I won’t lie. I’ve been waiting to do this post for ages, as it covers one of my favorite aspects of writing, particularly for the supernatural and horror genres. So I’ve saved the best for last. Today I want to share some tips with you about building a spooktacular setting for your next story. Maybe it’s filled to the brim with creepy stuff, or perhaps it only has fleeting moments of horror. But whatever the case, it’s important to know how to craft a strong element of the heebie-jeebies. Without them, tension will be lost, and you’ll risk losing authenticity and the reader’s connection to your story.
Location, location, location. Ever heard that one before? It’s true that other elements play a factor in building a creepy scene, but environment is pretty dang important. Those of you who have read some of my horror shorts know that I’m a fan of eerie buildings and traditional haunted houses, but your creepy environment certainly doesn’t—and shouldn’t—be limited to such locations. After all, ANY space can be a spooky one, given how you present it in a scene.
For instance, take a child’s playroom. There would likely be tons of toys and cute decorations adorning the space, not to mention fluffy stuffed animals and fuzzy blankets to cuddle. Probably the farthest thing from scary imaginable. But let’s transform that space for a minute. What if some of the toys were broken or floating in mid-air with no logical explanation for the force holding them up? And perhaps the wall decals have been drawn over with sinister images or have peeled from the walls, giving the sense of abandonment or intrusion. Go one step further and have the room be dimly lit, a child’s plaything ripped apart and lying on the floor, stuffing spilling from it with no child in sight, only a lone blanket crumpled next to it and left behind. That sweet, innocent playroom has now shifted into something much less inviting, likely causing the hairs on your neck to prick up. That’s what a stellar setting can do for your story. It can literally up the creep factor tenfold.
The next layer to building a creepy setting is the pace of the scene. The action will drive it, but how you execute it sets the tone. Suspenseful scenes often have quick pacing, giving them a sense of daunting doom that is waiting to break through. A great example of this can be found in Blake Crouch’s collection Fully Loaded. In one of his opening stories, a voicemail of a woman being murdered is left on the answering machine of a young couple. It’s a broken message with small bits of information relayed throughout it, but during the scene, one thing rings true: the pace is fast. Sentences are chopped short, they’re kept simple, and most importantly, there is rapid motion to the words. No flowery language, no extra clauses.
By keeping the sentences short and the action moving forward, Crouch achieves the perfect pace for an intense, suspenseful short story that riddles your body with chills. The subject matter is intense enough, but its execution is everything in that piece.
Sensory Details and Body Language
Let’s delve into sensory details for a moment. If someone tells you that a character is tapping his foot, what do you picture? If someone then tells you to picture someone tapping their foot in the waiting room of the ER with doctors rushing to and fro, machines beeping, and orders being called out from the loudspeakers, how does that imagery change? Does it change further if someone describes the intense, rapid beeping and the overwhelming chatter of “His vitals are dropping!” and nurses and doctors bustling about while that character is brushed to the side of the room, blocked out by the privacy curtains as he runs a hand through his hair and paces? Chances are, the situation has grown clearer with each added detail, and by now, there’s even a sense of emotion surrounding the scene.
Images and body language are your most powerful resources for building setting. If you can create a vivid picture for the reader by providing clear motions and enough sensory details, you’ll automatically set the tone and mood for the scene. Movies often use this approach, focusing on what camera angles work best for the current action and layering in music to add depth of sensory effects on top of things like heavy breathing, a character pacing, their hands trembling, etc. But in books, writers don’t have luxuries like music. We instead must rely on our words for establishing a clear setting and planting the correct mood in the reader’s head, so it’s important to get it right and to couple that with strong body language.
The best way to do this is to incorporate sensory details into the action. Sight is the easiest one to tackle, but I encourage writers to include things like sounds, tastes, smells, and even textural details where fitting. The combination of those is sometimes more powerful than anything sight can provide. For instance, think about the climactic moments in thrillers and horror movies. When the character is waiting in the dark, where they can’t see anything and have to rely on their other senses to detect what’s out there, what kind of effect does it have on them? And what kind of effect does it have on you as the observer? Feelings of anxiety and fear probably overwhelm you in that moment, even though you’re not directly experiencing what the character is. And just like in good movies, good books do the same.
The Human Psyche
Red herrings and intense emotions are probably my favorite tools for manipulating—I mean, crafting—a creepy scene. Cue the shifty eyes, sudden movements, random glass breaking, and off-key organ music. In all seriousness though, knowing how to control and convey emotions in writing can create amazing scenes and give tremendous depth to your story and characters. Tapping into their emotions unlocks a connection with the reader, one that floods you with primal instincts, resulting in a lasting impression. If you take that one step further and create a setting and mood so vivid that the feeling of it comes to life and resonates with the reader, then you’ve accomplished something brilliant. That means long after someone has finished reading your book, they’ll remember it and relive it in their mind. Which, if you ask me, is an awesome compliment, no matter which genre you write.