Storium Theory: Match the Mood

I’ve written a bit before on this blog about the need to create characters that fit the story, and the need to use your actions and your characters to support the story. I’d like to go into that a bit more today, but specifically focused on the concept of “mood.”

Mood is how a story’s tone is set. A horror story’s mood may be oppressive, fear-filled, dark, frightening, or disturbing. A high fantasy story might be adventurous, uplifting, exciting, bright, desperate, struggling, or other moods depending on the scene.

Mood is one of the most important things for a story to get right. With a solid sense of mood, the story’s events feel more impactful, more powerful. When mood breaks, the story breaks as well.

And in a collaborative writing experience, mood is everyone’s responsibility.

It isn’t just up to the narrator – it is up to you, as the players, to match the mood.

What does this mean? It means you need to use your actions to match the current mood of the story. If things are desperate, be desperate. If things are fear-filled, be fearful. If things are disturbing, be disturbed. If things are uplifting, be uplifted. If things are exciting, be excited.

This tends to be more problematic for the darker moods–the moods associated with horror, or those of tragedy, or grief, or failure. Players often don’t really like to show their characters–even normal people–wrestling with feelings of inadequacy, or struggling to overcome fear. So, oftentimes, you’ll get situations where the horrible monster emerges, or the bomb explodes and you’re all trapped, or the lights go out, and someone starts talking strategy. In-character.

That happens because, in discomfort at portraying the character in a state of fear or panic, players begin to look at a situation as a calm, outside observer rather than staying in their character’s head and letting emotion drive the tale. Unfortunately, what this means is that rather than great reactions that can support the story and match the mood, you get clinical, calm, tactical discussions or instant, fully capable recognition of what to do.

I’m not going to say this will utterly ruin a game, but it certainly damages it – the story feels less dramatic, less serious, less enticing. When someone reads a story like that, it takes them out of the tale a bit. When someone else plays in a story like that…it makes it harder for them to react in a story-appropriate way. It becomes easy to fall into the same clinical discussions, or the same sense of over-capability.

It is necessary, then, to push yourself into the character’s head in these situations. How do they actually feel? How does this actually affect them? Can they really think clearly? Do they really feel like they have the time to talk about things?

Chances are they don’t. So…take a moment, and think about how to show them in distress, or fear, or anger, or whatever you need to do to match the story’s current mood.

This doesn’t mean that you have to avoid Strengths! Characters can still struggle and succeed – it’s just that you need to show them struggling. Someone can be fearful and still do the right thing – it’s just that he needs to be fearful. Someone can be in the throes of grief and rage and still make the best choice – it’s just that it needs to be tough as his grief and rage threaten to overwhelm him.

You can still take whatever ultimate actions you want to – you just need to match the mood while you do it.

Match the mood, and make the story more powerful, more moving…make it easier to invest in. It’ll benefit readers, it’ll benefit the other players, and it’ll benefit you.