Vision: A Resource for Writers
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Holly Lisle's Vision

Horror

Introduction to Horror Part 3: 
Setting in Horror Fiction

By Teresa Hopper

© 2002, Teresa Hopper

One element that is easy to overlook when writing a novel is setting.  You’re busy trying to make your characters real and your plot interesting and complex, and what difference does the setting make anyway?

You may not have given your story’s setting much more thought than which town it’ll be in, but if this is the case you’re missing a great opportunity to add another dimension to your work. With a little careful forethought, your setting can add atmosphere and originality to your novel.

In its most basic element, the setting of your story is the ‘where and when’ of it.  Setting gives your story a context. One of the things that I love most about horror fiction is that it is so flexible when it comes to setting. If you’ve been thinking that writing horror limits you in your choice of where and when, think again, for as I’m going to show you, with horror you can turn your hand to almost anything.

The increasingly popular device of alternative history is a great way of coming up with an original setting. You might not think of alternate history as having anything to do with horror fiction, but Laurell K. Hamilton has used it with great success in her very popular Anita Blake vampire hunter novels. Although set in our world and time, the difference is that ghosts, monsters, and demons are real, known about by everyone, and that vampires have been made legal citizens. Another popular novel is 48 by James Herbert, set in a post World War II London where Hitler has released a deadly blood disease that has killed most of the population. The Second World War seems to be a fertile ground for alternative historians, but you can twist any historical event into the basis for your story.

Another major setting choice is the time period your story is set in. The majority of horror fiction on the shelves in bookstores is set in the present day, but that doesn’t mean that it’s the only option available. Many writers have experimented with horror set in different times than our own. Anne Rice has written books set in various times including ancient Rome, ancient Egypt, and Renaissance Europe; Paul Docherty has written horror stories set in the mediaeval world; Tom Holland sets his horror in various time periods.

You may wonder how you write realistically about a time that you’ve never experienced - don’t all the writing books advise you to write about what you know? They do, and that’s fine if you want to write about your hometown, but not so great if you want to set a horror story in the last days of the Byzantine Empire. In this case you have to learn about your setting by research, and lots of it. Go to your local library or bookstore, or search the Internet, and you will find references detailing almost any time period or historical event.

Another element that can have a dramatic effect on your story is the location that you choose. As humans, we connect places strongly with emotion, and writers can make the most of this. We have preconceived ideas of what places are like; for example the American deep south brings to mind hot sweaty nights and the mystery of voodoo; deserts bring to mind bleakness, danger, and heat and the insignificance of man compared to the landscape. These are, of course, mostly stereotypes, and I’m not suggesting for a minute that you stereotype your setting.  If you either know your location or have researched it well, you can show what the place is really like. But be aware that these emotional connections exist, because they give you an extra tool - it is easier to surprise your reader if you already have an idea of what they are expecting.

Which brings us on to the next point about setting and how it can relate to your story – you can set it in what I will call ‘often used’ or ‘unusual’ locations for horror. The expected ones are obvious – a haunted house, a graveyard, or a castle.  These kinds of locations are often used and are very familiar to fans of the genre. I personally love these kinds of creepy settings, and there is a reason they are classics – they evoke a sense of dread before you even start with the ghastly goings-on, and this gives you a helping hand creating the mood and atmosphere. The down side is that these locations have already been over-used, and you will find it more difficult to to surprise and shock your reader.  This is one of the most important aspects of horror; it’s hard to scare a reader if they know what is coming next. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t use these locations, but bear in mind what has been done before, and try to use the location in a new way, giving it your own twist.

The ‘unusual’ locations are the ones that you don’t normally associate with horror – an office building, or a playground. These kinds of settings haven’t been used as much, and your reader doesn’t go in knowing what is going to happen next. When the horrid and unexpected happens, the shock value is all the greater, and to my mind much scarier. The downside to this kind of setting is that you will have to work harder to create a scary mood.  However, don’t be afraid to attempt it, because if you succeed, it will be much more effective.

A similar situation exists with setting your horror during the day or the night. Traditionally, the action in horror stories happened during the night, as it is so much easier to create fear when your character is in a deserted house in the middle of the night than when they are standing in bright sunshine. But again, this is a bit of an over-used formula, and writers are increasingly setting their horror during the day as well. Sometimes it is unavoidable to have all the action during the night, as with vampire stories for example, but I think it's good to avoid, wherever possible, the situation where the bad things happen at night and your characters are safe by day. If you want a good example of how to create a scary scene during the day, read The Shining by Stephen King, which has a number of such scenes.

I hope that you can now see how important setting can be to your horror story, and how much a good setting can add to it. So next time you get a story idea, spend a little time on your setting, and your manuscript could be all the stronger for it.