Build Tension Through Atmosphere & Mood
Cosmic Horror offers a lot of fun opportunities to create tension through the use of atmosphere. Any genre can do this, and likely should create tension wherever the story calls for it, but cosmic horror has a unique kind of tension to build. Writing cosmic horror requires mastering this key element.
In many stories of the genre, we are not introduced to a monster or even the key plot element right away. Often it is mentioned obliquely as a “thing”. Even the catch-all term for Lovecraftian monsters “eldritch horror” doesn’t do much to describe it. Indeed, these creatures are often indescribable.
Instead, atmosphere is used to create a sense of horror and dread. Something bad is going to happen, or something is wrong. Let’s explore how tension works and how you can use atmosphere to build it.
How Tension Works
Tension, or as my favorite book on writing, Make a Scene by Jordan Rosenfeld puts it, “Dramatic tension is the potential for conflict in a scene.”
This is where we get to have fun! The potential for conflict gives us a lot of room to build up in the mind of our audience uncertainty about what is going to happen. By withholding information we can make sure that the audience stays engaged. If we did our work on the characters right, they would want to see what happens if a conflict does occur.
Tension should be built and released in intervals as we build toward the climax of the story. Detective stories are a great example of this, as the whole plot hinges on slowly revealed information about who committed the crime.
Similarly in comic horror stories, we want to slowly reveal just what foul plot is in play, or what truly unknowable being is hiding behind the skin of our protagonist’s lover.
How to Use the Mood to Build It
Now that we have a solid handle on what tension is, let’s look at mood and atmosphere. These are a kind of ambiance or literal weather that can be employed to create a specific feeling in the audience.
“It was a dark and stormy night,” is a great example of how the weather immediately establishes feelings of fearfulness, of dread. The night by itself is tensionless. Every night is dark by its nature. It is the storminess of it that brings the possibility of conflict. Is the storm something to be feared? Is it a threat? A barrier preventing our protagonist from getting to safety, or trapping them?
You can also use specific sensory elements to create a mood. Strange sounds, sickening smells, and tastes, or even an unexpected chill or an ominous portend can help ratchet up the sense of unease that we want to implant in our audience.
I try to do this in my short story, The Cave. Let’s take a look at three different techniques you can use to build tension, and then at the first two paragraphs of my short story to see how I use them, and if I use them effectively.
Focus the Camera
When writing prose you have a metaphorical camera with which you lay out the scene. You can point the reader’s focus to a particular image, like how a camera can focus in on something in a movie. Because of this anything that you linger on will be given greater importance.
With this in mind, you can highlight potential conflicts that your protagonist perceives. They don’t have to be as blatant as a bloody knife. Although something that shocking can be a great way to build tension, especially if it is found in an unexpected context, like a mall bathroom or a nursery.
It is equally important to not forget that you could inadvertently highlight some detail that is meant to be innocuous but becomes significant in the reader’s mind because of how detailed the description is.
Motifs are repeated images — sights, sounds, smells, etc — that have some sort of metaphoric or symbolic value. They can be used to reflect back to a character their state of being or to foreshadow future events.
A fingerbone, a broken headlight, a piece of some bright blue cloth, the sound of dripping water, the lack of wind, or the unexpected sour taste of a drink can all serve as potential conflicts and thus create tension.
Motifs introduce questions over answers. They can be left ambiguous so that the reader can turn them over in their mind and find their own connections between the events and characters in the plot and the image. You can of course be more explicit, but like the best monsters, the less that is explained the more engrossing they are.
Lack of information can be the cornerstone of creating a truly gripping scene. Or it can just create a truly confusing turd. It is a razor’s edge to walk between giving too little or too much information.
One quick rule of thumb is that questions that begin with a “Why” are likely candidates for behind withheld until the story demands the information is revealed and the tension is released. The audience needs to know who is doing what and why they’re doing it, of course, but beyond that, you have some room to play with withholding information.
This is why it is so important to have beta readers who can give you trusted feedback to let you know when a story is too confusing because of lack of information. Or, when you need to hold back more to really build that tension.
Not knowing why the bloody knife was found in the mall bathroom, or why a toddler was carrying a human fingerbone point to potential conflicts and immediately makes the audience wonder “Why?” and press on, deeper into the story.
Tension is above all, best served in small amounts gradually adding up to create a real sense of dread. Give one small bit of potential conflict at a time, layering each new reveal to ask as many questions as it reveals.
But, be sure to have a good reveal, or the whole story will deflate and the audience will be left disappointed. (Looking at you, Lost).
So let’s take a look at The Cave, shall we?
The waves thundered in Gloria’s ears as she stood in the surf. The vastness of the ocean alternatively filled her with dread and with a strange sense of hope. Anything could be down there in the swirling dark waters, monsters as easily as gold.
She pulled the shawl tighter and shivered as the cold water of the Pacific surged around her legs. She had been standing there so long her feet were buried in the sand. The sun had just begun to touch the edge of the horizon, throwing the small spit of beach she stood on into a din of purples and oranges.
In these first two paragraphs, I attempt to draw the reader in by asking the question, “Why is Gloria here at the beach at sunset? Why is she standing shivering in the surf?”
The first paragraph serves to pan the camera around, establishing that we are at a beach, staring into the dark waters of the ocean. I think I could have cut the commentary of how the ocean made her feel and demonstrated it more, but I wanted to move quickly through the opening to get to the cave — which oddly enough doesn’t show up until two paragraphs later.
In the second paragraph, the water around here is not just cold, but active and her shawl ineffective against its chill. Her feet being buried in the sand could be taken as a symbol of her being stuck in her indecision. The description of the light doesn’t create a sense of a pleasant time watching the sunset, but the “din of purples and oranges” reflects her inner conflict.
I think I could definitely tighten up this section, getting to the Cave in the first two paragraphs. The camera does flow well from image to image, giving us a sense of standing on a beach without spending a ton of time describing the sand. And there’s no explanation why she is here, seemingly alone standing in cold water at sunset.
I think I did alright.
What do you think? What do you think about tension? I’d love to hear from you, so comment below, or sign up for an email alert every time an article goes live. Until next time!