How Atmosphere, Suspense, and Foreshadowing can make or break a scene

I’m a sucker for a scary book. Or a scary scene. Or a particularly chilling snippet of dialogue. Something about it gives me chills of pure delight. When reading we pick up on these notes in a very unconscious way. They are where they’re supposed to be. That is – in the background not unlike the stage props on Broadway. I know I know, when it comes to writing a lot of us learn unconsciously through reading but when you know the mechanics behind what you’re doing it means you get to twist things in new ways instead of relying on all that intuitive learning that lead us to mimic the greats.

So, in honor of all things horribly delightful, I want to talk about atmosphere, suspense, and foreshadowing, and how they can make your prose too delicious to put down.

Atmosphere comes across mostly in setting the scene at the beginning of chapters and it’s all about word choice, and consistency. I think it tends to be the most intuitive of the bunch. Chances are if you read, you’ll end up having some idea how to set the atmosphere for the book.

A Darker Shade final for IreneThe easiest way to do this is through description. Take a look at this passage from V. E. Schwab’s, ‘A Darker Shade of Magic.’

“- every inch of the city, day or night, summer or winter, bore the same pall, as though a fine coat of snow – or ash – had settled over everything. And everyone. The magic here was bitter and mean, and it bled the world’s life and warmth and color, leaching it out of everything and leaving only pale and bloated corpses behind.”

Bitter. Mean. Bled. Leaching. These words have a sinister edge to them, right? One that paints the harsh unforgiving nature of both the place and the people. It sets you up to be on guard and a little unnerved. Can you imagine if she said, and it milked the world’s life and warmth and color?

Paying attention to powerful and descriptive words will get the reader amped up. Kind of like foreplay. Or taking a bath vs taking a bath by candlelight with rose petals and a glass of wine.

Suspense can be a little more tricky, but I think this has a lot to do with what we see in horror movies that rely – most of the time – on build-up music and jump scare. In that way, I think a lot of writers (myself included, unfortunate I know) believe suspense is in hiding information to later jump out and startle the readers. Suspense is actually created when you give information to the readers. One of the best ways I had it explained was in the book, ‘Troubleshooting Your Novel,’ by Steven James.

“Mystery concerns the past; suspense concerns the future. In a mystery, the characters try to solve a crime, piece together a riddle or resolve a conflict. In suspense, they try to stop a crime or tragedy. Mystery appeals to readers’ curiosity, suspense to their concern.”

In other words, if the reader knows the scary thing is in the closet, but the protagonist doesn’t, we’re going to be worried as hell about them every time they get close to that closet door.

On the other hand, if we don’t know what’s in that closet, there’s no build up to when the protagonist finally opens the door and confusion over whatever jumps out. A lot of suspense is triggered by giving a damn about the characters of the story, but I’ll leave that little diversion behind for another day.

Foreshadowing is kind of like a thief isn’t it? (I do love a good thief) Only, instead of taking things it goes back and leaves little treasures behind. A reverse thief. The best thing about it? It saves you from a little pitfall (one I constantly fall into) called coincidence.

Coincidence is when someone passes out during a climactic scene and one of the characters declares, “Let me through I’m a doctor!” Convenient, right? And it takes away all the suspense.

Foreshadowing is when, in an earlier and inconspicuous scene, that same character had the reason or need to show or mention that he was a doctor.

The trick to this is making sure those scenes are, as I said, inconspicuous. One of my61XfS2XCw3L._SX345_BO1,204,203,200_ favorite examples of this is in N. K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season.

There are people referred to as Roggas who can shake the earth (literally) and, also, stop shakes. There are places called node maintainers to stop those devastating shakes from happening.

I won’t get too into it, but let’s say the kids who get relocated there, are fully aware and completely incapable of so much as blinking let alone changing their heart-rending situation.

How does she set up the moment where our main character stumbles into this atrocity? No more than an earlier conversation in which someone (who knew the truth) casually asked, “You’ve never been to a node, I take it.”

So, what are some ways to foreshadow effectively?

If a character has a skill that’s going to be needed for those big moments, make sure it’s oh so subtly addressed beforehand. Kind of like that doctor I mentioned up there.

If there’s an item or relic, introduce it in a discreet manner beforehand. It could be something like a pen a character is always holding until that moment it’s revealed to contain a deadly poison that saves their lives. Or, you know, something along those lines.

Foreshadow who will be present. Instead of having a rightwing hero swinging into the rescue out of thin air to make everything all better again.

 

That’s all I have for you right now. This is a re-boot of some advice I’d written on my abandoned blog back on Blogspot.

I hope it was helpful.

Take care and keep writing.

Bee Rose – The Who, What, Where, and Why

Why Honeybees? Why Ravens? They’re kind of like my night and day. My wit and charm. My bread and butter. We all have them – the little contradictions that make us what we are and challenge us when we seek to become what we want to be. It’s what makes too flesh and blood characters in our grand sagas where every chapter is a year and most of the pages include sitting in front of Netflix after work— until we edit that part out anyway.

What I Offer

My advice. I don’t claim to be a professional, but I’ve dedicated a lot of time and effort into studying story craft, style, marketing, and so on. As much as I love dragons and wish I were one, it’s not healthy to spend one’s life wrapped around your cache with the protective furry of a mother. Remember kinder garden. Sharing is caring.

My goal is simply to share what I’ve learned along my journey and to tell a few good stories along the way.

Where I come from43467572 - painted silhouette peter pan on white brick wall

Neverland – I’d like to say. I’ve never agreed with the concept of growing up. The words taste like a hard life of bitter disappointments, cigarettes, and exhaust fumes from one endless traffic jam. Or maybe I’m projecting.

Spend enough time with me, and it becomes no secret that Peter Pan (the book) is one of my greatest inspirations. It’s not only the fun and adventure that makes up the sweetly smiling face but the shadows that creep between the lines – the darker face of innocence where innocence has no understanding of right from wrong. Peter says never grow up, but Wendy pleas, we must. I say growing up is a great big game of pretend where we make the rules and bend them where we must.

The truth is, I work at a teahouse where my days are filled by brewing tea, writing about tea, teaching about tea, and, of course, drinking tea. I can’t complain because it’s lovely

In Conclusion

There’s still a lot of life out there to live and I don’t think it’s worth exploring without an audience to share it with. Even if that audience happens to be a small collection of semi-dedicated strangers and wayward wanderers.

I want to learn who you are, and, like any desperate artist, I want to share a little of the crazy, colorful, contradicting world inside of me. Bare with me while I figure all this out.

Do you have a blog? Share it in the comments. Any advice? Share that too.