Building suspense into setting is an often overlooked tool to keep your reader engaged. Many writers focus on building suspense through the application of dialogue and action (and we’ll talk about both of those in future posts). But many times, often in the rush to produce the manuscript, they forget about how the actual environment can cement reader engagement and drive suspense.
[Note: If you are murky on the basic premise of suspense, I wrote an introduction to the concept to refer back to.]
I‘ve found some of the authors I have worked with often skip descriptive setting elements during their first draft. They focus on getting the main story down and come back to tighten up description and add what is lacking. That’s fine, I do this too.
But when we make the second pass it’s essential to move beyond focusing on basic description of objects and scenery, but think about how to bring those objects and scenery to life. More specifically, I encourage writers to examine how those setting elements can be used to contrast their character’s feelings in the scene.
The “golden rule” (as explained in Conflict & Suspense, by James Scott Bell) in using setting to drive suspense is to simply ensure the world around the characters runs counter to their goals. I don’t recommend this entirely because it’s unrealistic for every scene setting to drive against the characters. Sometimes the readers, and the characters, need a break. However, it is a good general idea to think about.
The example I think of involves Mt. Everest. Most people are familiar with this landmark and there is no shortage of movies and books written about it. The mountain, the weather conditions, the atmosphere, all of these things build suspense in those stories. In this way, the mountain becomes more than a simple object for the author to describe with flowery description. The mountain becomes a living thing.
With that being said, there are usually moments of calm serenity in stories about Everest. To create contrast, and to show the mountain as a beautiful and dangerous entity, it’s essential to use setting elements to reveal both of these aspects. By showing the calm (or normal) first, peppering in setting description later will effectively ramp up the suspense.
This is my opinion, but I think there are different levels of expertise and experience that come into play when an writer attempts to layer suspense into setting. It spans from tired variations of, “It was a dark and stormy night,” all the way toward almost subliminal imagery.
When it comes to the subliminal, these setting bits are weaved in and you often don’t notice it. You feel it as you read though. This is intentional (most of the time). The author selectively made these decisions. It’s important for instinctive writers to note that some aspects of your writing need to be planned and intentional if you want to deliver an effect. This is something to consider during revision.
In many ways, this isn’t a skill that can be taught outright. It’s something someone must study by reading large amounts of genre specific books and applying observed elements to their own work.
Perhaps one of the finest (and more current) examples I have found in my own research comes from Stephen King. One of our fellow WordPress Warriors, SinisterDarkSoul, and I were talking about the movie and short story 1408 a while back. He recommended I read the short story if I liked the movie. So I did. King’s short story can be found in, Everything’s Eventual: 14 Dark Tales. (If you enjoy King, you’ll love this book.)
Here is an excerpt from Wikipedia (source page) to give you a basic snapshot of what the story is about if you’re not familiar.
“The film [story] follows Mike Enslin, an author who specializes in the horror genre. His career is essentially based on investigating allegedly haunted houses, although his repeatedly fruitless studies have left him disillusioned and pessimistic. Through an anonymous warning via postcard, Mike learns of the Dolphin Hotel in New York City, which houses the infamous ‘Room 1408’. Interested but skeptical, he decides to spend one night in the room, although manager Gerald Olin warns him strongly against it.”
Needless to say, Enslin gets more than he bargained for in his stay in Room 1408. Strange things start happening and King layers setting elements to build suspense and engage the reader.
His problems with 1408 started even before he got into the room.
The door was crooked.
Not by a lot, but it was crooked, all right, canted just the tiniest bit to the left.
Shortly after this excerpt comes this revelation.
Mike bent, picked up his overnight case with the hand holding the minicorder, moved the key in his other hand toward the lock, then stopped again.
The door was crooked again.
This time it tilted slightly to the right.
King doesn’t waste time describing the door (this story is only twenty something pages long). We don’t know lots of tiny details about it. We just know that it was crooked, and now it’s leaning the other direction. Much like Everest, the room begins to become a living thing. Tiny pieces of setting and description information layer on top another to build heightening suspense.
I think it’s also interesting to note that when I did my daily reading for this post I found that James Scott Bell (Conflict & Suspense author) had also used 1408 as an example of suspense in setting. If anything, that should highlight the idea that 1408 is a solid case study for you to check out. (If anything it gives you an excuse to watch the movie under the guise of research.)
I hope you all found some useful information here today. As usual, I have some questions for you (after all, I only read 1408 due to our discussions). Do you use setting information in your stories to heighten suspense? If so, is there a certain method you employ? If not, do you have an example of an author or piece of work that did a wiz-bang job of creating a setting that inspired suspense in you as a reader? I’d love to talk about it and learn more myself. Until tomorrow, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp!