Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Part VII Suspense - Setting and Atmosphere

Besides a sense of place, the right kind of setting offers the reader an atmosphere conducive to creating tension. Certain settings bring established mental images of frightening settings or ones open to danger. Think of a rundown farmhouse, a lonely cabin in the woods, a Gothic mansion, a hospital ship, an abandoned building, a park at night, a cemetery, or a gloomy parking garage. You have seen movies and read books with settings like this that set you up immediately for bad news.

Even a familiar setting can create fear. A night shift stock boy working when the store lights go out. Visiting your place of employment at night. Entering an empty church at night. Losing power in your own home during a storm. All of these locations, normally familiar, add an unknown element of darkness, gloom, or loneliness.

Each of the sense images you create for your setting came be affected by the time of day, weather conditions, and mood of the character. In this case, setting can become a character in itself or can reflect information about the character you place in the setting. Think of the movie Castaway with Tom Hanks. Characterization comes alive when we see the person in a setting of its making. Picture a woman sitting in her parlor filled with bric-a-brac and doilies. Imagine a different women in a modern apartment with limited decorations and everything in place. Imagine a man in his organized, pristine garage, and then picture another man with greasy tools and dirt under his fingernails.

The settings help describe the characters. In the parlor we have a woman who treasures her belongings. To her, they are cozy and comfortable. In the modern apartment, we have a no fuss business women or socialite living in a world that’s restricted by the her narrowness and control. The pristine garage owner prides himself in being organized, while the other man prides himself on repairing cars.

Now return to the parlor and have the modern business women studying the setting. She selects one of the many adornments, eyes it with a look of disdain and replaces it on the table before wiping her fingers on a pure white handkerchief. Same setting but different characterization. Use settings in this way to bring out the strengths, weaknesses, values and attitudes of your characters.

Details in your setting can foreshadow future events. A man’s den shows a display of antique rifles and revolvers covering one wall. Allowing your readers to see this display will alert them—even casually—that these weapons will reappear later in the novel. They will expect the weapons to play an important part of the novel. So be careful with what you describe or you will disappoint readers if the item is significant to your plot.

Use setting details to around reader’s curiosity and to draw them into the stories tension. My novel, A Love for Safekeeping, (which I preferred to be titled See Jane Run) is a good example of a novel with multiple red herrings and many of the techniques mentioned. Jane, an elementary school teacher, is being stalked. On a school field trip one of her students is missing, and she receives a message that he is in the barn and she leaves the lodge to find the child.

Jane raced from the lodge, praying nothing was seriously wrong. Her heart pounded as she rushed toward the barn, fearing the worst.
The door stood ajar.
Adrenaline fired her action. She took a deep breath, tugged back the door, and stepped into the dim interior. When her feet hit the straw-covered floor, terror charged through her. She faltered, peering into the shadows. No one was there. Nothing.

Yet from inside, she heard a childlike whimper. “Danny? Danny, are you in here?”

Her voice faded into the dark corners.

Overhead, she heard another sound.

She peered upward toward the dark loft. “Danny?” Jane held her breath. Fear prickled up her quaking limbs.

From above, another muffled moan reached her ears. Her chest tightened against her thundering heart.


Terror tore through her as icy tendrils slithered through her veins. She stumbled backward.

No. Not here.

Engulfed by panic, she tried to run from the gloom, but her legs, as if nailed to the floor, held her immobile. Her throat constricted, paralyzing her scream.

Out of the blackness, a body hurled through the air and swung from the rafters.

Her legs buckled, and Jane faded into the darkness.

This is a good example of ending a scene with a hook.

Give serious thought to your settings in all fiction, but particularly in suspense novels, and use the setting to bring characters to life, arouse readers curiosity and create tension that grabs the reader and doesn’t let go.


Barbara Parentini said...

Hi Gail~
As always your instructions are excellent! I want to know more about your book, A Love for Safe Keeping. I'm a big fan of your blog and writing.


Gail Gaymer Martin said...

Thanks, Barb. A Love for Safekeeping is an other book so it's only available on places like Amazon.com where you can buy used books, but sometimes you can pay only pennies and get a new book too. The postage brings the price up to a normal book sale. That book is one of my favorites.


M. Ruthless said...

This article has a number of useful tips about bringing a setting to life. In particular, I appreciated your comments about making characters uncomfortable within their familiar environments. I am writing a novel in which a character has been too comfortable for too long within his adopted community and his environment, and at a certain point, his community will sort of turn on him and his environment will become less hospitable to him. In considering this point, the part of your article about lights going off and other eerie changes to an otherwise familiar place, has given me a great idea for one of the major reveals I plan, and it is just as simple as an object of some narrative significance not being where it belongs. The way I had this event planned before reading your post seemed like I would be just recounting a sequential list of facts rather than letting the readers feel the character's fear. I will probably be reading this article again to inform this somewhat sudden shift in the character's environment.

I also really appreciate your comments on the way a character maintains his space and how it can speak volumes about a character without relying too heavily on expository narration. It strikes me as significantly more effective to show the reader what a character's living or work space looks like rather than to describe the character as "fastidious" or "slovenly." This section of the article got me thinking about a completely different approach to the introduction of my main character that revolves around showing how he lives rather than telling it instead.

There are a number of objects in my novel that have an impact on the story, and while they make up the atmosphere and setting, they also have a definite narrative function. For this reason, it is really important for the reader to know they are there, but I worry that I might make my foreshadowing too obvious. How much attention is the right amount of attention to call to an object that will reappear later? I don't want people say "Oh a sacred knife, I bet someone gets stabbed with it," but at the same time, I sort of do. It is a delicate balance, and I would appreciate your insight.

The novel that I am writing isn't specifically a suspense novel, but I definitely hope it will have some suspenseful parts, and hopefully, when the time comes, they will be written in an appropriately suspenseful fashion. Thank you for these tips.

Gail Gaymer Martin said...

M. Ruthless - Introducing an item or issue that is foreshadowing things to come is important for the reader, and being subtle is the key. The item or situation needs to be dropped as a side thought into conversation without a big todo. So if it's a knife for example, you might have another POV character make reference to the strange wall decor -- a sabre, antique rifle and a knife. He might recall the owner called it a sacred knife and he chuckles and says he'd wonder what that was all about.

Or perhaps have the person talk about reach across the dombed memoriablia case housing his grandfather's watch and his sacred knife. It's mentioned but no big deal is made. Couple it with other items (sort of red herrings) to give the readers something more to think about.

Hope you find that helpful.