By Brady Major
Location, location, location. It’s a common a motto for those working in the real estate industry or anyone looking to make themselves into an enterprising villain with their own secret lair concealed deep inside a hollowed out volcano. Of course, it’s also a vital and oft-repeated turn of phrase for writers working inside the mystery genre.
The greatest tool for conveying a setting’s power to your audience is atmosphere–creating feelings of ease, unrest, excitation and tension that spur your reader on from page to page. With all this in mind, here are a few tips to get you started on using setting to create a palpable atmosphere in your own work.
#1 Setting as Character
One of the most effective ways to play with setting to create tangible atmosphere is to give the location an almost mythic, omniscient quality. In the face of your setting, your protagonist should feel tested and strained to his wit’s end, completely vulnerable to that environment.
We already live in a world where Mother Nature has shown us time and time again through events like Hurricane Katrina that humans don’t have control over shit. Extend this reality to your own story to give your setting that same impact. Show the effect the location is having on your characters as if it were a human figure, detailing the claustrophobia of its spaces, the bleakness of its twilight, or the smells radiating from its alleys or forests.
#2 The Forecast Calls For: Tension
If you live in a part of the world known for harsh winters like I do, you are already familiar with how much of a bitch the weather can be. The climates in which we live add color and complications to our lives in equal measures, and weather in particular can be a rich source of tension in your writing to create genuine strain for your characters.
When it comes to mystery writing, the forecast usually calls for rain, and lots of it. The weather in detective stories can sometimes be near-sentient with its ability to comment on the depravity your investigator happens upon when she’s called to a vicious murder in the backwoods of her county at two in the morning.
Mother Nature is letting her know, as she gets soaked going out the door, exactly what’s waiting for her, and if the weather is especially strident, with thunder and lightning in action overhead, the mood only increases. When she gets to the crime scene and finds the bodies of the victims all sprawled out inside a derelict home, riddled with bullets, the cracking thunder outside recalls to her mind the very gunshots that ended their lives. The house is pitch dark due to an outage, but the brief flashes of lightning through the windows illuminate the bloodied faces and lost gazes of the dearly departed.
If you presented that same scene using more temperate weather, a lot of the power would be lost to ramp up tension, ignite your audiences’ senses, or create atmosphere in meaningful ways.
One of weather’s greatest uses in your story should be to complicate the duties of your protagonist. Picture that same scene in the thick of winter. Heaps of snow surround the area and the roads are be so slick that your detective can barely keep to a straight line as she tries to make her way to the crime scene. Here weather can be both a descriptive device to dress your scene with strong environmental details and a tool for challenging your detective’s ability to effectively do her job.
The greatest moments occur when your protagonist faces a human combatant and the elements of nature in tandem, delivering to readers a scenario with tension pouring from its every crevice. Setting your detective’s final face off with her mentor turned archenemy in a claustrophobic abandoned hospital is made all the sweeter when, as she goes about looking for the villain, the power goes out and she has only her senses to rely on.
#3 The Method Method
Just as method actors bring their own emotion and personal history to connect to and feel out the characters they’re trying to embody, you as a writer can become your location in mind, body, and spirit to torture your characters to your heart’s content.
Think, for instance, if you were an isolated, frigid island. How would you treat your protagonist? Would you snow him in or make him skid off a roadway and into a tree as he sets off on the trail of a lead? If you were the classic city of the urban noir, would the shadows of your alleyways draw the protagonist in, or would a constant and heavy rainfall ruin every good suit he owns and compliment his already dreary disposition?
This exercise in creation allows you to reach a cathartic place where you embody the location like a malevolent god, which also helps you think about the many ways you could use the natural elements of your story’s specific setting to make your protagonist cry home to her mommy. That is, if you haven’t already axed the old bird in an earlier chapter.
#4 The Power of Personification
By playing the role of the method actor, you create a location that becomes an active opponent for your protagonist. The narrative can begin to feel like a human vs. nature story at this point, with your protagonist set against the universe.
A surefire way to continue to create the feeling of the universe against your hero is by personifying it. Create for your readers the idea that the location you’re giving life to is truly a sentient being and actively trying to ruin your protagonist’s day. To demonstrate the power of personification, look at this sentence in its rather rudimentary form:
Detective Briggs was tossed out the club door for asking too many questions, landing headfirst into the puddle of the alleyway.
Boring, right? But, by personifying your setting and treating it like you would another character with a personality and awareness of what it’s doing, it becomes more than just scene dressing. It’s here that the magic really begins, and a humdrum scene is brought to vivid life:
Detective Briggs knew he’d asked too many questions, and felt the air rush beneath him as he landed headfirst into a puddle that had begun forming in the alleyway. He felt the city welcoming him in its cold, wet embrace, spitting him out only to take him back in. He remained there, barely held up by his elbows, as clouds poured more rain on top of his head, as if he wasn’t soaked enough. It seemed to be the city’s gift for all of his hard work; maybe the universe had a sense of humor after all. The sleuth looked up at the glimmering moon shining above the dominating skyline, and observed what seemed to be a smiley face formed via the craters that marked its surface. Yes, the universe definitely had a sense of humor.
Your protagonist’s battles against crazed escaped killers, a corrupt department, and his own dark past are further heightened by the dynamic between him and the elements of the natural environment acting against him. Go beyond using settings to only describe the places in which your characters operate. Tirelessly characterize your locations as hellish landscapes of debauchery, avarice, malice, and corruption that seem to be actively fighting against your characters every step of the way.
Dear readers: do you have any favorite book/s where that story’s setting is an active participant in the characters’ plights? If so, share them with me in the comments section below. To all my fellow writers: I’m curious about what kinds of weather you like torturing your characters with most.