Friday, January 16, 2015

Conference Insights: Dangerous Settings

Expert writers talk about all kinds of ways to maintain suspense and tension in your manuscript. It's common to hear everything from "Use short sentences" to "Don't spend much time describing anything." And those are excellent suggestions.

Here's one more, from author Jane Cleland in her presentation on techniques to create suspense, from the 2014 Writer's Digest Conference East:

Pick a dangerous setting.

Do what?

I'm glad you asked.

Tone and Feel

Cleland referenced three examples in her discussion.

1. The Everglades are scarier than a beach.
2. A bayou is scarier than a lake.
3. A mountaintop in a blizzard is scarier than a meadow.

It's almost like the connotations of certain words, how they strike some people as scarier or harsher than others.

Uprising has a different tone and feel to it than rebellion or revolution.

A thug is a different person than a hoodlum or a sidekick or a henchman.

Picking just the right word is critical to transfer the correct tone to the reader. In the same way, picking the right setting for each scene can add to the tension the reader feels, or detract from it.

Picture This

Imagine a fight to the death ... on a children's playground.

Now imagine the same fight to the death ... but with the two characters trapped in a rowboat in the middle of a swamp.

It's not that you couldn't write a fight-to-the-death scene at a playground, and maybe after dark, when the place is abandoned and there's a lot of nooks and crannies in which to hide, even that playground could be a potentially dangerous setting.

Caveat

Now, not every setting for every scene needs to feel life-or-death dangerous, of course, and restrictions do apply given different expectations for different genres.

Still, though, each setting should add something to the scene, or underscore the tone that the scene already has, or reveal something about the character.

For instance, a deep sea diver would feel completely at home in a wet suit in the open ocean. There could be nothing dangerous or scary about that scenario. But to a character who nearly drowned as a child and for whom water causes all kinds of horrific flashbacks, being trapped in the middle of the open ocean would be a nightmare.

And even the perspective of the character has an impact on the setting, and how that setting is conveyed.

If your character, Celia, is an incoming high school senior who is the captain of the cheerleading squad this year and has a stellar GPA and a full-ride scholarship to Harvard, she'll enter the first day of high school in a positive frame of mind, and probably notice things like giggling friends grouped in the halls, the energizing hustle and bustle, the cute new guy sitting next to her in English class.

But if your character is an exchange student from another culture who is completely unfamiliar with the social norms and mores of an American high school, or a rebellious wild-child young woman with a chip on her shoulder and a head full of conspiracy theories about authority figures, the same high school setting could be frightening or even dangerous.

In some ways, it's all about your perspective.

Climaxes

Certain plot points lend themselves to more dangerous and exotic settings than others. The biggest one, of course, is the climax --- that pinnacle point at which all the stress and tension and every obstacle and impossibility converge to make life seem as hopeless as possible for your characters.

You can write a climax anywhere, again in keeping with the standards for your particular genre.

But what if you chose to set your climactic scene in a particularly dangerous or creepy or unexpected setting?

You're writing a medieval-era romance. Set your climactic scene in the castle dungeon or the highest tower (and plant the seed earlier that your heroine is deathly afraid of heights).

You're writing science fiction set in outer space. Plan for your climax to take place on the OUTSIDE of the space ship, instead of somewhere on the inside. Or set the climax in the most dangerous part of the ship --- the engine room, the trash compactor (Star Wars Episode IV, anyone?).

If your climax on a nice neighborhood street in broad daylight with a dozen people around is a five out of ten on the suspense scale, how much more suspense could you wring from the scene if you set it in an abandoned street at midnight in the wrong end of town? or in an empty warehouse? or a dark gymnasium after hours?

Play with the possibilities.

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Where in your manuscript are scenes set in just okay settings? What could you do to ramp up the tension? Is there a creepier setting you could use?

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