“The quality of emotion is what stays with the reader long after the storyline is gone.”   — Ellen Howard

Mood is the atmosphere of a story.  It is reflected in character emotions, and works with other elements–such as the setting–to shape the overall tone of the whole story.

Teaching the concept of MOOD:

  1. Ask students for words that describe moods — the way people feel at times. (ie. happy, sad, excited, nervous, angry, etc.)  Discuss how moods influence our behavior and color our perceptions of our world.
  2. Read aloud a brief passage that conveys the mood of a story.  Ask students to look for and list the words and phrases that convey the mood.

The passage below is from The Keeper, by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor.  Nick, a junior high boy, is faced with a difficult decision when he realizes that his father is seriously mentally ill, and poses a danger to himself and to others:

The swirling snow could not reach him beneath the underpass. Nick still felt the wind from Lake Michigan pushing against his back, however. Above him, the el slid to a stop with a noise like a roller coaster making a dip, then moved on. As Nick walked out the other side, the snow sprayed steadily against his cheek.

He crossed at the light, icy flakes seeping down into his sneakers. Here the snow was discolored by tire tracks and exhaust. When he was small, Nick used to think of it as brown sugar. It didn’t seem like sugar anymore.

Past the Golden Buddha carryout, the dry-cleaning shop, Walgreens, the deli, and then St. John’s. A row of apartment buildings loomed up on his right, apartments as far as the eye could see. Nick shifted his books to the other arm. Biology and English to do that night-only an hour’s worth, maybe. Might be time enough later to go to the Y and shoot some baskets.

Discarded Christmas trees lay propped against garbage cans along the curb, waiting for tomorrow’s pickup, little bits of tinsel trapped in the needles.

When he was four and they lived in Logansport, Nick would drag all the old Christmas trees into his own yard to make a cave, then sit hidden in their branches, drunk with the scent of pine. There was no cave to crawl in now.

Interpretations will vary of course, but for me, the passage conveys a feeling of being trapped and helpless.  I think Nick feels like things are closing in on him, and he doesn’t know what to do.  Lots of setting details: the wind, the snow, the apartments, and the tinsel help to convey that trapped feeling, while the discarded Christmas trees convey Nick’s helplessness.  Phrases like  “It didn’t seem like sugar anymore” and  “There was no cave to crawl in now,” hint at a contrast between what is happening in Nick’s life now, and an earlier–and happier– more carefree time.  Here are phrases I might have listed.  Your students would probably list some of the same, and others:

beneath the underpass

pushing against his back

sprayed steadily against his cheek

seeping into his sneakers.

[the snow] didn’t seem like sugar anymore

apartment buildings loomed up

discarded Christmas trees

tinsel trapped in [tree] needles

no cave to crawl in now

  1. Have students experiment with changing the mood of the passage above (or some other passage you have selected), by changing the listed words and phrases to convey a different mood.
  1. Movies often use sound effects and music to help convey mood.  Students might like to select appropriate musical backgrounds to accompany this passage or others.


From the Writing Curriculum Files of Children’s Author, Suzanne Williams www.suzanne-williams.com