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