Entering Stories Through Mood

By Trevor Bryan, 2021 CCIRA Conference Presenter

One of the easiest paths to take into a story is to think about the mood or moods that the author or illustrator is showing their audience. Whether you are reading a wordless picture book, a picture book, graphic novel, middle grade novel, novel or watching an animated short, TV show, movie or play, the same holds true: narratives are told through mood and so thinking about the mood and what’s causing the mood is the straightest shot to getting at the heart of the story. If we think about what a story is, it can help us to understand why entering narratives through mood is so effective.

How Stories Work: Three Main Ingredients

What’s a story? How do they work? These are straightforward questions but ones that don’t get talked about too much. But it makes sense that if we want our students to be able to discuss narratives well, and if we want them to craft narratives that will resonate with their intended audience, they know what a story is and how they work.

All stories are built using three basic ingredients: events and action, reactions to the event or action and reasons for the reaction to the events or action. In stories, things have to happen. There has to be some event or some action that takes place. There has to be a plot. Often, we think of this, the plot, as the story but, in fact, the plot is not the story. This is why, when students write “stories” where they explain a sequence of events (this happened, and then this happened, and then, and then, etc) they not only don’t sound like stories, they are excruciating to listen to or read.

The story is actually the reaction and the reason for the reaction to the events or action taking place. Let’s look at a quick example of what I mean.

Imagine that I wrote a story that started:

I woke up. I never felt so excited in my life. It was my birthday.

We have an event: I woke up. We have a reaction: I felt excited. We have a reason for the reaction: It’s my birthday. This all makes sense to us as readers because we can infer why a character would feel excited on their birthday.

Now imagine I started my story this way:

I woke up. I never felt so sad in my life. It was my birthday.

In this case, we have the exact same event but a totally different reaction which creates a totally different story. Furthermore, we have the same reason for the reaction, it’s my birthday, but we can’t really infer why a character would feel so sad on their birthday. For the audience, more information is needed. As the writer, my job would be to explain the reason for the reaction further so that the story makes sense. If an audience doesn’t understand all three ingredients, at least at some point, then they are going to feel confused and disconnected from the story.

Two Real Life Examples

Let’s look at two examples from the real world. I chose two books that I think (that I hope) you are familiar with, The Dot by Peter H. Reynolds and Wonder by R. J. Palacio. We’ll look at the opening of The Dot first.

In the opening illustration of The Dot we see an illustration of the main character, Vashti, sitting backwards with her arms folded, all alone, a scowl on her face, engulfed in a murky, greenish , grayish color. She does not look happy. Besides the illustration are the words, “Art class was over, but Vashti sat glued to her chair. Her paper was empty.”

Event: Art class happened.

Reaction: Vashti is frustrated and didn’t do anything.

Reason for the Reaction: ?

At this point in the story, the audience doesn’t know the reason for the reaction. They can make a prediction based on the question, “Why would Vashti feel frustrated right now?” but it is difficult to make an exact inference based on the information given. However, once we turn the page, the reason for the reaction, the reason for Vashti’s mood, the reason for Vashti’s frustration is given. “I just can’t draw!”

Because the reader now clearly knows the event, the reaction and the reason for the reaction, they are in the heart of the story.

Wonder is set up a little bit differently. The first chapter, which is one page (pg. 3) starts with the main character, Auggie, giving some background information about his facial disfigurement. “My name is August, by the way. I won’t describe what I look like. Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse.” One thing that background information does, is that it often provides a reason for the reaction. So unlike in The Dot, where the audience finds out the reason for the reaction after the event and reaction are shown, in Wonder a reason for the reaction is provided upfront.

On the very next page (pg.4), with the first two sentences, we find out the event and Auggie’s reaction to the event. We even get a second reason for the reaction. R. J. Palacio writes, “Next week I start fifth grade. Since I’ve never been to a real school before, I am pretty much totally and completely petrified.”

Event: Fifth grade is starting.

Reaction: Totally and completely petrified.

Reason for the reaction (stated): Auggie has never been to a real school before.

Reason (inferred): Auggie has a facial disfigurement that can make interaction with other people difficult and uncomfortable.

Whether you are reading a simpler narrative like The Dot, or a more complex narrative like Wonder both stories are built with the three ingredients: having a clear event, a reaction and a reason for the reaction. By understanding these three ingredients, the audience can settle into the story being shared.

Reactions are the Mood

As humans, we react to everything emotionally. When we see a sunrise, wake up on a rainy day, when it’s time to go to gym class, hear our favorite song, see a dog, we feel a certain way. If we have a strong enough reaction, a strong mood, then we have a story that might be shareable. Stories are told through mood. Showing the mood or the reaction to whatever events or actions are taking place, is one of the main jobs of a writer, illustrator or actor. What’s interesting is that although they all use a different symbol system to present the information to the audience, they all show the same information. An actress can frown, a writer can write, “She frowned,” and the illustrator can draw the character frowning. Following are the Access Lenses (illustrated by the incredible Peter H. Reynolds!), a tool that can help you and your students to identify key details that will help them to figure out a character’s reaction and mood.


