Monday, December 16, 2013

Setting up the Tension in Your Novel

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

The world around our characters does more than just provide nice scenery. It can be a great opportunity to create mood and even raise the tension in s scene. But it doesn't have to be as "knock you over the head obvious" as a thunderstorm that foreshadows something bad on the way.

The smallest detail can clue the reader in and alert them that things aren't okay. Details that seem innocuous, but set a tone or hint that something worse is coming. This is why walking through an empty parking lot in the middle of the day seems safe, and walking through the same one at night feels risky. We don't even notice the noise during the day, but at night, every creak, every thumb is a possible threat.

(More on creating tension in a scene here)

Feed Off the Emotions

Universal Studios' Halloween Horror Nights is a great example of how setting can influence the people in it. The park is redone with haunted houses and scary set pieces, and they have staff in costumes (and chainsaws) lurking and jumping out at guests. These staff members are trained to jump out at those who will most be affected, so they target younger women in groups, because they scream the loudest, and screams are contagious. One group starts screaming, it makes everyone around them nervous, and then the other staff members can jump out and scare people that normally wouldn't be scared--because the setting already had them on edge.

Let's go back to that dark parking lot with our protagonist. Let's say this is the lot at a young man's office, and he's been having some issues with a guy at work. He's threatened him, but he thinks it's just professional rivalry. But on his way out, he looks at him in a way that makes his skin crawl, and in this dark, scary moment, he's wondering if it's more than rivalry.

If all he does is worry about what might happen with this man, you get X level of tension. This is a moment when the protagonist first realizes he has a bigger problem than he thought. That's good, but now toss in a strange noise, a shadow that shouldn't be there, a smell or sound that can't be identified. Make the setting scary in small ways that someone suddenly on their guard might notice.

(More on using the rule of three to foreshadow and build tension here)

Suddenly, your reader is tense, jumping along with your protagonist. Anything might happen, not just what the protagonist is worrying about. And the reader starts wondering if something is going to happen now and this isn't just a realization moment. It's no longer just a trip to his car, it's something tickling the reader's brain to see what happens next. Because something really could happen.

Play With Contrasts

But it doesn't have to be dark and scary to achieve this. A bright and sunny day can be just as worrisome if the protagonist starts seeing trouble in every flower. The stranger who smiles a little too long, the law officer whose uniform doesn't quite fit. If you're already nervous (like after hearing screams in the dark), then you'll start seeing things in a whole new light. A much scarier light.

(More on handling quieter, non-action scenes here)

Choose the Right Details to Evoke the Right Response

Just like picking the right details can add to a scene's tension, the wrong one can steal the tension.

Imagine a different protagonist vacationing in Savannah, GA. She's staying at one of those restored Victorian mansions around the historic district. She's having dinner, when suddenly, zombies crash through the windows. As she's running through the house, a killer zombie right behind her, she notices and describes the antique banisters and the lace curtains. Is she really going to do this when she's running for her life? Probably not. And if she does, does that make the scene feel scarier, or more like a tour by House and Garden? Chances are it kills the tension, because the focus isn't on the fear or the getaway, it's on details that mean nothing to the reader.


You can have her notice those things if they add to the tension or show an aspect of her personality that's important. She can watch the zombies claw through the lace and feel horrified. She can snarkily think about how all that blood and guts will never clean out of the carved wooden banister. (if you're going for humor) The lace can snag on her hands as she tries to use it as a rope, hindering her as she tries to flee the house.

Take a second look at your scenes and ask:
  • Can you increase the tension by using details that reflect your protagonist's mood?
  • Can you change how the protagonist sees or uses a detail already there?
  • Are you killing the tension with descriptions that steal tension?
Next time your protagonist is skipping along, think about her mental state and what she's trying to do in that scene. What setting details you describe will go a long way to either upping that tension, or stealing the scary right out of it.

Have you ever read or seen a scene where the setting made it more tense? What about less tense?


  1. I'm one who has trouble with writing description but this post will definitely help me in that area. This will be very helpful in knowing when, where and how to add the important stuff. Thanks!

