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.