How many scary stories open with It was a dark and stormy night, with moaning winds and clattering shutters? Or a raging blizzard, with the world awash in white and freezing temperatures? Perhaps a hurricane is due to strike an island town as the seas churn dangerously off the coast, or the telltale whirling funnel of a tornado approaches on a sparse midwestern horizon. As we imagine each ominous sight or sound, our heartbeat quickens. Will the power go out, leaving our protagonist to fend for themselves in the dark? Will they be trapped or forced to seek shelter in some great unknown? These threats spark fear in our hearts: After all, our plucky heroes may have all the bravery, agency, and gritty determination in the world, but no human is any match for Mother Nature. As the seas rise or the winds increase, so does our dread.
Any fictional setting lives and dies by its sense of time and place, and a strong sense of both is essential in horror, where a well-drawn setting can further fuel a plot with suspense and tension. Weather, climate, and season are all core components of time, but place is equally important – especially in a genre where characters are often thrust into a setting that feels unsettling. Think a dilapidated property with a dark past, a gleaming mansion with a forbidden room, a local forest with whispered secrets.
Of course, no matter how scary the setting, characters are the heart of any horror story’s impact on its reader. Most of the fear we experience as we read is for our protagonist: We need to be given a reason to become invested in this character and their goals in order to care if they live or die.
Creating atmosphere on the page begins with selecting the right concrete details and deploying them at the right time and in the right order.
But we also need to feel as if we are moving through this terrifying world with these characters, not staring idly at them from a distance. Their dread becomes our dread; their fear becomes our fear. If we can fully picture the decaying staircase our heroine is currently descending, we’ll shriek right along with her when the stair under her foot gives way.
Creating atmosphere on the page begins with selecting the right concrete details and deploying them at the right time and in the right order. These details allow readers to get a foothold in the fictional world our characters inhabit, and we need readers to feel deeply immersed in our story in order to be scared by it. The goal is to provide enough brushstrokes for readers to fill in any remaining blank space with the tremendous power of their imagination, but not so many that we micromanage the scene into a paint-by-numbers affair.
Unfortunately, there is no magic formula for knowing which detail is extraneous and which is missing, and even if there were such a formula, it would constantly change depending on our story’s length, genre, and individual needs.
How, then, can we determine how much is too much and how much is too little? One strategy is to examine how other authors render atmosphere on the page. Print a short story you love or an excerpt of a favorite horror novel. Highlight every mention of setting on the page. Note how the author deploys them in balance with other crucial storytelling components, like action, characterization, dialogue, or backstory. Consider how the author releases this information to the reader: Are you given only brief mentions of weather, time of day, or location, neatly tucked in sentences that also advance the plot? Does the author devote whole sentences or paragraphs to time and place? If so, how do these passages evoke mood, establish stakes, or provoke unease?
Soon it will be time to roll up your sleeves and attempt it yourself. Mastering setting and pacing is like learning to drive a stick shift transmission: It’s difficult to teach, learned by doing, executed by feel, and potentially humiliating on your first few attempts. Eventually, though, you’ll get a sense for the transitions. With practice and guidance, you’ll shift easier and stall less, going farther and farther each time – until your readers don’t even notice your hand in the game. They’ll only know they’ve arrived.
—Nicki Porter served as the editor of The Writer from 2016 to 2022; she previously served as its associate editor. Before helming The Writer, she worked as a food editor for Madavor Media and America’s Test Kitchen. She’s also written for a number of publications and spoken at writing conferences across the country. Learn more at nickiporter.com.Originally Published