Sunday, October 24, 2010

Suspenseful Places

A little announcement before I get started. The first book in my Jo Epstein series, ASK THE DEAD has been published by Ampichellis Ebooks for both the Kindle and the Nook. If you have a reader, you may want to check out these links:
OK - enough promotion!

Today I'm writing about how choosing a particular setting for your story can create a suspenseful atmosphere from the "get go."

Alan Furst is a master at evoking the dark atmosphere of Europe during World War II - a place and time so fraught with tension and danger that the reader is immediately drawn in, even before the action starts. For example, "The Foreign Correspondent" opens on a rainy street in Paris in 1938. A Lancia rolls to a stop and then the chauffeur drives a few feet further and stops in the shadows between two streetlamps. Who could possibly stop reading at this point?

But what if you’re writing a story that is set in a more commonplace, less resonant setting than WWII—how can you make the setting work for you from the start? My own way of dealing with this dilemma is to ask myself, “What does my protagonist care about? Fear? And what setting is most likely to threaten or arouse a feeling of dread within her?”

It can be subtle—for example, a scene set in an apartment building in New York might include a burnt-out light bulb in the hallway or a window off an airshaft through which we can hear the sound of neighbors quarreling. Or it can be blatant—for example, your protagonist is on the run and is forced to sleep in a car under a viaduct in a strange city, waking up every few minutes to check her surroundings, clutching a can of pepper spray in her hand. In either case I think you’ve done your job is the reader feels apprehension and if the story is propelled forward both emotionally and physically.

I’d love to hear from my readers about their favorite openings—whether written by their favorite author or themselves. So please comment away!


  1. I like the contrast when an opening scene is the opposite of what one would expect. A beautiful day, a walk in the woods, a pool of wet blood on the trail.

  2. Nausland started Ahab's Wife with this:
    "He was not my first husband nor my last." Not what I expected as the book is about the girl who makes her way to the sea captain's life. This line set the anticipation of a riotous journey.

    Glad I found your log. Look forward to your insight on writing and strategies to keep the muse a flight.

  3. Thanks Pat and Lisa for two great examples of how to set up a story!