  2. Using a computer during a thunderstorm. My, you are brave.

    I like Phyllis Whitney's advice. She said that if you have the heroine in the basement folding laundry and thinking about her problems, you should be sprinkling hints that the heroine isn't picking up but the reader is that there's a man with an ax sneaking up on her.

  3. I think I'm pretty good with mood atmosphere, but this post definitely gives me something to think about as far as scarier scenes go.

  4. These last two post are really helpful. Addressing right where I am at! Thank you. I remember hearing about The Shifter a while ago. I had thought about it since not sure where I had heard about the book and how to find it. So exciting to have found you today.

  5. Love the basement tip :) That's so true. And I was on my laptop, i the basement (no axe murderers that I know of), running on battery so I was safe, hehe. I grew up in FL so I'm so used to thunderstorms I barely notice them anymore.

    Jaydee, I'm like you with description. I always have to go back and find places for it. I'm finally getting better at it during first drafts, but so many of my scenes take place in white boxes first time out.

    Hmmm... I wonder if that's why I've come up with all these tricks to work it in there in different ways? Because I just don't like writing it.

  6. Tension can be tough. Not everything causes the same amount of tension for everybody.

    Readers of a different subculture or background than the writer won't always follow how the writer intends, because those readers understand things with different connotations and makes different connections. I mean, consider the red dress: usually that's sensual in the Western world, but some cultures use those for WEDDINGS.

  7. This reminds me of an episode of Bones I caught a few weeks ago. Booth and Bones had gone to check out a murder near her old high school, just in time for her class reunion. Every time they see the creepy janitor guy, there is spooky lighting and music around him to indicate the way Booth sees him. Meanwhile Bones is all bright and cheery and chatting away in contrast to the spooky music. He was the only person from her high school who had ever supported her. I won't give away the ending for those who haven't seen it. But that contrast kept me guessing right until the moment of reveal.

    Mood and setting can either enhance or play counterpoint to keep people guessing, depending what you are going for. Now if only I can figure out the words to get mine across as effectively.

  8. Using descriptions to set the mood of your characters, or as an atmospheric backdrop is one of my favorite thing to do. But I get criticized for overusing it. Oh well....

  9. Thanks for the great post Janice! I feel like this is one of the easiest things for me to forget but it really makes a difference.

  10. I loved that Bones episode! And casting Robert "Freddy Kreuger" England as the janitor was just genius.

    Henya, what you might try doing is putting more of the mood into the POV, so it's what they think, not simply description. Things a character says or thinks is often given more weight as being important, and exposition and description is sometimes seen as less important. The action is rarely in that part of the story. Then you can still do what you enjoy doing, and use it to better hook the read at the same time.

  11. thanks for reposting. This is great stuff!

    1. Thanks! There's so much in the archives, it's nice to let them out to play once in a while.

  12. Minor details and others' moods...thanks, Janice!

    On a related note, how can I use setting to convey trouble's brewing when my overconfident protagonist dismisses the idea that he could be in trouble? I'm using first-person.

    1. Try dropping details the reader will pick up on, but the POV just glosses over or blows off. You might look for things that symbolically hint at the trouble--such as a broken vase of flowers on the floor when he gets home, or trouble for a neighbor, or things are off or wrong in small ways. Things small enough that he'd say "Psh, it's nothing," but readers knows it's not nothing.

      Instead of reflecting the protagonist's mood, try looking for things to reflect the antagonist's mood. See if that's easier to find setting details to work with.

  13. Hi Janice
    Great post, thanks.
    I think Stephen King is particularly good at this, probably because he is so good at describing things in the particular manner in which his characters see the world. They create the tension for themselves by noticing all those little details (lace curtains etc). It could be obvious, but somehow he makes it so natural it really ups the tension.
    For myself, I think keeping it short and sweet is the key. Things have to breeze past, almost as an aside, but just enough for the readers subconscious to start chewing on it :)

    1. I do love that about his work. Simple things can become sinister just because of the mood of the character. Great example!

      That "something's not right" feeling is also great. That works especially well in non-traditionally scary or tense moments when you don;t expect things to be "wrong." And yet it is...bwahaha.