Mood Structures

Narratives normally have more than one event. The different events (the action) are shown using the building blocks of stories, scenes. And because different scenes usually have different events taking place, there are also different reactions or moods being shown. And because there are different moods, this means that stories have a change of moods or what I call, Mood Structures. So once audiences identify a mood, their next job is to get ready for a change of mood. Below is a simple drawing that shows the three most basic Mood Structures. In simple stories, such as The Dot, there is often only one major mood change. In longer, more complex stories like Wonder, the audience might see several mood changes. For example, each chapter might have it’s own mood structure. The mood changes are what cause the emotional roller-coaster that makes stories fun.


Symbols in Stories

Anything that causes a mood is symbolic of that mood. For Vashti, drawing is a symbol of frustration. For Auggie, going to school makes him feel petrified. School equals scary. Thinking about things that cause a mood as a symbol makes it easier to make a meaningful text-to-self connection to a story. We all have things in our life that make us feel frustrated or that make us feel scared. Furthermore, we also know other characters who have felt frustrated or scared about something and so thinking symbolically can help us make strong text-to-text connections too.

Positive and Negative Symbols

Just like with moods, symbols can be positive or negative. Characters, settings, objects or events that cause a negative mood are negative symbols. And characters, settings, objects or events that cause a positive mood are positive symbols. Often in stories, the way an author changes a mood is by having a positive or negative symbol show up. In many stories, positive symbols can be thought of as symbols of hope and support and negative symbols can be thought of as symbols of obstruction and destruction.  For instance in The Dot, when Vashti is feeling totally frustrated, her teacher ( a symbol of support) shows up and helps to get her started drawing. And in Wonder, when Auggie enters the dreaded lunchroom and is blatently excluded and forced to sit all by himself, Summer ( a symbol of hope and support) decides to sit with him. We could all use more Summer in our lives!

Symbols can also change in stories. Art clearly starts out negative for Vashti but by the end of the book art is a symbol of creativity and Joy for her. Likewise, in Wonder, school starts out as a place where Auggie feels uncomfortable, scared and gets picked on, winds up being a place where he is celebrated and embraced.

Finding Themes through Moods

When we don’t know how to do something it can make us feel frustrated.

Doing something that we’ve never done before can make us feel scared.

Sounds like two themes, right? Two big ideas? Two lessons that we can learn from stories? One way to arrive at a theme, big idea, or lesson learned is by combining the mood and what is causing the mood. Some of the most important themes, big ideas, or lessons in stories will come from thinking about what causes a character’s mood to change.


One of the nice things about helping students to learn to enter stories through moods is that it’s extremely consistent across grade levels. All narratives, whether they are targeting young children, or teenagers, are built using the same ingredients. They all will have events, reactions to those events and reasons for the reaction to those events. And because they have a reaction, they will have a mood. By paying attention to how the mood is shown, audiences will be studying craft. And by noticing how the mood changes, audiences will be studying story structure. This means that studying craft and story structure can help students with their comprehension. Studying craft and story structure also puts audience members in a better position to create narratives that will resonate with their intended audience.

Pay attention to the moods both in your own lives and in the lives of your characters. Mood truly is where you’ll find the heartbeat of a story.


Trevor Bryan has put together a family friendly resource to help students engage with some of the ideas he discussed above while at home. It’s a free 14 page document that can be found here: https://blog.stenhouse.com/resources-to-support-reading-comprehension-through-mood?success=true#comments-listing

Feel free to reach out to Trevor with any questions. Find Trevor on Twitter, @TrevorABryan, on Facebook, The Art of Comprehension or through his Blog, Four O”Clock Faculty.

Trevor Bryan has been an art teacher in New Jersey for 20 years, spending the last 16 in Jackson Township. Trevor’s first book, The Art of Comprehension: Exploring Visual Texts to Foster Comprehension, Conversation, and Confidence, was published in 2019 by Stenhouse Publishers. Since around 2012, Trevor has presented at various national and state conferences, consults The Princeton University Art Museum on utilizing AoC for school and other group tours, and he provides professional development for several school districts across the United States on using and implementing The Art of Comprehension. Trevor also consults for award-winning and bestselling author/illustrator, Peter H. Reynolds’ education company, FableVision Learning.

Feel free to reach out to Trevor with any questions. Find Trevor on Twitter, @TrevorABryan, on Facebook, The Art of Comprehension or through his Blog, Four O”Clock Faculty.


Author: CCIRAblog

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