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!

Copyright Info (final)

20 responses

  1. Hiya! Thanks for the shoutout and for going and reading the short story version of 1408! It really is the perfect example of building suspense into setting. I like the way you lay things out in your article.

    I believe if you can layer suspense into the setting itself it is an extremely useful tool. I’m not the biggest fan of it was a dark and stormy night (despite it being classic) because it’s generic. That being said, we’ve almost all used it at some point.

    I do on occasion build suspense into the setting itself. I sort of did with The Librarian but I think In This House Of Suffering (I think that is the title…omg, I forgot my own entry number and title) is a better example in my own work.

    In those cases it is necessary as I’m establishing the buildings in question having a life of their own. I think King constantly does an excellent job of building suspense into setting in many of his works and he is someone who I immediately think of in regards to many groundbreaking writing (and horror) ideas etc.

    Great job on the article Corey!

    Cheers! ^_^

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for pointing the book out to me! It helped explain the concept perfectly. It’s one reason I love the collaborative nature of blogging. We all benefit.

      I will search that entry out when I get in front of my computer (using my phone now). It’s baby feeding time over here!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Aww, I bet Thor has a ravenous appetite! Xp No worries on the Entry. It is Saturday and it is already posted. So tomorrow is my day off. The blog is stationary for the next day or so.

        I’m thinking of hanging out with my buddy tonight and then tomorrow we are doing an early Bday celebration for our son. So that should be fun.

        I very much agree, blogging can be very collaborative and I love that about it as well. 🙂

        Cheers! ^_^

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I think the current trend — often taken to a ridiculous extreme — for leaving out descriptive details of any sort has removed a lot of useful things from the writers’ toolbox. If authors think they shouldn’t say anything about the setting (because writing “The door was crooked again” is both telling AND passive voice? *rolls eyes*), the reader doesn’t feel the suspense that such a description would build.

    Once upon a time, there was a story beginning with this sentence: “Sunlight, cold and remote at eight AU from the home of humankind, reflected dimly from the battered hull of a starship in synchronous orbit above Iapetus.” I THINK the author wrote this sentence with the intention of creating a sense of isolation/loneliness as well as making readers wonder why the ship was there and how it had become damaged, etc. In this part of the story, at least, the setting runs counter to some of the protagonist’s goals AND supports others. (This story was never published, by the way. A much-changed version of it WILL be published — soon, I hope, but that depends on the person whose name will be on the cover, and that isn’t me.)

    Here’s another quote from an (as-yet) unpublished story: “And so they left me here on this tower of stone with nothing beyond it but a dark and raging sea. I could not escape because there was nowhere to escape to. […] I hurried to find shelter, if there was any. Soon I discovered a narrow cleft in the stone that somewhat hid a door — an ordinary door, I was certain, and not a means to leave this place. It was not locked, and I did not stop to consider where it might lead before letting myself inside.” Well, I thought it was reasonably suspenseful… I could be wrong, of course. Maybe some people reading this story would become impatient with even THAT little bit of setting description and say, “Get on with it! We don’t care about where this guy is or how he feels about his situation — just tell us if he ever gets away to seek revenge and stuff!” (It’s also an unfortunate current trend for many readers to be in a hurry to “find out how it ends” and care nothing for the story along the way. *sigh* Why else would anyone say a movie is COMPLETELY RUINED for them simply if they know that the main character doesn’t die at the end?)

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree with you about the trend. In defense of 1408 specifically, it’s a short story so my expectation of sweeping description was low. I like it as an example because most of the setting and description multitasks.

      King wouldn’t be the author I would use to demonstrate pure description as he is a self-proclaimed minimalist in this regard. He even goes as far as telling writers to scrap most descriptive elements and only focus on one or two things in his book, On Writing. I’m not a big fan of one-size-fits-all advice like that. But I’m an unpublished peon…so take that for what it’s worth.

      Also hating on description are sources like the Writer’s Digest Guide to Literary Agent’s. The 2016 version has sections where agents advise (complain about) potential clients. There are a few warnings to authors to avoid elaborate description in the opening chapter or they will simply put the book down and move to the next. I often wonder if they go, “Whoop! That was X number of adjectives…next book!” It all seems pretty arbitrary. Not to mention many of the agents contradict one another (i.e. “I don’t like it when the book starts with action. I don’t know the character yet so I don’t care,” versus, “I want the book to start with action. I want an immediate sense of urgency and dread.”)

