Mood lightening

On July 12, 2013, Aspire to inspire wrote, I have a problem with seriousness in my stories. I think the reason I get bored with them is because they are so serious and slightly depressing. 
In Ella Enchanted you manage to make it serious but funny, not making it weigh on the readers’ minds. The story is sad at some points and although we feel that, as the story does not weigh on us, our feelings soon disappear at the next scene, so we can be more involved with the story instead of with our feelings. (In a good way.) How do you manage this?

An MC’s perspective can lighten up the most dire circumstance. Let’s imagine that Amanda is dreading her final exam in Chemistry, and let’s make our beginning really depressing. She wakes up that morning, puts on her lucky charm bracelet, and goes down to breakfast, where her weeping mother hugs her and says that school is closed because Amanda’s best friend Pavel was hit by a car and is in the hospital, dying. Amanda feels the breath go out of her. She manages to sit at the kitchen table. While she’s trying to take in the awful news, this tiny thought pops up: No Chemistry test. She’s appalled at herself, but she thought it. It’s not funny. The reader doesn’t laugh, but the mood was lightened slightly for just a moment. The reader was also signaled by this that life will go on. So that’s one tip: When you dive to the depths with your character, don’t simply linger there. Bob up and down. Up for a funny or ironic thought, down for a sad one. After thinking about the Chemistry test, Amanda puts her head down on the kitchen table, remembering that she and Pavel were supposed to meet at the mall this afternoon.

Amanda goes to her room, sits on her bed, and discovers that she can’t believe the news. She decides she has to go to the hospital, because what if it’s all a hoax? So she sneaks out of the house and gets on her bike. While biking another subversive thought surfaces. She thinks, What would have happened if I didn’t wear my lucky charm bracelet? Would the earth have exploded? Here she’s bringing irony in. Again, the reader isn’t laughing, but the mood moves from sadness to anger, which is livelier, and Amanda can start thinking how unfair it is that this happened – if it really happened, because she hasn’t accepted it yet.

Fast forward. Amanda goes shopping for something to wear to the funeral. Her mother lets her get a black blouse and a black skirt. Amanda, whose thoughts refuse to stay entirely morose, thinks, Pavel had to die for me to be allowed to wear black. Irony to the rescue again.

At the funeral. Amanda’s with her friends. She’s very sad, but she’s also noticing how uncomfortable everyone is, how unaccustomed they are to this situation. They keep whispering, although there’s no reason for it. They fall silent, then smile uncomfortably at each other. Amanda thinks that Pavel would be laughing his head off if he could see them, which makes her even sadder, but it leads her to bring up a memory of him and say it out loud, about the time he had to give a speech and he forgot every word, so he started talking about his favorite subject, dinosaurs, which he loved way beyond the age when most lose interest. Amanda says, “Remember what Mr. Norbiss said?”

The friends then start remembering more incidents involving Pavel that are funny, and soon they’re laughing and feeling more at ease, and someone – not Amanda – says, “He got us out of the Chemistry test.” Everyone feels uncomfortable again, but the ice was broken and they get past it. The reader is sad with them, but not depressed, I don’t think.

Amanda’s life continues after the funeral, although it will never be entirely the same.

We probably don’t want to pile on another death right away or at all. This one may be the crisis of our story and it wraps up afterward, or it may go in another direction. Maybe Pavel protected Amanda from something, and his absence forces her to take new risks. We’re finished with death but we may be on to other miseries. In Ella Enchanted, I varied the trouble. The curse of obedience underlies everything, but it manifests itself in myriad ways.

The key in both Ella Enchanted and in Amanda’s story is that she has a wider perspective on her troubles than just the troubles themselves. Amanda can think of her Chemistry test. She’s angry at herself for thinking about it, but she’s like that, open to the world. In one scene in Ella Enchanted, Ella spends hours trying to kiss a bird. It’s awful, but Ella knows that it’s also funny.

I’ve been making two points. The first is that although your MC needs to suffer, she doesn’t have to wallow in it. A sense of irony and of the ridiculous can help her out. If she isn’t wallowing, the reader probably won’t be either.

The second point is not to pile on the same kind of disaster. In Ella Enchanted again (*SPOILER ALERT*), we have the death of her mother, the character flaws of her father, her step family, finishing school, ogres, the threat to Char’s safety, and I may have left out a few.

Another way to stave off character and reader depression is to make sure your MC is loved. The loving one doesn’t have to be present. Amanda can be torn away from home. She can be kidnaped by aliens, but her lunch box with the note inside from her dad can sustain her. Or the memory of her friendship with Pavel can. In Fairest, the love and approval Aza got from her adoptive parents supports her through everything that happens.

Here’s one more way: Your secondary characters can lighten up your story. In A Tale of Two Castles and Stolen Magic, the dragon Meenore has a very light heart. IT is brilliant and full of ITself, and ITs presence assures the reader that, although matters can get very bad, we’re still in a world in which such a creature can exist.

I’ve also written two posts on writing humor, which you may want to check out.

