she now writes full time, both her own novels and ghostwriting, as well as critiquing for other writers.