Horror is unique among all genre fiction in that it lends itself beautifully to today’s topic on the Writer’s Corner: the five best ways to establish a setting for your story.
When I think about setting the stage for a story, there are innumerable writers who immediately come to mind. Shirley Jackson and her influential novel The Haunting of Hill House is at the top of the list. The titular haunted house of her story has readers just as nervous to see what’s hiding around the next corner as it does the characters who populate it. Not far behind her is Stephen King and his forever accursed small towns that always make us take a second look into ourselves near as often as we look over our shoulders for ghouls of the night. Bram Stoker, another favorite of mine, and a writer who has found a way to stay as relevant today as he was with the publication of the gothic horror novel Dracula in 1897.
While the setting of your story is important regardless of what you are writing, horror fiction always thrives on a great setting as much as they do on characters, plot, or any other element a story can offer.
And so it is strange, that for all of the books I have read, the first thing that comes to mind when I think of how to best create an atmospheric setting is a video game.
Alien: Isolation was published by Sega in 2014 and has since become the goalpost for many horror fanatics for what it means to create a truly lived-in world. I would not bring it up if I did not think that it held merit to today’s topic, but the world of Alien: Isolation is not one of a standard video game. It is literary in its painstaking attention to detail, and the way that the developers fleshed out the world is something that all writers, regardless of genre or form, can learn something from.
So, let’s get comfortable and continue this discussion over there, in the dark.
What was that sound?
Alien: Isolation takes place on Sevastopol station, a massive (but now defunct) space station that was once home to thousands of people working for the Seegson Corporation. Amid the shutdown of the station, chaos erupts as androids begin to turn on the remaining humans, and worse, an alien organism has broken loose, lurking in the shadows, and preying on the people who stray too far from their holdouts in search of food or water.
We control the character Amanda Ripley as she searches Sevastopol station for clues about her mother’s disappearance fifteen years prior (see the film Alien, 1979).
As we walk through the derelict station, we can hear the hollow sounds of lights flickering in the distance, see the shadows cast by them, get a sense of the dead, stale air through character dialogue. It is cold there. And lonely, surrounded by signs of what was once a bustling space colony, full of life and hope for the future.
Isolation does a great job of utilizing the senses in every conceivable way, and great writers, like Jackson or King, always do the same.
When creating a setting, ask yourself, what does this place feel like? Does it smell like it has been cleaned in a while or does it give off the sterile stench of a hospital, where one gets the impression the smell is to cover the scent of death?
Obviously, this is easy to do with horror, but what does your character’s space say about them? How does their office establish workplace culture? This will be up for you to decide, but how your characters fit into their world will often give your readers a better sense of who they are, and what readers are in for when they choose to spend time with your characters.
Always choose the right words.
Notice I went a step further than just letting you know that Sevastopol station was in a bad way. It wasn’t just defunct; it was derelict. It didn’t once contain a lot of workers; it was populated by lots of people. And we aren’t just looking out for the bad guys, we are searching for ghouls hiding in the shadows, where danger lurks around every corner.
As with all writing, language matters, and choosing the right words to describe your setting is often the difference between everything falling flat and your world coming to life.
But choose them wisely, words that work for horror might not be ideal for your epic western/romance novel, or the intense political thriller you’ve been dreaming about. Certain settings will call for specific descriptors. Consider them as you begin to create your world.
The best way to decide what kind of language you want to use typically begins by deciding what kind of story you are trying to tell. Is it a romantic-fantasy novel, set in a world with fairies and unicorns that should be written, as George RR Martin might say, written in the language of dreams? Or is it, as in the case of Alien, a story set deep in space, where no one can hear you scream?
Reading your favorite authors, or even authors who write very well in the genre you are writing in can be a good exercise. Do not pay attention to what they are saying, but rather how they are saying it. You shouldn’t copy them, but understanding why they chose a particular word over another can be telling about both genre and setting, and the lexicon that comes with it. The right words can paint the portrait of the world you are creating, be it one where valiant knights defend the realm, or one where a lone hero treks through cantankerous, treacherous halls, vying only for her survival, fighting desperately against all odds.
