Writing is a lot like cooking. In order to create a good story or meal, there needs to be a balance between all of the essential ingredients – plot, character, and theme. Mood becomes a problem when it overwhelms these three. Character and plot should be the driving forces of a story, with mood offering a contributing role. (As for theme, a light seasoning is better than a heavier, moralistic motif).
The following plot outline is loosely based on a manuscript we received a number of years ago at On Spec. The story is set in a post WW4 or apocalyptic environment, where a young couple carves out their bleak existence. The young man has been injured in a falling accident. In a dysfunctional twist, his girlfriend prefers his weakened state, because it ensures that he won’t leave her to fend on her own. Despite attempting to help him on the surface, she tampers with his bandages by using a tainted salve. Neither character has a name – their titles are only He or She (which compromises them, turning them into metaphorical prototypes rather real characters). The manuscript is about 4,500 words long. Each page ranges between 300 to 325 words.
To understand how mood can overwhelm, I went through each page and jotted down the action of the story. This is what occurred:
- Page One: The setting is established: Buildings consist of burned out shells, and anarchy reigns. Gangs wander the streets at night. She, our female protagonist, makes a tepid soup in the dark (in order to avoid notice) for He, who is delirious. (325 words)
- Page Two: She wakes He and helps him eat the soup. She returns to the dark room that passes for their kitchen. She stares out the window at a bombed playground and reminisces about playing there as a child. (650 words)
- Page Three: She thinks she hears a sound in the vicinity of the bathroom window. She stumbles through the dark, rakes her fingers over the nailed window in order to search for any sign of a break-in. There is none. (975 words)
- Page Four: She realizes the sound she heard is He, attempting to get up. He tells her that he wants to visit his aunt, a nurse, who may still be alive across the city. She tells him to lie down. He struggles slightly, but submits because he is burning with fever.(1,200 words)
- Page Five: They sleep. She has dark dreams, in which bandages, her doctored salve, and the playground play strong roles. In the morning, She finds He has eluded her during the night. Despite it being morning, it is still very dark, although it has snowed. There is ample blood on his discarded bandages. (1,525 words)
- Page Six: Terrified, she ventures out into the dark street and follows his footsteps. NOTE: There is a logic fault here (see Logic Faults). If the streets are frequented by gangs, it’s unlikely she would be able to follow his footsteps in untrodden snow. (1,850 words)
If you’ve followed the word count, we are now almost 1,900 words into the story, or nearly half-way through. We’re six pages in, and all we really know is that life is hell for these two No Names. He’s sick and he’s left her to venture out on his own. In fact, the mood is so oppressive, you might wonder (as I did) if there’s any point to reading any more of this story, especially if you aren’t in the mood to be depressed. We know very little about our characters, although we are beginning to suspect that they might be metaphors for lightness and darkness (which, as it turned out by the end of the story, they were. No surprises there).
I suspect this was the point in the story where I got up from my desk, made coffee, or decided to take the dog for a walk. When I returned to reading the rest of the manuscript, the plot continued to limp along, bogged down by the mood. The only action that finally occurred happened in the last two pages where She and He ended up in a life and death struggle at the playground. He survived, She died. Light won out over Darkness. (I was glad I went out to walk the dog. The dog thought that was the better idea, too.)