Setting is a powerful tool that can be used to create tension and suspense in any story. It’s the backdrop for the action and often helps define the plot and characters. A well-crafted setting can give readers a vivid idea of what’s happening in the scene and hint at things yet to come.
But how do you use setting to build tension? What techniques should you employ? In this article, we’ll discuss some creative ways of using setting to increase tension in your stories. We’ll also look at examples from literature and practical examples for a clearer understanding.
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How to Create Tension In A Story With Setting
Creating tension in a story is essential for authors to keep the reader engaged. Setting can be used as an effective way to create and maintain this tension. Let’s explore how to create tension in a story with setting:
1. Choose an Intriguing Setting.
Consider a location that naturally lends itself to suspense. Think about how the setting can create a sense of unease or anticipation, and choose a location that amplifies the tension in your story.
For example, In Stephen King’s “The Shining,” the isolated Overlook Hotel is the perfect setting to build tension. The hotel’s remote location, dark history, and eerie atmosphere create an oppressive, suspenseful environment that heightens the sense of dread.
Raise the Stakes:
Tension builds when a problem gets in the way of what your character wants. This can be a bad guy, or sometimes, the character themselves. What the character could lose if they don’t reach their goal is called the “stakes”.
Imagine a simple horror story where the character wants to get through a dangerous forest. What stops them from easily going through it without getting hurt? A poisonous snake hiding nearby is the PROBLEM.
Tension rises because the character can’t get what they want, and we don’t know if they’ll make it. The STAKES here are clear – the character could get hurt badly. To create more tension, you can give your character more problems, like a fast-moving river they must cross or a broken radio that stops them from calling for help.
Create conflict crucial to your characters
Now let’s use this idea in a normal growing-up story. Our main character WANTS to make friends with the new, interesting kid at school. What keeps them from talking to the new kid? The cool group of kids that already became friends with the new kid is the PROBLEM. Tension starts because something stops the character from getting what they want, and we don’t know if they’ll make it. The STAKES here are that our main character might miss the chance to become friends with someone special. To create even more tension, we can give more problems (conflict), like the main character being too shy to talk to the new kid or a mistake that makes the new kid not like our main character. In a different growing-up story, the two characters might become friends, but then the main character finds out they only liked the idea of the new kid and never really knew who they were.
Adventure stories often have more tension because the stakes are about danger and getting hurt, which everyone can understand. In other kinds of stories, you need to think of more creative stakes. In growing-up stories, a character might be scared of being alone and not fitting in. In a story about school, a character might worry that their work will be laughed at because it’s not good enough for their own high standards.
2. Use Atmospheric Details.
Focus on the sensory aspects of your setting, such as sights, sounds, smells, and textures, to establish a mood that leaves your readers uneasy or anxious.
In Daphne du Maurier’s “Rebecca,” the imposing Manderley estate is described with atmospheric details that create a sense of foreboding:
“There was Manderley, our Manderley, secretive and silent as it had always been, the gray stone shining in the moonlight of my dream, the mullioned windows reflecting the green lawns and the terrace.”
3. Create a Sense of Confinement.
A setting that limits your characters’ options can help build tension. This sense of confinement can be physical, emotional, or psychological. This often creates a feeling of helplessness or desperation that heightens the suspense.
In William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies,” the uninhabited island the boys find themselves stranded on acts as a confined space where their primal instincts surface. The island’s isolation amplifies the tension as the boys’ society unravels.
4. Use Weather and Natural Elements.
Incorporating weather and natural elements into your setting can be an effective way to build tension. Storms, extreme temperatures, or other natural phenomena can create a sense of danger, vulnerability, or unpredictability that heightens the suspense.
In Emily Brontë’s “Wuthering Heights,” the wild, stormy moors surrounding the isolated estate contribute to the novel’s tense, gothic atmosphere:
“Wuthering Heights is the name of Mr. Heathcliff’s dwelling. ‘Wuthering’ being a significant provincial adjective, descriptive of the atmospheric tumult to which its station is exposed in stormy weather.”
5. Play with Time.
Manipulating the passage of time can help build tension in your story. A ticking clock, looming deadline, or impending event can create a sense of urgency or desperation that keeps your readers on edge.
In H.G. Wells’ “The War of the Worlds,” the relentless advance of the Martian invasion and the imminent destruction of humanity create a palpable sense of tension and urgency throughout the novel.
6. Use Foreshadowing and Symbolism.
Hinting at future events or using symbolic elements can create a sense of anticipation or unease.
In Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” the setting of a small town’s annual lottery is rife with symbolism and foreshadowing that creates an ominous atmosphere:
“The morning of June 27th was clear and sunny, with the fresh warmth of a full-summer day; the flowers were blossoming profusely, and the grass was richly green.”
7. Contrast Light and Darkness.
Playing with light and darkness in your setting can be an effective way to build tension. The contrast between the two can represent the conflict between good and evil, safety and danger, or hope and despair. This creates a sense of unease or anticipation.
In Bram Stoker’s “Dracula,” the contrast between the safety of daylight and the terror of darkness is a recurring theme that contributes to the novel’s suspense:
“It was now dark, and I was tired and hungry; but on consulting the map, I found that the road led on to the Castle, and I determined to go forward and make the best of it.”
8. Use Setting to Reflect Characters’ Emotions.
Your setting can be an extension of your characters’ emotions, allowing you to build tension by mirroring their inner turmoil. Using the environment to reflect your characters’ feelings can create a more immersive and suspenseful experience for your readers.
In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” the oppressive heat during the climactic confrontation between Gatsby and Tom Buchanan amplifies the tension between the characters:
“The relentless beating heat was beginning to confuse me, and I had a bad moment there before I realized that so far my suspicions hadn’t been verified.”
