Building Suspense into Setting

No Suspense and Crying Kids

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.

conflict and suspenseThe “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.

reading memThis 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.

everything eventual.jpgKing 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.)

question markI 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!

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Conflict: Understanding Suspense

crying boy.jpgSuspense has been a problem for me since I was a kid.  I was the little boy who picked up a book, read two chapters, and flipped to the back page.  “Wait to find out what happens?  Hah!  That’s for people who don’t have a whole world to conquer,” said a smaller more naive Corey.  I didn’t ruin it for other people, but I needed to know.

My mom would wrap presents for Christmas or my birthday and tell me to stay out of the house.  “Don’t you let me catching you looking through those windows Corey!  You’ll spoil the surprise.”  Surprise?  I didn’t want to be surprised!  I wanted to know right there and then.

My parents would take it a step further.  They would toss little snippets out there and have conversations loud enough for me to hear (sneaky parents).  “That present was so hard to wrap because it’s so strangely shaped,” or “Boy that box is unbelievably heavy.”

shark.jpgEach observation and statement was another drop of blood in the water, and I was the shark getting hungrier by the second.  It took everything I had to not rip the wrapping paper into an explosion of confetti and find out what was inside prior to the appointed hour.  “To hell with the consequences!”  At least that’s what I said in my head.

Regardless, when present opening time came, it was a whirlwind of torn wrapping paper underscored by shouts from my mother to not destroy the bows so we can reuse them (mom had collected enough bows to create a bow-chain from our house to the moon, and back).  The suspense worked.  Each statement and action was a crescendo of suspense building and building and building.  Then the finale would come and blow my socks off (a Tasco children’s microscope!) or leave me jaded (underwear).

[Side note, the microscope I linked is the exact one I got as a kid.  Took me forever to find the one I was thinking of!]

Types of Conflict

That is the power, and danger, of suspense.  It is a tool we use to heighten the conflict we create.  (We talked about the basic types of conflict here.)  Think of our readers as sharks and we need to chum the waters to keep them circling.  Sure, we could chuck a harpoon at them…but it’s fun watching them circle, jump out of the water, gnash their teeth, and beg for more.

Sol Stein in his book, Stein on Writing, explains, “…if your goal is publication, whatever the nature of your story please pay close attention to what follows because suspense is the most essential ingredient of plotting” (p. 97).  This snippet is funny to me because it has a little bit of suspense built into it.  I read this and was like, “I need to find out what the following is!  By god, you’ve hooked me Stein!”

Now there are more than a few amazing tools and methods we can use to build suspense in our books.  We can build suspense through the clever application of dialogue, setting, action, syntax, foreshadowing, and cliff-hangers.  This post is setting up those future posts. First let’s talk about what suspense is and build a solid foundation to move from.  We’ll turn to the professionals to do this and leave my goofy metaphors behind.

Here are some descriptions and explanations of suspense.

A Refined List“There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.” (Alfred Hitchcock)

“Suspense arises out of conflict.  It is a subset of the dramatic question, Will the character involved in the conflict exercise his will in such a way as to overcome?” (Conflict & Suspense, James Scott Bell, p. 6)

“I often will write a scene from three different points of view to find out which has the most tension and which way I’m able to conceal the information I’m trying to conceal. And that is, at the end of the day, what writing suspense is all about.” (Dan Brown)

“The audience wants to know that everything’s going to work out, that it’s going to be all right.  They want answers.  Comfort. Solace. Don’t give it to them. Not until late (if ever).  The longer you can hold out on ’em, the deeper the tensions digs into the meat and marrow.” (The Kick-Ass Writer, Chuck Wendig, p. 155)

“Suspense is the element of both fiction and some nonfiction that makes the reader uncertain about the outcome. Suspense can be created through almost any element of a story, including the title, characters, plot, time restrictions and word choice” (Writer’s Digest, What is Suspense?).

All of these snippets, and my previous two cents, should establish a decent basis for understanding what suspense is and what it can do.  In the future we will tackle some specific methods of harnessing suspense and cement our understanding with killer examples.

question markDo you have a suspense quote/example you love?  Do you utilize suspense actively in your work?  If so, do you have certain methods you enjoy employing?  Is there a specific author who you feel absolutely harpoons the crap out of readers with suspense?  I’d love to hear about it!  Until tomorrow, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp!

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