Tension Skyrockets When You Tweak the Setting

by Marylee MacDonald in For Writers Doing Revisions

Use setting to heighten tension in a story. Put a character in a place she or he doesn’t feel physically or psychologically comfortable, and you immediately inject tension into the scenes. Will she or won’t she figure out how to cope?

In my story “Oregano,” Janice Dawkins comes in at the end of a long day to find a cluttered service porch. The mess enrages her, but she stuffs it down. The mess in the character’s private space sets up the story’s conflict. Watch me read this story about a woman ready to bust up her marriage on account of a plant. It’s not a flashy story, but setting makes the story tense.

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Setting is not like the painted canvas in a theater, hanging inertly behind the performers. In fiction, setting adds story ,tension and tension is what keeps readers turning the page. There are three kinds of setting we ought to be thinking about as we write. One is private space, the second is work space, and the third is public space.

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Private space is our home, car, or hotel room. By describing a private setting in detail, writers allow readers to infer a great deal about the world the character has constructed for him or herself. None of us would live in a home where we can’t relax. At home, we’re seeking a haven. When something disrupts that private space, we’re not going to like it. The tension ramps up.

Mess Equals Tension

You can find a similar rise in tension in Laura M. Flynn’s Swallow the Ocean: A Memoir (Counterpoint Press). Here, the narrator describes her childhood apartment.

The mess that had been steadily overtaking every surface in the apartment since my father left stretched before us in all directions. Mail had accumulated near the front door, first on the shelves of the console table, but now it extended in unstable piles along the wall halfway to the living room, which was in turn a confusion of color and texture. Layers of clothing, papers, and toys blanketed the floor. Books pulled off the shelves but not put back circled the bookshelves. Records—some exposed, some in their white slips, some still in the album covers—fanned out in a widening arc at the foot of the stereo. Near the couches, fat metal knitting needles, holding twenty or so uneven lines of scarf, were jammed into balls of yarn—projects my older sister Sara and I had abandoned.

By simply looking at the objects the narrator holds up for our inspection, readers can infer that something is amiss. We don’t know quite what, but the description of this disorderly private space makes us yearn to know more. Curiosity, as well as our sense that the disorder needed to be fixed, pulls us into the story.

What’s So Bad About Disorder (Or, What’s So Good)?

Disorder puts pressure on the characters, unless you’re a complete slob, and then your neatnik roommate drives you crazy. The plot of a short story, memoir, or novel can hinge on “fixing” the setting so that the character can comfortably live in it. Or not.

The other possibility is that the disorder is so great that the character can never live there and ultimately decides to leave. In some stories, disorder in the protagonist’s private space sets the plot in motion.

Work Space

Let’s look now at work space. If the home is the foreground of our setting, then the office is the middle distance.

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In stories with office settings, such as Daniel Orozco’s “Orientation” (Orientation and Other Stories; Farrar, Straus, and Giroux), it’s the impersonality of the environment that adds story tension.

Those are the offices and these are the cubicles. That’s my cubicle there, and this is your cubicle. This is your phone. Never answer your phone. Let the Voicemail System answer it.

A dead voice simply shows us the objects in the setting and leaves it to the reader to infer what kind of work place this is going to be. Reading this, I felt trapped. That’s great for tension. That deadpan voice induces a “flight-or-fight” response.

Not “Feelings-Neutral”

No setting should be “feelings-neutral,” nor should setting be exactly what we’d expect. If you’re writing a story about the suburbs, invest those suburbs with emotion, just as Josh Mohr does in Fight Song (Softskull Press). Make the details so fresh that we experience these suburbs the same way the character experiences them.

Way out in a puzzling universe known as the suburbs, Bob Coffen rides his bike to work. He pedals and pants and perspires past all the strip malls, ripe with knockoff shoe stores, chain restaurants, emporiums stuffed with the latest gadgets, and watering holes deep enough that the locals can drown their sorrows in booze. Each plaza also contains at least one church, temple, or synagogue—a different way altogether to drown one’s sorrows.

The setting—suburbia–puts pressure on Bob Coffen, and that’s before we know anything about his conflicts with other characters or with himself.

Public Spaces

What about public spaces, especially those that aren’t as familiar as the neighborhood mall? Here, I’m talking foreign settings or settings where the character faces physical or psychological danger.

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Put a character in a slum, and the reader’s danger-antennas shoot up. By describing the particulars, as Aleksandar Hemon does in Love and Obstacles (Penguin Group), the slum becomes as vivid and frightening to the reader as it is to the protagonist.

Spinelli and Natalie picked me up at the crack of dawn; the light was still diffused by the residues of the humid night. We drove toward the slums, against the crowd marching in antlike columns: men in torn shorts and shreds for shirts; women wrapped in cloth, carrying baskets on their heads, swollen-bellied children trotting by their sides; emaciated, long-tongued dogs following them at a hopeful distance. I had never seen anything so unreal in my life. We turned onto a dirt road, which turned into a car-wide path of mounds and gullies. The Land Rover stirred up a galaxy of dust, even when moving at a low speed. Shacks misassembled from rusty tin and cardboard were lined up above a ditch, just about to tumble in. I understood what Conrad meant by inhabited devastation. A woman with a child tied to her back dipped clothes into tea-colored water and slapped the wet tangle with a tennis racket.

As a reader, I desperately wanted the Land Rover to turn around. I just knew something bad was about to happen. This is why writers often place thrillers in exotic settings. When a character must depend on other people to navigate new territory, and when that navigator is unreliable, this adds story tension.

Hints That Something Is About to Happen

At its core, every story needs something to happen. The setting itself can be part of a story’s dynamic change. Here is what Annie Proulx has to say about settings that are in flux (The Missouri Review, Issue 22.2, Spring, 1999).

I long ago fell into the habit of seeing the world in terms of shifting circumstances overlaid upon natural surroundings… The characters in my novels pick their way through the chaos of change.

Think about her story, “Brokeback Mountain:” traditional cowboy heroes violate old taboos. What gives that story its emotional weight is that we don’t imagine cowboys falling in love.

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In San Francisco the story of two male lovers would not have the same power, but a rural setting heightens the tension because we know these guys are going to have to sneak around. The more powerful their attraction, the more they find themselves in conflict with the environment.

Setting cannot be incidental. By taking the trouble to place the story in a particular setting, an author can set the mood of the story and lay the groundwork for the actors to play their parts. To raise tension even more, place the actors on a moving stage and watch them scramble.


  • Marylee MacDonald

    Marylee MacDonald is the author of MONTPELIER TOMORROW, BONDS OF LOVE & BLOOD, BODY LANGUAGE, and THE BIG BOOK OF SMALL PRESSES AND INDEPENDENT PUBLISHERS. Her books and stories have won the Barry Hannah Prize, the Jeanne M. Leiby Memorial Chapbook Award, a Readers' Favorites Gold Medal for Drama, the American Literary Review Fiction Prize, a Wishing Shelf Book Award, and many others. She holds an M.A. in Creative Writing from San Francisco State, and when not reading or writing books, she loves to walk on the beach and explore National Parks.

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