Here are three prompts:

• Write the scene in which Amanda rides her bike to the hospital to see if it’s really true that Pavel is dying. Record Amanda’s thoughts, which will primarily be sad and anxious, but include a few that go against the misery. Make something happen along the way that temporarily interrupts the mood.

• Amanda is alone in the hospital waiting area because Pavel’s family are in with him. Introduce a secondary character who comes in and starts talking to her. Somehow he helps Amanda. Write the scene.

• Amanda is kidnaped by pirates, who have been misinformed about her parents’ wealth. They intend to kill her unless her parents hand over more money than they have. Make it funny and scary. The kidnapers may not be entirely competent but they are desperate. And Amanda’s parents in their terror make mistakes.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. This came into my website from MKB:

    I heard some authors say that you have to stick in one type of genre once you're published. Is this true? If it is, how would a person like me who likes a lot of different genres in fiction deal with this?

    • I agree with Bibliphile and Mrs. Levine. Write what you like! 🙂
      There's this certain author I know of, Travis Thrasher, who writes in a ton of genres. Practically every book he writes is in a different one (unless it's a sequel to something else he's written). Just an example to show you that it certainly is possible to write in many different genres.

  2. Ms. Levine,
    I've been stalking your blog for a while now and I'm going to go ahead and ask a question of my own now.
    In one of your books, you mention a country called Bizidel two times. I took that name and created an entire world called Bizidel. If I wanted to publish my work, would I need to change the name? I don't want to break copyrights or anything.

  3. Which book? I don't remember it.

    I'm not sure, because I'm not a copyright expert. But I think you should change the name for the sake of your story. My Bizidel, even though I don't remember it, exists in a particular world that I invented. Your Bizidel will be in a world that you create. Using the same name, which isn't generic (you can safely put Main Street in any book), makes the separation between the two worlds fuzzy, in my opinion.

  4. Bug, I've been gone for a good part of last week, and so I just read your question about dancing from last week and decided to give my opinion: My characters are sort-of in the renaissance period: There are guns, but bows are also commonly used, the clothing is more-or-lesslyish 16th centuryishish (I think). The customs are not unlike a lot of the renaissance types of customs. So I've used things from that era when I'm stuck. Such as dances (Although, I came up with a few of my own, and I REALLY liked Carpelibris's suggestion, by-the-way). To find what time period they are "in" look at the clothes they wear, the weapons they use (I finally decided on the era when I figured out that my people needed to use guns, albeit, not very good ones.) the customs they follow, the food they eat and the way they travel. That should give you a little bit of an idea of which era to base your story on. Hope I was able to help. (Oops, this wasn't much about dancing, but I think you sort-of get the idea: once you find the time-period, you can find the dances!)

    • You can use Google images, but if you're hoping for historical accuracy, I'd go to a book. I don't think fashions changed as quickly as they do today, but they changed. I've picked up a few books at used book stores. Skim to see if you've found something helpful.

    • There are some great books in the reference section at larger libraries. Check out pictures of paintings in various eras for ideas. As for websites, check out some of the sites connected to reenactment groups like the SCA. Just because they allow creative anachronisms (hence their name) doesn't invalidate the dedicated research many of their members have done into various regions and time periods. If you go to and browse through their site, you might find some great ideas and maybe someone to contact about something specific.

    • I don't think that it matters how accurate you are when it comes to Fantasy. All of the books exist within their own time period, allowing for greater imagination and literary genius! For instance, if there is a renaissance style palace or fashions in your book, don't feel compelled to include matching items from the same period. If the dresses are a 100 years our of style when your dances are popularized, then leave the dresses and the dances. Unless you are trying to write historical fiction, wing it when it comes to your 'historical' details. Its easier and allows the creative juices to flow better.

    • Thanks everyone for the suggestions! I was also wondering how would you describe a strapless gown? I've seen many paintings and pictures with the princess wearing a strapless gown in the 1920's and before that, and I want my character to wear one too, but I have no idea how to describe this without making it seem to modern. How could I accomplish this?

    • If you want to be really accurate, call it indecent, hehe.
      Keep in mind, that would really REALLY uncommon, that was about the time that one city/state had a law banning skirts more than three inches above the ankle. If ankles caused that much fuss think about how people would respond to shoulders.

      I just looked it up and it looks like strapless dresses weren't around until the forties. For a taste of what was similar here is a link to "A Portrait of Madam X" which was an enormous scandal in 1884. This is as close as you can get to strapless for 50 years!

    • I agree with Agnes; I consider strapless dresses immodest. Personally, it bugs me when I know the MC is wearing something immodest, and I deliberately try to picture the outfit differently before I move on. To me, it's a distraction.

    • You misunderstood me, I do not wear strapless dresses but I do not take it upon myself to judge someone if they do. I was simply saying that during the 20's that would have been scandalous.

    • I love strapless dresses….. on other people, I like having something to make sure my dress doesn't fall off personally. But if you can find ribbons the same color to act as straps and sew them on, then I love them!! But I digress.

