Iconic thrillers benefit from exceptional settings. In today’s competitive publishing environment, authors need every possible advantage to shine. But how do we know if the setting is integral to the work, perhaps even becoming an important character? Simple. If the story was set anywhere else other than the chosen locale, the novel just wouldn’t work. Would Greg Isle’s masterwork Natchez Burningwork if it was set in California instead of Mississippi? Nope. WouldThe Third Man work anyplace but Vienna? Not a chance. What if the Number One Ladies Detective Agency was set in Chicago instead of Botswana? Don’t think so.
The setting can set the mood or ambiance for the story as well as increase tension. But the modern world does conspire against thriller writers using setting to enhance the peril. Most of us live in a place where a call to 9-1-1 will bring help in under ten minutes. The internet gives historically unrivalled access to information to everyone. We can order a cornucopia of items online to be delivered the next day. In this world, the author is seriously challenged to use setting to increase tension or peril. But there are a few ideas authors can consider to dial up the tension:
1. Shrink the time frame so that resources and help cannot arrive in time to assist the protagonist. Four minutes is an eternity if an axe-wielding man is chopping through the door. Threats with very tight timelines will obviate the ability of the hero to access resources, and correct mistakes that occur. Recent television demonstrates this trend, with “24” as the most obvious example.
Turn the setting on its head, making the safe haven into new peril. What if the police are the threat? What if the computers you rely on are turned against you? “Weaponizing the familiar” forces the reader to consider the common in a new and unsettling way. Beaches usually conjure up warm, relaxing fun…that is, until Jaws came along. Horror movies turned basements from a handy storage area into sheer mayhem. And psychological thrillers (AKA domestic thrillers) set inside a home or neighborhood makes us wonder just what Bob does when he’s not cutting the lawn. Getting the reader to second guess, or be afraid of commonplace settings is a brilliant technique, something Linwood Barclay excels at.
3. Take your characters into the wilderness, miles from law enforcement, medical care or communications. If the protagonist is new to the environment, we can be introduced to the setting through the character’s frightened eyes. The “stranger in a strange land” can’t distinguish what’s dangerous in the environment and what’s harmless, and this can be carefully balanced to keep the reader on the razor edge of tension. Similar levels of setting tension can be achieved with an “expert” protagonist who will educate the reader, as done so brilliantly in Karen Dionne’s The Marsh King’s Daughter.
4. This leads us to the nuclear option. You can turn up the setting to 11 by placing your international thriller in a failed state, a country where the government is so ineffective they can’t provide the basic necessities of security and infrastructure to the population. These countries are usually in the midst of a civil war, with various factions supported by the traditional international powers of the United States, Russia or China. We are seeing an even wider panoply of international players as countries like France, Italy, Spain, and Portugal have shed their post-colonial recalcitrance and are becoming fully re-engaged in these unfortunate places. No police, no hospitals, no internet, no phones…just full auto weapons fire and mortar rounds. It’s difficult to imagine a better place to set a thriller than a failed state. Who’s in for a research trip to Libya?
Great post about ramping up the tension with various settings….you are so right about how in today's environment of instant communications – it can be challenging to keep the hero or heroine in peril. We often enjoy watching some of the old TV mysteries (e.g. 'Murder She Wrote" and PBS shows by Agatha Christie) and sit there remembering how no one had cell phones and had to search for a phone booth to summon help! Thanks for all of your great tips for authors endeavoring to craft great thrillers just like you do….Karna Bodman
You are so right about setting, KJ. And I'll be teaching it next week in ITW's Thriller School! One of my fave examples is the classic movie Casablanca … could it have been set anywhere but French Morocco in World War II? I don't think so!
I love to make the city a character in my books, especially highlighting unique historical events and the extreme weather. But I never thought of using it to intensify the action quite like this!
Setting as character. You often hear about it as a writer, but it's a bit elusive without concrete examples. This post puts it all into perspective!
Thanks, Karna. I love setting…it's one of my favourite features of novels. You've had some stellar ones in your books!
Sign me up for that class, Gayle! Totally agree about Casablanca.
So happy you found the post helpful, Lisa. I love using setting in every way I can. And I also enjoy the research trips.
Thanks, Robin. And it is a tricky topic. Hard to explain all of its impressions.
Loved this take on setting and writing! I, too, often utilize "failing states" as settings. A famous movie I remember was The Year Of Living Dangerously, which was set in Indonesia during the overthrow of a president. The setting added to the exotic and dangerous feel of that movie! Thanks for the interesting post!
Setting is so important, in all fiction. This is a great take on how to use it to the best advantage. Thanks.