A story's setting is often considered as another character, but settings are much more than that. Settings can enhance the mood, complement the theme, add an element of surprise, or create tension right before a thrilling moment. Let's take a look at a couple of settings that do just that
Cissy's short story, "Mayhem on the Mountain" is a great example of how a "fish-out-of-water" element can draw in readers. She's presented a cadre of zany ranch characters: the groundskeeper, Leonard, who believes he's a warlock; the dishwasher, Lester, who's suffering from PTS; and Indian, who uses his lodge for more than detoxing his sweat glands. But what you don't expect is a group of teenage ninjas on a test mission to prove their mettle so they can move on to bigger and better things. The following paragraph ties it all together: a full moon, figures dressed in black pursued by cowboys, and ninja stars whizzing through the air:
My eyes quickly adjusted to the moon-filled night and we began to distinguish the varied figures darting through the woods. Figures dressed in black were running madly toward the entrance of the ranch with eight cowboys chasing after them. Something swooshed past my head and clanged against the metal side of the trailer. I looked down and picked up the shiny object. A cold shiver shot up my neck when I realized I'd narrowly missed having my ear sliced off. The object was a silver martial-arts star.
The appearance of teenage ninjas who've been duped by their mentor is unexpected and adds an element of humor. Other fish-out-of-water settings are found in Carl Hiaasen's novels. You don't expect to find an ex-governor of Florida living in an old car in the Everglades. How about alien E.T. living with a suburban Earth family and trick-or-treating with his new friends on Halloween?
Take a look at another scene in which the setting enhances the mood of more danger to come. In my book, Murder at the Galvez, Sydney has just stumbled upon a dead body. She flees a place that's always offered her serenity, Galveston's Pleasure Pier, which juts into the Gulf of Mexico. As she nears the end of the pier, fog rolls in dragging with it a sense of doom and desperation.
The stench of dead bait from Fallow's bait shop still lingered in my nasal passages. I walked out onto the pier, inhaled the salt air, and listened to the gulls and the sound of my heels tapping on the wooden planks, hoping my racing heart would not explode from my chest.
Except for a few fishermen, the place was uncomfortably quiet. The fog had become heavy, wrapping me in a blanket of light mist. I could no longer see the end of the pier, and all of a sudden, I felt too vulnerable for my own good. Even the seagulls had stopped calling, or maybe they'd left to find a better stretch of beach.
Sydney realizes she's put herself in a vulnerable situation which gives the killer the perfect opportunity to make Sydney his next victim. The Pleasure Pier makes a perfect setting: there is no exit, and the fog obscures vision and stifles sound. There's no place for Sydney to go and no place to hide. She's become a sitting for duck for the killer.
In his Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook, literary agent and author Donald Maass advises to "Take them [characters] anywhere and show us how they fell about the place, or how the places make them feel, and you will reveal to us volumes about their inner frozenness, or growth."
Think of a powerful setting as icing on the cake.
A few weeks ago, I attended the Chanticleer Authors Conference in Bellingham, Washington. My latest mystery, Run Dog Run, had made the "Mystery and Mayhem" short list. I attended hoping my book would win, but knowing the competition was fierce. I didn't come home with the grand prize, but I gained some helpful writing tools as a consolation.
On the last day of the conference, I attended Jessica Page Morrell's all-day class, "Writing Craft Sessions that Will Take Your Work to the Next Level." It was the best six hours of the entire three days and it was just what I needed. The morning session focused on the details of plotting, and the afternoon dealt with the necessity of learning from great writers. The information was so useful, I bought Morrell's book, Between the Lines: Master the Subtle Elements of Fiction Writing. Her third chapter, "Cliffhangers and Thrusters," caused me to take a closer look at my work-in-progress, a hardboiled detective novel set in the 1940s.
Morrell describes thrusters as structural devices, usually placed at the beginning of a chapter or scene, that push the story ahead and keep readers turning the pages. Cliffhangers, of which I'm sure you are familiar, are actually thrusters that occur at the end of a chapter or scene, or even a book if you're writing a series. This technique was not new to me, but it was something I needed to revisit.
After reading this chapter, I noted that my cliffhangers weren't too bad. Here are three examples:
"The only thing he accomplished since taking this case was screwing his client's wife."
"The next time Kendrick laid eyes on Roman, he promised himself he'd slit the guy's throat."
"The snarl on her lip had disappeared, but the look of disdain had hardened."
My thrusters needed work, however. Here are three examples:
"Kendrick took a taxi back to the hotel."
"It was just past nine when Kendrick called Damien Carver at his office."
"New York City was a great place to live." (This one made me cringe.)
Now, take a look at three cliffhangers and three thrusters from New York Times bestselling author Harlan Coben's The Stranger:
"Did you fake your pregnancy?"
"It was two in the morning when Adam remember something-or, to be more precise, someone."
"She attached the image to the e-mail and typed two words before hitting send: HE KNOWS."
"The stranger didn't shatter Adam's world all at once." (This is the opening line of the book!)
"The stranger hated to do this one."
"It was amazing how many things could happen in a single moment."
The take-home message: no matter how much you absorb, no matter how much you write, no matter how many books you've gotten published, the learning process never stops.
That terrible thruster, "New York City was a great place to live," now reads: "It was ten in the morning. Kendrick didn't care. He ordered an ice-cold draft and toasted the Big Apple."