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.
The 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 my 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.