      There is a strapless dress in 'Beauty' by Robin Mckinley. It's a really fun book because the MC describes all of the dresses she wears in Beast's Castle. I remember when she was FORCED into the strapless by her aurae maid servants, she said she felt an unusual sensation of her hair brushing her shoulders and the next emotions expressed were of shock and scandilization. And yes, as of now that IS a word!!!!!!!!!! Anyway, that is the the only time I can think of when in a book set in an older world has a strapless dress. Then again, most of the other books I have read don't really describe the character's outfits. Anyway this is how I would do it:

      Vivian stepped onto the tailor's pedestal. She hid the new gown behind her back, all Vivian could see was a peek of the peacock colored skirt. "Close your eyes milady. It's a surprise." Vivian closed her eyes and felt the smooth silk flowing around her body. When she opened them she reeled back in shock. Her shoulders were uncovered! Startled, she stammered uncontrollably. "s-s-surely this-s-s-s is a m-mm-mm-mistake!"

      And so on. Haha, that was fun. Maybe I'll try my hand at a TDP book sometime… the costumes, the dances, the really cute peasant boy. *sigh* Oh well, hopes this helps!!!

  5. Ok so i have a curse word problem. I read the blog post about this from a while ago but I'm still unsure.
    I'm writing a story about identity and it flashes between a modern day character who is afraid to be proud of being jewish and her grandma is telling the story of how her grandma came to America and why she needs to proud. This is based on my own ancestors story and the modern day character is based off myself. That being said, I want it to ring true. So one of the central plot points is how the girl is bullied for being Jewish at school In real life this guy who bullied me called me a f***ng Jew. I want this part to be in there but I'm unsure about using that particular word. Yet stupid Jew, while it is hurtful, doesn't carry as much weight whatsoever. Is this a time where that kind of profanity is acceptable or is it too much? I just don't want it o sound fake. It is also a very sentimental moment where the granddaughter admits to her grandmother what has happened and so if it doesn't pack a punch, it will be awkward. Help?

    • I don't like curse words in the books I read. It doesn't make me comfortable, and depending on how bad the word is, I might stop reading. I think that there are ways to get around using them–like, for the sentimental moment, you could just say, "In faltering voice, I told her what he had called me. Her eyes widened in shock as her lips tightened in anger. She pulled me close, not saying a word."

      Sorry…I'm tired and I'm on my way to school…so this might not be very good. 🙂

    • I think in most circumstances you can get by with "he let off a long string of curses". But in a episode as personal as this you want to do it justice and I think it would be fine if you put in the asterix filled version of the word. You may never be satisfied otherwise.

    • Do it. If you want you can throw in the less jaw-dropping brit version which is often used in Harry Potter, it might sound a little weird though. I don't condone language in books, normally because in the ones that I read it is superfluous, but in this case I think that you should put it in since it is an emotional moment in the book.

    • I agree with Bibliophile. I also do not like bad language or curses; most of the time I try to say something like: "The lever came back and hit him in the face. He grabbed his forehead and cursed, kicking the wall in immense frustration," However, sometimes cursing is necessary. Sometimes your story would be wrong and unhistorical without a few curses. Such as when I write about the civil war, I use words I would never use in my real life. I hate racism, and I especially hate the words associated with it, but when I write about the people from the south, I will use the "n" word, once or twice; though my MC never curses, or uses such a word, being an abolitionist. I say, to make it true, use the word, but don't use such language more than a very few times, and don't have your MC speaking such words. I hate trash talk, but sometimes, to convey the correct emotion, such words are necessary. I think putting a book down because of one or two curse words is a little drastic, my mother believes that I am mature enough to skip over those words if there are some of them in a book. My advice is don't do it when it is not strictly necessary to set the scene.

    • Using curse words in writing can be a tough decision. While you as an author may never swear, you may have a character who does. Like some people have said, sometimes you can get away with something like, "He cursed." But sometimes the emotion of the situation calls for using the actual word. Personally, I think cuss words are like a really really hot spice, like Jalapenos or Tabasco sauce. Use too much, and you can't taste the rest of the dish. Instead, you should use it sparingly, and even then only when the situation calls for it. You wouldn't put Tabasco sauce in angel food cake. So, when you come upon a situation where you think you need to include the actual swear word, consider carefully what word you should use, and whether you think it is an appropriate time to use it. If you do this, you can keep the emotional impact in your story without it being either too crude on one hand or too cheesy on the other. In the end, it is a decision that only you, the author, can make.

    • I was reading from the bottom up, so I saw the replies *before* I saw your situation, which gave me an interesting perspective on your problem.

      First, I think take into account the age group you're writing for. I know my youngest (11) will put down a book and never pick it up again if it has a curse word in it. Like Bug said, she doesn't like the way it makes her feel. Which when I read your question, is kind of the point…

      But, sometimes using the word might cut too much of your audience, and then you lose the point of your story, to reach people.

      I wonder if you might be able to use a compromise that shows the reaction of the character to the word, and kind of how she would refer to the word in her head herself. Something like "He called me an f*ing Jew! I can't believe he called me an f*ing Jew!" Then when she tells her Grandmother about it she can't bring herself to say the word but her Grandmother guesses. Something like that.

      But, if you're writing a book for adults about a child's experience, then in this instance it seems like using the word would be called for – and I'm pretty much as anti-cussing as a person can get. 🙂

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