Who goes there?
And while we are bringing worlds to life, it is important to remember that settings require life. Who surrounds your characters? Who do they pass in the streets? Who do they say hello to in passing at work? Who drives the plot forward that isn’t one of the central characters?
When we enter the space station for the first time, we are not alone. Ripley, the main character, enters with a crew that she is quickly separated from as she goes in search of medical supplies for an injured crewmate.
As she searches the station, she encounters many of the remaining denizens (both good and bad), and they help to fill out the world. Interestingly, they help the story along because many of them are driven by the position that the station has left them, molded by desperation and showing their true colors; some are heroes, and some descend into madness and villainy.
So, as you write, consider that whatever world you are building should feel as if it is lived-in, and that people (perhaps even your main character), have been there for a long time. How has their world changed them? What can we learn about the setting from them?
What items can be found in the world?
As I mentioned, the world of Alien: Isolation is a lonely one, but it is clear that Sevastopol station used to be a burgeoning community that was once thriving. As we walk through the now empty halls, we can pass by now empty bars, restaurants, and the occasional arcade. Sometimes a radio has been left on.
There are signs of life all around, the remnants of better times long forgotten to all except the cold gray walls. Occasionally, we can find a journal entry, written report, or an audio log left by a side character we will never meet that helps give exposition about what actually happened on the station, and reveals little-by-little how this sci-fi dream turned into a Lovecraftian nightmare. From corruption within a corporate level, to intentional sabotage by lower level employees scorned by their employers, tired of the way they had been treated, the station is overflowing with endless minor details that continue to tell the story in an indirect way. Details like these continue to create a sense of otherness and immersion, and perhaps even something we can relate to.
Occasionally we find a tragic goodbye letter stained by tears or blood that almost certainly never made it to the intended recipient.
So what does this mean for your world?
Little details matter.
Consider this: Your main character visits with a friend they have not seen in some time. The friend is driving a nice car, wearing designer clothes, and drinking Starbucks.
Your MC walks through the halls of a pleasant home in which their friend is now living, full of luxuries. Your MC can’t help but notice there is a small pile of unpaid credit card bills on the table once their friend excuses themselves for a moment.
How is life going for them?
Let’s delete all of that and try again.
Your MC enters a rundown motel, and finds their old friend renting a room there. We enter the room, and it smells of fast food, cheap whiskey, and the sickness that comes with too much alcohol. There is some stubble on their face, they are wearing a wrinkled shirt, and they smell about as nice as the room.
Now how are they doing? Better? Worse? What would your readers think?
The world, be it horror or not, can often be dictated by the little details, and this doesn’t matter whether it is a small rundown motel room detailed on paper or a fully 3D world that has been completely rendered on Xbox.
And Sevastopol station is full of tiny details. Unfortunately for the player, most of them are signs of horrors to come.
There’s something in the vents.
Finally, your setting should be just as much a character as anyone else that appears on the page.
While this might seem like a no brainer now, it never ceases to amaze me how many times a friend will ask me to critique their story or novel, and I will come away feeling that something is just missing.
Oftentimes, it is the setting of their world. Writers will spend a time researching painstaking detail upon painstaking detail of every conceivable element imaginable, right down to the shoe size of a given character or what their star sign says about them, but will frequently miss the mark entirely when it comes to creating the stage on which their drama takes place.
As we walk through Sevastopol station, the world never once lets us forget that it is very much alive. We creep through enemy territory, praying that it isn’t the Alien we hear bumping around in the air vents above, just waiting for us to make a mistake. Or the now evil androids lurking around the corner, their intention determined by their eyes either glowing a safe greenish tint or a dark red. I’ll let you guess which is the one we don’t want to see.
The same principles can be applied to any story. Your characters finally sit down for the tense conversation. A helicopter buzzes by, cars creep by in the distance, a neighbor who has a dog (or a child) that won’t stop yapping, there are dark clouds forming in the distance, signaling, no, heralding the arrival of something so much worse.
Your world is just as much a part of the story as anything else, so treat it as such. Spend time fleshing out your derelict space station, and you will be surprised just how much it will affect the story.