9. Create Unpredictable Situations.
Using your setting to create unpredictable situations can keep your readers guessing and heighten the tension in your story. Introduce unexpected obstacles, challenges, or dangers in your environment to build and maintain suspense.
For Example, In J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit,” Bilbo Baggins and the dwarves encounter numerous unpredictable challenges in their quest to reclaim the Lonely Mountain. From dangerous creatures to treacherous terrain, there was a palpable sense of tension and uncertainty throughout the story.
10. Use Setting to Heighten Conflict.
Finally, you can use setting to amplify the conflict between your characters, which adds a layer of tension to your story. Create a more suspenseful narrative by placing your characters in a setting that exacerbates their differences or challenges their beliefs.
In Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” the racially charged setting of 1930s Alabama heightens the conflict between the characters. It amplifies the tension surrounding the trial of Tom Robinson:
“In rainy weather, the streets turned to red slop…grass grew on the sidewalks, the courthouse sagged in the square.”
Template: How to Create Tension In A Story With Setting
I have created a template you can use to craft the setting of any story. Generally, you can use this as a guide but try to tweak it according to the theme of your story. Let’s look at this template and an example to understand and appreciate this better.
Free Template For Writers With Example
Let’s consider a mystery story set in an abandoned asylum.
1. Choose an Intriguing Setting:
- [Identify suspenseful locations (e.g., abandoned buildings, isolated islands)]
- [Assess how settings evoke unease (e.g., dark forests, eerie atmospheres)]
Imagine a story set in an abandoned asylum. The dark hallways, crumbling walls, and eerie atmosphere create a sense of dread. To enhance the tension, research the history of asylums and incorporate real-life details to make your setting more authentic.
2. Use Atmospheric Details:
- [Focus on sensory aspects (e.g., rustling leaves, damp air)]
- [Establish an unsettling or anxious mood (e.g., a foggy, moonlit night)]
In our abandoned asylum story, describe the peeling paint, distant echoing footsteps, and musty odor of decay. By appealing to your readers’ senses, you’ll create an atmosphere of unease.
3. Create a Sense of Confinement:
- [Limit characters’ options (e.g., trapped in a room, lost in a maze)]
- [Evoke helplessness or desperation (e.g., characters unable to call for help)]
As our characters explore the asylum, they discover that the entrance has been blocked, trapping them inside. This confinement forces them to confront their fears and heightens the tension.
4. Use Weather and Natural Elements:
- [Incorporate weather for danger (e.g., a raging storm, a blizzard)]
- [Use natural elements for suspense (e.g., a landslide, a flood)]
As the characters search for an escape route, a storm rages outside, adding to the sense of isolation and peril. The characters hear the wind howling through the broken windows and feel the cold rain seeping through the cracked walls.
5. Play with Time:
- [Manipulate time for urgency (e.g., a countdown, a race against time)]
- [Add deadlines or events for tension (e.g., a bomb’s timer, an ultimatum)]
Our characters learn that the asylum is scheduled for demolition the following day. As the hours tick away, they become increasingly desperate to find a way out before it’s too late.
6. Employ Foreshadowing and Symbolism:
- [Hint at future events (e.g., ominous signs, prophetic dreams)]
- [Use symbolic elements for unease (e.g., broken mirrors, shadows)]
Early in our story, the characters find a newspaper article detailing a mysterious fire that occurred at the asylum years ago. This foreshadows a later discovery that the asylum may be haunted. This adds another layer of tension. Additionally, you can employ symbols to increase the suspense—perhaps a broken mirror or a strange shadow that follows our characters no matter where they go.
7. Contrast Light and Darkness:
- [Use light/darkness for conflict (e.g., a character’s fear of the dark)]
- [Evoke unease through contrast (e.g., a flickering streetlight, a moonlit path)]
As our characters navigate the asylum, they encounter areas of both darkness and light. The stark contrast between the two heightens the tension, emphasizing the uncertainty and danger they face. Perhaps the moonlight casts a strange pallor over the scene and creates an atmosphere of unease. Or, perhaps, our characters are in a dark alleyway with only a flickering streetlight illuminating their way forward. Likewise, you can use light and darkness to create conflict—perhaps one character is scared of the dark, while another is only emboldened by it.
8. Reflect Characters’ Emotions through Setting:
- Mirror feelings in the environment (e.g., a storm reflecting anger)
- Craft immersive suspense (e.g., a character’s anxiety mirrored in a tense crowd)
As our characters’ fear and anxiety increase, their surroundings become more oppressive and disorienting. The asylum’s crumbling walls, oppressive darkness, and mysterious sounds seem to intensify in tandem with the characters’ emotional states.
9. Create Unpredictable Situations:
- [Introduce unexpected obstacles (e.g., locked doors, hidden traps)]
- [Enhance suspense through unpredictability (e.g., sudden power outages)]
While exploring the asylum, our characters stumble upon hidden rooms, secret passages, and unexpected obstacles. Obstacles may include locked doors, traps, and other unforeseen threats. To enhance the suspense of your story, introduce sudden power outages or other unpredictable situations that force characters to make difficult decisions.
10. Heighten Conflict through Setting:
- [Amplify character conflicts (e.g., opposing beliefs in a haunted house)]
- [Create suspenseful narratives (e.g., rivals stranded together on a deserted island)]
In our story, perhaps one character is a rational skeptic, while another is a firm believer in the supernatural. The haunted asylum setting forces them to confront their conflicting beliefs and heightens the tension as they struggle to make sense of their surroundings.
Final Notes: How to Create Tension In A Story With Setting
Using setting to build tension can create a rich, suspenseful narrative that captivates your readers. You can choose an intriguing setting, use atmospheric details, play with time, and heighten conflict to create tension. These tips can help you weave a story that deeply connects with your audience.