      [Rant Concluded]

      I love description with purpose. Your examples do a beautiful job of demonstrating how to do it right. I especially like the first one (I’d love to know when/if the book goes to print). There is a lot of meat in that one sentence and it does more than simply describe the scene. It reveals emotions about the scene. I also agree that it leaves the reader with questions and concerns, which is just another way of saying it builds suspense.

      I didn’t find your last example to be long-winded at all. But that’s me. Like you said, who knows what the mob likes these days. I think to be able to successfully find the right blend people really have to study what is selling in their specific genre and read the living snot out of those books. Figure out what ratio successful books used and adapt it. If a writer is a purist, they simply won’t care and they’ll write the book how they want it to be. There’s always a chance they could start the next trend…or fail miserably only for the book to become successful years after their death. That’s the writing life.

      Thanks for taking the time to write out these solid examples! I know it helps me to see what others are doing and how they look at the elements of writing.


      • You’re right, of course: short stories are different from novels, because in a short story there isn’t room to give more than the essential details. I didn’t mean to imply that King did anything wrong; I was just complaining about the stupid “describe NOTHING!” advice writers often receive.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ll freely acknowledge this is the area in which I need to improve the most. It’s tough for me because I’m drawn to character before all. My next book, I will be describing the scene from out to in, and then trying to weave it through. I SORT OF do this now, but only scratch the surface. The next level is the degree of detail. Even now, my scenes are very generic and almost never effecting the plot. Caught has some elements of this, though there is one part where setting and events play a role, so it’s a step forward. But I TRULY need to work with this in 1,200 as the setting is, in fact, essential to the conflict.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I think you did a pretty good job in Caught utilizing this tool. I don’t know if it was intentional, or if the subject matter of that book drove you toward it. I’m being purposefully vague about the book because I don’t want to drop an errant spoiler of any type.

      As for 1200, I think you have some giant opportunities to leverage setting elements to your benefit. One thing I’m doing is creating a simple to use writer’s cheat sheet for first draft revision. This way (after I do the first fast read through) when I do the chapter-to-chapter revision I can ensure I’m hitting all the marks and not getting lost in the sauce. I kind of do this mentally for other people, but find it’s much easier to get lost in my own work.

      Anyways, thanks for the insight Matt.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. My favorite author is James Clemens.

    I just find him amazing. His books are movies in my mind whenever I reread them and I have reread the series “The Banned and the Banished” about 4 times. He uses description beautifully that builds suspense and the characters never lose their essence. I think the books need to be turned into movies…. just saying. ^_^

    I write out the chapters first and then my best friend read chapter by chapter, giving me her feedback on edits and what is missing. She makes me think on when it’s not enough for any aspect, whether it be suspense or just a normal scene. Finding a partner really helps… though sometimes I argue my point on why I didn’t provide enough information and then I still lose and add that detail anyway haha.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I will check out his books for sure. Maybe I can find some future blogging material in the pages! Thanks for sharing this.

      I’m with you on feedback. Having someone to work with you makes a really big difference. As for arguing, if I’m in a group setting I’ll just sit there and take it. If I’m one-on-one with a friend, I like to have an open dialogue about revision strategies.

      Thanks for reading, leaving a link to some books, and sharing your thoughts.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. With you on the first draft really being just to get thoughts down on the page. Description is something I work on more in the second and third draft.

    Given the minimalism of description that is so popular today, this can be hard to incorporate well. What we read definitely influences what we write.

    As for suspense, I can see how it would play out in on Everest or potentially even the drawing rooms of London.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Adding 1408 to both my to-read and to-watch lists!

    Meanwhile, I love the idea of building suspense into settings, of creating a world that purposely makes life difficult for your characters. That’s definitely true of Everest, but it’s also true of stories set in times of intense religious and political conflict. (Yup, I’ve mentioned that before. It’s my favorite kind of setting!)

    I tend to think of the descriptive elements of setting as something a little more separate? Some description adds to the suspenseful nature of the setting; some doesn’t. Everyone’s mileage may vary on this, but I find a little description goes a long way.

    Granted, too little is also a problem–and one I struggle with.

    Liked by 1 person

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