Writing advice

Creating Suspense: Environment

Another tool in the writer’s suspense arsenal is the environment. If pace can be considered the soundtrack to your story, environment is the combination of location and lighting. Taken together, setting and lighting (the environment) help set the mood of your piece and can amp up the suspense.

Most of us are familiar with the term “setting”. It is where your story takes place. Is it set in an urban center of tenements and skyscrapers? A suburban bedroom community? Or the wilderness of the Yukon? A change of setting inevitably changes the story because the characters interact with the world around them as much as do each other. If that world changes, so will the story.

The Bourne Identity wouldn’t be the same story if it had been set in the ranch lands of Eastern Montana rather than the cities of Europe. The challenges Mr. Bourne faced would have been different, as would the resources available. It may not have been better; it may not have been worse. It certainly would have been a different story. (This is ignoring the genre convention that spy thrillers should take place largely in the “jet-set” cities of Europe and The United States).

Another familiar (and most abused) example of how the environment can create suspense is the creative use of weather: storms, wind, rain, fog, snow, and the dark of night. Literary critics call this “pathetic fallacy”. In literature and film, pathetic fallacy is the idea that the weather mirrors the state of human affairs. If everything is calm and orderly among the folks, the days are warm and sunny. Likewise, when there’s conflict between people, the weather turns stormy.

Probably the most famous example of pathetic fallacy is Shakespeare’s play “The Tempest”, but it is much more pervasive and often very heavy-handed. Think of how often thunder and lightning occur during horror movies. This is pathetic fallacy at its most cliched. It is so cliched as to be almost laughable. The same could be said for ghost and other such tales always occurring at night. It’s cliché. One of my favorite aspects of Stephen King’s novel It is that virtually all the action ( and I thought some were truly creepy) takes place during broad daylight and during the sunny days of summer, at that. He broke all the cliches and I think it made the suspense even stronger.

Beyond the cliches though, inclement weather (which includes darkness) can be a useful tool in heightening suspense. Why? Because it’s another obstacle the hero has to overcome. If the hero is, say, fleeing through the wilderness from an assassin, he has to worry about his pursuer, accidental injury in the rough terrain and becoming lost. Add a blizzard and now he also has to be concerned with hypothermia, exhaustion, and an increased chance of getting lost.

Bad weather can also serve to isolate the characters. In my first novel, Ni’il: The Awakening, the hero, a small town Chief of Police, and his allies are trying to stop a mysterious string of killings when a Pacific hurricane bears down on their coastal community. Not only does a large portion of the population evacuate ahead of the storm, but those that don’t, hole up in their dwellings for the duration. Then storm damage cuts off all communication with the outside world. The hero must now stop the bad guy entirely on his own.

It ratchets up the pressure.

More than anything else though, weather heightens suspense by making characters more vulnerable. We are all, like it or not, slaves to our senses. So are our characters. Anything that impedes their ability to perceive danger increases their vulnerability and, therefore, the suspense. Darkness, fog, rain, and snowfall all hinder our ability to see approaching danger. Wind, rain, snow, and thunder do the same thing to ability to hear a threat. Also, having a character bundled up in a heavy coat, scarf, hood, or hat can interfere with peripheral vision. A character who is soaking wet, cold, or overheated can also be distracted enough to struggle with focus at the worst possible time.

You get the idea.

Using environmental factors can greatly increase the suspense in your work. However, like any tool, we must constantly strive to use them judiciously and creatively. If we simply fall back to the timeworn thunderstorm as the hero approaches the evil mansion, we will probably lose the reader.


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