Previous: How Setting and Atmosphere Change a Story
Setting and Atmosphere
Setting and atmosphere provide a backdrop for your stories, and help put readers in the moment. But that’s their most basic effect. Skillfully written atmospheric detail creates tension and drama.
To create atmospheric tension, you can: 1) put your characters in opposition to nature; 2) place characters in an unfamiliar setting: or 3) use irony. Let’s take a look at each of these possibilities.
This is the simplest, and most cliched, technique, the stock method used in supermarket bodice-rippers: It was a dark and stormy night. Those writers are smart: they use this technique because it works. Darkness, turbulent weather and other forces of nature put people on edge.
Typically, darkness signals trouble. There’s a reason crime occurs more often at night and emergency rooms are busier after the sun goes down. Darkness not only provides cover, but people behave badly at night. I can be home all day, in my office above the garage, never once consider the possibility of a break in. At dusk, I grow slightly more wary; by nine or ten at night (depending on the season), my heart rate elevated, I have trouble focusing, and I’m listening for noises. When you set a scene or story at night, your readers feel that same elevated tension.
Like darkness, turbulent weather sets us in opposition to the unknown-and unknowable-forces of nature. Consider the urgency in the opening scenes in The Wizard of Oz-Dorothy rushing back to the farmhouse, racing against the approaching tornado.
Look at the way the weather creates tension in the opening paragraph of Jane Eyre:
There was no possibility of taking a walk that day. We had been wandering, indeed, in the leafless shrubbery an hour in the morning; but since dinner (Mrs. Reed, when there was no company, dined early) the cold winter wind had brought with it clouds so sombre, and a rain so penetrating, that further out-door exercise was now out of the question.
The family is shut inside; poor Jane can’t leave the house even if she’d wanted to. When Master John attacks, she has no escape. Trapped, injured, she’s ‘borne upstairs’ and locked in her room.
In the based-on-truth movie 127 Hours, Aron Ralston (James Franco) is trapped under a boulder in Utah. His fight against human nature-his bodily need for food and water-is complicated by a rainstorm that nearly drowns him. Of the many tense moments in the film, for me the rainstorm, a force of nature that the protagonist has absolutely no control over, was the scariest.
Atmospheric tension can also be created by placing characters in an unfamiliar setting. When you set your story in a period or locale that’s strange or unfamiliar to your characters or to your audience, you create a tangibly disrupted balance.
Quentin Tarantino creates dramatic tension in his 2005 film Hostel this way. In the movie, three college students backpack to Slovakia, looking for fun, and encounter, in this strange, forbidden place, terror beyond their wildest imagination. A story about young adults backpacking in a foreign country may be inherently tense, but it’s the unfamiliarity-ours and theirs-the creepy sense that these kids have no idea how this world works, or how to survive in it, that terrifies us.
Books set in unfamiliar time periods work the same way. Eric Larson’s nonfiction book The Devil in the White City, set in Chicago during the 1893 World’s Fair, pits protagonist Daniel Burnham against serial killer Dr. D. H. Holmes. Larson vividly evokes the sights and sounds and smells of the period, luring us into that world, creating the relentless drama that makes his book impossible to put down.
Novels set in the distant past, like Jean Auel’s novel Clan of the Cavebear, set in the Ice Age, have a similar effect, as do stories set in the future. The film Blade Runner, with its horrifying futurist detail, pulls us into a dehumanizing future that we don’t want to inhabit.
Irony-which, remember, is not the same as a coincidence-says one thing but means something else. We all know that drama relies on central tension. When you set a story in a place that feels too comfortable and familiar, your readers naturally suspect something is amiss.
Ruth Russell’s essay ‘The Wounds That Can’t Be Stitched Up’ appeared in the December 1999 issue of Newsweek magazine. Her wonderful essay, about a horrific drunk driving accident that critically injured her mother, starts like this:
It was a mild December night. Christmas was only two weeks away. The evening sky was overcast, but the roads were dry. All was quiet in our small town as I drove to my grandmother’s house.
Only the detail about the overcast sky hints at the horror to come. The story takes place in a small town, a place of comfort and safety, on a mild night; the roads are dry and all is quiet. Yet the title ‘The Wounds That Can’t Be Stitched Up’ suggests that all is not quiet in this small town, and so we wonder.
The next sentence reads: ‘I heard the sirens first.’ Russell could easily have chosen to start her essay here. This atmosphere of calm, in immediate tension with the story title, makes us uneasy. Showing us this calm quiet town, while, unknown to the author, the accident is happening, intensifies the drama. This is an ordinary night in an ordinary town, Russell says. This could be you.
Next: 3 Easy Steps for Creating Powerful Settings