Monday, January 17, 2011

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.

About Me

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Multi-award-winning author, Gail Gaymer Martin writes Christian fiction for Steeple Hill and Barbour Publishing. She has forty-seven contracted novels with over three million books in print. Gail is the author of Writers Digiest’s Writing the Christian Romance. Gail is a co-founder of American Christian Fiction Writers, a keynote speaker at churches, libraries and civic organizations  and presents workshops at conference across the US. Gail live in the Detroit area.

Writing the Christian RomanceGroom in Training (Love Inspired)Dad in Training (Thorndike Press Large Print Christian Fiction)Bride in Training (Love Inspired)In His Dreams (Michigan Island, Book 3) (Love Inspired #407)Loving Treasures (Loving Series #1) (Love Inspired #177)Loving Hearts (Loving Series #2) (Love Inspired #199)In His Eyes (Michigan Island, Book 1) (Love Inspired #361)Family in His Heart (Michigan Island, Book 4) (Love Inspired #427)Loving Care (Loving Series #4) (Love Inspired #239)Through The Eyes Of A ChildLoving Ways (Loving Series #3) (Love Inspired #231)The Christmas Kite (Steeple Hill Women's Fiction #2)Loving Feelings (Loving Series #6) (Love Inspired #303)And Baby Makes Five (Monterey Peninsula Series #1) (Heartsong Presents #770) 

A Dad Of His Own - Coming March 2011
Dad In Training, Groom in Training, Bride in Training - Steeple Hill Love Inspired
Monterey Memories - Barbour Publishing
Writing The Christian Romance - Writers Digest

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