Monday, October 31, 2022

How the Setting Raises Tension in Your Novel

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Your characters’ world provides opportunities to create mood and raise the tension in your scenes.

Universal Studios' Halloween Horror Nights is a perfect example of how a setting can influence the people in it.

The park is decorated with haunted houses and scary set pieces, and costumed staff (some with chainsaws) lurk in the shadows to jump out at guests. One group is startled and they scream, which makes everyone around them nervous, and just when people start to relax, another staff member leaps out. People who normally wouldn't be startled tend to shriek, because the setting already has them on edge.

This isn’t a happy coincidence. These staff members are trained to target guests who typically scare the easiest, so they look for younger people (particular teens and women) in groups, because they scream the loudest, and screams are contagious.

Your setting is the “spooky background music” of your novel.

The smallest clue can alert readers that things aren't okay, tweaking the subconscious and making them as uneasy as your characters. Details that seem innocuous can set a foreboding tone and hint that something bad is coming, just like creepy music that plucks at the nerves during a scary movie.

(Here’s more with Three Ways to Add Tension to a Scene During Revisions)

A character’s environment affects how they feel while in that environment.

This is why walking through an empty parking lot in the middle of the day seems safe, while walking through the same lot at night feels risky. We don't notice noises during the day, but at night, every creak, every thump, is a possible threat.

Sunny and bright = safe, while dark and gloomy = unsafe—even if that’s far from true.

Say this parking lot is at your protagonist’s office, and Kevin’s been having issues with a woman at work. She's threatened him, but he thinks it's just professional rivalry and she doesn’t really plan to act on it. Yet on his way out one afternoon, she glares at him in a way that makes his skin crawl, and he wonders if he was wrong about her.

You can raise the tension in several ways:

If Kevin just worries a little about what might happen with this woman, you’ll get some low-level tension, but it probably won’t make readers too nervous.

If Kevin realizes he has a bigger problem than he thought, the tension rises and the glare means a bit more and readers will probably start wondering if the woman does indeed mean him harm.

If Kevin is already nervous and wondering if he misjudged his coworker, then think about what he’ll see and hear as he walks to his car in his nervous state of mind. Maybe you can:
  • Toss in a strange noise that might be footsteps
  • Add a shadow that shouldn't be there
  • Mention a smell or sound that can't be identified, but seems familiar in some way
Make the setting scary in multiple small ways that someone already on their guard would notice.

The tension rises and suddenly, readers are tense, too, jumping along with your protagonist. They start wondering what the woman is about to do, and are waiting for her to do it.

This simple scene is no longer a boring trip to the car, but a potential moment for something horrible to befall a character readers care about.

(Here’s more with Whoa, That’s Tense. 3 Ways to Raise the Tension in Your Scenes)

Scaring people in the dark is easy, but it doesn't have to be dark to achieve this.

A bright and sunny day can be just as worrisome if the protagonist starts seeing trouble in every flower. It’s more about the contrast between what the character sees and how they feel that raises red flags and triggers a fight or flight response. It could be:
  • The stranger who smiles a little too long
  • The law officer whose uniform doesn't quite fit
  • The same type of car seen in multiple locations
If a character is already nervous, then they’ll start seeing what’s around them in a whole new light. A much scarier light.

(Here’s more with Creating Story Tension: Rooms with an Unexpected View)

Choose the right details to evoke the right response.

While the right details can add to a scene's tension, the wrong ones can actually steal that tension.

Imagine a different protagonist vacationing in Savannah, GA. Layla’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 with killer zombies right behind her, she notices and describes the charming antique banisters and the lace curtains.

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 or the character. Who notices curtains when they’re running for their life?


You can have Layla notice those curtains if they show an aspect of her personality that's important. If you're going for humor, she might snarkily fret about how she’s going to get all that blood and guts out of the carved wooden banister. Or maybe:
  • The zombies claw through the lace and she’s horrified by how easily they shred it
  • The lace snags on her hands as she tries to use it as a rope, hindering her as she tries to flee the house
  • She runs around the corner and gets tangled up in billowing curtains blowing into the hallway
If you truly feel you need to describe those lace curtains, you can find ways to do it that works with the scene.

(Here’s more with One, Two Three, Notice Me: The Rule of Three (And How it Helps Our Writing)

Take a closer look at your scenes and ask:

Can you increase the tension by using details that reflect your protagonist's mood? If they’re worried, look for things that reinforce that worry. If they’re scared, looked for details that typically cause fear. If they’re upset, look for elements in the setting that can push their buttons even further.

Can you change how the protagonist sees or uses a detail already there? Maybe they trip over a curb, or cut themselves on a broken piece of glass. That cool breeze might be a cold wind that makes them shiver. A child’s laughter could take on an eerie tone.

Are you killing the suspense with descriptions that lower the tension? Be particularly wary of detached descriptions of what you as the author know is there versus what the character sees. Make sure their emotional or mental state matches how they see their environment.

(Here’s more with Is Your Description Helping Your Story or Holding it Back?)

The setting details you describe go a long way to either raising your tension or stealing the scary right out of it.

You have to describe the setting anyway, so why not make the most of it? Let it help you create a more immersive world that affects your characters’ emotional states, as well as impeded their plot problems.

EXERCISE FOR YOU: Take five minutes and play with the setting details in one of your scenes. Think about the emotional state you want your character in, and how subtle (and not-so-subtle) change can better achieve that.

Have you ever read or seen a scene where the setting increased then tension? What about lessened it?

*Originally published April 2010. Last updated October 2022.

Find out more about setting and description in my book, Fixing Your Setting & Description Problems.

Go step-by-step through setting and description-related issues, such as weak world building, heavy infodumping, told prose, awkward stage direction, inconsistent tone and mood, and overwritten descriptions. Learn how to analyze your draft, spot any problems or weak areas, and fix those problems.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Fixing Your Setting & Description Problems offers five self-guided workshops that target the common issues that make readers stop reading. It will help you:
  • Choose the right details to bring your setting and world to life
  • Craft strong descriptions without overwriting
  • Determine the right way to include information without infodumping
  • Create compelling emotional layers that reflect the tone and mood of your scenes
  • Fix awkward stage direction and unclear character actions
Fixing Setting & Description Problems starts every workshop with an analysis to pinpoint problem areas and offers multiple revision options in each area. You choose the options that best fit your writing process. It's an easy-to-follow guide to crafting immersive settings and worlds that draw readers into your story and keep them there.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  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.

  14. This post is extremely helpful. Everything in a scene can be used to create tension.
    In my Jealousy of a Viking, my protagonist is running for her life from her home, with her 2 small children. It's raining and the cold rain drips down her neck. The sound of the raindrops on the leaves of the trees sounds like the pattering of the feet of fairy folk. (The Vikings believed in such folk.). A wolf howls in the distance, etc.
    I hope I managed to convey Helgha's fears (and pass them to the reader).

    1. Thanks! Nice. Sounds like a lot of good details there that could be normal or actual threats (like the fairy feet).