Making Moods with Word Choice
Demonstrate the power and flexibility of words with examples of denotation and connotation, figurative language, and tone.
By Elijah Ammen
Mood is one of those things that readers pick up intuitively. Excellent writers work hard to set a mood and tone that is natural and does not draw attention to the mechanics of how they created the mood.
Often I'll stop and ask my class about the mood of the story, and they will be correct. After all, kids tend to be emotionally empathetic and often instinctively pick up on emotional cues. But when I move to the next scaffolding step, they can't explain why they felt depressed, elated, or enraged.
It's only when we understand the process that we can duplicate it. You can help your class reverse-engineer the mood of the story in order to improve their writing through critical reading.
Mapping Descriptive Words
The simplest strategy is just to have learners map the descriptive words. I was teaching an excerpt from The Road by Cormac McCarthy and we decided to circle every adjective and adverb that we could find. (This works with an author like McCarthy who is very sparing with his use of modifiers. It might be overkill with a more verbose author.) By the sixth use of "gray," my kids commented on how depressing the story was.
This works with more than just adjectives and adverbs. On the second read-through, we circled any words to which we had an emotional reaction ("trigger words" is how I refer to them). Words like "blood" and "phlegm" cropped up. These supported our initial hypothesis about the mood McCarthy was trying to set.
For my lower classes that weren't ready to make the connections themselves, I helped identify the words, and then we wrote them all out on a sheet of paper. We had about thirty words that prompted an emotional reaction. We then read all the descriptive words out loud. By condensing the words into a list, it was much easier to decide on the mood of the story.
You can even practice semantic mapping by placing a commonly used descriptive word in a central bubble and branching out with all the things that are described with that word. For instance, in The Road, gray is used to describe the ocean, the sky, faces, and more. As the readers come across new uses of the descriptive word, they can create another branch.
Denotation and Connotation
Once readers can identify the mood-creating words, they need to be able to measure the effectiveness of those words. That's where denotation and connotation come into play. Words exist on an emotional scale. While many words share similar denotations (dictionary definitions), they often have different connotations (emotional influence).
For instance, I give my kids five words—happy, joyful, exuberant, pleased, elated—and ask them to arrange them in the order from the mildest to the strongest emotion. Even if members of your class come up with different answers, the point is the same—words that have the same basic meaning often have different degrees of intensity.
You can also have your young writers describe the same thing with two different tones. Have them describe a rainy day using words with a positive connotation—fresh, clean, crisp, refreshing. Then have them describe the same day with negative words—soggy, dreary, bleak, drenched. This can help show how mood completely rests on the description and word choice of the story.
Finally, it's an easy tie-in to discuss the emotional effect of figurative language on mood, particularly similes and metaphors. The connotation of the thing you are using for comparison has a direct effect on how you perceive the mood.
When Martin Luther King, Jr. talks about the "jangling discords of our nation" being turned into "a beautiful symphony of brotherhood," he is deliberately choosing metaphors with specific contrasting connotations. The same thing happens when he describes "sweltering with the heat of oppression" or when he says that he will not be satisfied until "justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream."
The connotations of those items he uses for comparison clearly set a mood throughout the speech. While your class might not initially pick up on how MLK creates the mood, it's there—a simple YouTube viewing of his speech delivery will instill the mood in the listener. But even though you do not need to understand figurative language to feel the mood, it deepens and enriches your appreciation and helps you better emulate that power in your own writing.
So take advantage of these teaching opportunities and show how the best writers aren't content with just good words—they want the best words that clearly communicate powerful emotions.