Killer Atmosphere: How to Create a Setting for Thrillers

Doug Landsborough
September 22, 2023

How to Create a Setting for Thrillers

What sounds more suspenseful: a serial killer chasing their victim through a maze of tight corridors in an abandoned hospital or a serial killer chasing their victim down a wide, well-lit street?

I mean, don’t get me wrong, I personally don’t want to be chased by a serial killer anywhere. Not on my bucket list. But, from a thriller author’s and reader’s perspective, it’s clear which would make for a more intense scene.

That’s because the setting in a thriller novel makes a massive difference on how your words are read. Settings have the ability to grab your reader and pull them into your writing, twisting their imagination however you want. And that’s one heck of a powerful tool for a thriller author.

So, in this article, we’re going to learn how to create a setting for thrillers and how to best harness the power settings can provide. That includes:

  • Understanding the elements of settings
  • Establishing the right atmosphere
  • Choosing the right location
  • Using the senses to your advantage
  • Incorporating historical and cultural influences

So lock the doors, hide the evidence, and let’s dive into thriller settings.

Understanding the Elements of Gripping Thriller Settings

When it comes to the art of crafting a suspenseful, gripping thriller setting, you need to become an expert in crafting a few key elements. 

We’re going to dive into each of these thriller elements individually, but here’s a quick overview to get your imagination juices flowing (and yes, I intentionally used “juices” and I’m not sorry about it).

Atmospheric Backdrops

A successful thriller setting goes beyond superficial descriptions; it envelopes readers in a world that resonates and even plays with their emotions. 

It doesn’t matter if it’s the ominous silence of a haunted mansion or the tense energy of a bustling city street. Immerse your readers in the scene, allowing them to taste the fear and feel the adrenaline.

Tension-Enhancing Locations

The right location can elevate tension to new heights in a thriller novel. Consider the impact of a claustrophobic underground bunker versus an expansive, desolate wilderness. 

Your setting should be more than a mere stage; it should actively contribute to the plot, influencing your characters' decisions and actions. A remote, isolated island can intensify the sense of isolation and desperation, while a densely packed metropolis offers numerous hiding spots, heightening the stakes in a thrilling chase.

Always think about the why behind your setting locations.

Sensory Immersion

Transport your readers into the heart of your thriller by appealing to their senses. Way too many authors, especially those writing their first or second novel, are too reliant on just what their characters can see but completely neglect the other senses.

Engage sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch to paint a multi-dimensional experience. The haunting echoes of footsteps in an abandoned asylum, the acrid smell of gunpowder in a high-stakes standoff, the taste of rotting meat in an abandoned abattoir—such sensory details create a visceral connection that makes the setting come alive.

Time and Era Influences

The historical context or modern era in which your thriller unfolds shapes everything about it. A World War II-era thriller exudes a vastly different ambiance than a futuristic techno-thriller. 

Delve into the nuances of the time and era you choose, incorporating historical events, social norms, and technological advancements that add richness and authenticity to your setting.

More than anything else, these four elements are what will make or break your thriller’s setting—and thus your entire story itself. You can have a good thriller with great plot and excellent characters, but if the stage it all takes place on isn’t just as enthralling, your story will suffer.

One final note before we dive into these dark, murky waters: the following elements will be geared specifically towards the thriller genre and assume you’re already familiar with settings in general. If you aren’t or just need a refresher, check out this guide for settings.

The Art of Atmosphere

In the thriller genre, atmosphere reigns supreme as the essential ingredient for setting the tone and stirring the emotions of your readers. An adeptly crafted atmosphere can transport readers to a place of unease, suspense, and anticipation, where every heartbeat brings them one step closer to impending danger. 

As thriller writers, our mastery of atmosphere allows us to manipulate emotions, heighten suspense, and create an immersive experience that keeps readers eagerly turning the pages.

But atmosphere is a really tricky perp to understand. It’s somehow both tangible and intangible all at once, and one wrong step can mess with the whole vibe of your scene. If you find yourself struggling with getting the atmosphere right in general, give this article a read.

Otherwise, here are some thriller-specific tips to make you an atmosphere artist.

Utilizing Lighting, Weather, and Sounds

Lighting, weather, and sounds are powerful tools for shaping the atmosphere in a thriller setting. Consider the impact of dim, flickering lights casting ominous shadows in a deserted building or a sudden downpour adding urgency to a high-stakes chase. 

The use of eerie background sounds, such as creaking floorboards or distant footsteps, can send shivers down readers' spines, heightening the tension and reinforcing the feeling of danger lurking around every corner.

Think about the way these seemingly small elements come together to establish your perfect atmosphere.

Conveying a Sense of Danger and Uncertainty

The success of a thriller largely hinges on your ability to create a palpable sense of danger and uncertainty and a time limit. So use the setting to mirror the characters' emotions and intensify their fears. 

In psychological thrillers, the protagonist's mind might become the battleground, as reality blurs with paranoia and hallucinations. In contrast, a fast-paced action thriller might have its characters racing through a chaotic urban landscape, where danger lurks at every turn. 

When you seamlessly blend setting and emotions, you cultivate an atmosphere that grips readers in a vice of suspense.

Navigating the Emotional Landscape

The emotional landscape of a thriller setting plays a crucial role in establishing the right atmosphere. Fear, anxiety, and a constant sense of urgency should be palpable, seeping into every aspect of the characters' experiences. 

Dive deep into their psyche, exploring their thoughts and reactions as they navigate the treacherous terrain of your novel. Emotionally charged scenes, heart-pounding confrontations, and breathless escapes serve to immerse readers in their tumultuous journey.

Balancing Intensity and Reprieve

Writing an effective thriller atmosphere means knowing how to balance intensity with moments of reprieve. While the tension should remain constant in this genre, brief respites can create a rollercoaster effect, making the peak moments even more impactful. 

Use moments of respite to build characterization, deepen relationships, and allow readers to catch their breath before plunging them back into the heart-pounding action. If you need a hand, we have an article all about balancing scene and sequel (which is the technical terminology for our fellow word nerds).

Lock in the Location

Where your story takes place is probably the most obvious element of writing a setting, but it’s also one of the most important. For thriller writers, the choice of location serves as a potent catalyst to fuel the flames of suspense and intrigue. 

Selecting the perfect setting goes beyond mere scenery; it becomes a pivotal element that shapes the plot, influences character decisions, and intensifies the atmosphere you’re working so hard on. 

And while it seems high-stakes, it’s nothing you can’t handle.

Researching and Selecting the Ideal Setting

Thorough research is the cornerstone of selecting the perfect location for your thriller. Even if you perfect your atmosphere, writing an unbelievable location will ruin it all. 

Consider the history, geography, and cultural nuances of wherever your characters are, as these can add layers of authenticity and complexity to your narrative. And make sure your location is thematically accurate while you’re at it.

If you’re struggling with researching a setting location, we’ve got you covered.

Integrating Unique Features and Landmarks

Make your thriller setting unforgettable by integrating unique features and landmarks that resonate with readers. 

A decrepit mansion with a haunting past in supernatural thrillers, an abandoned amusement park with a mysterious aura in a psychological thriller, or a labyrinthine underground tunnel system for the killer in a crime thriller—all these elements add depth and intrigue to your story and will linger in the minds of your readers.

On top of that, it gives you a lot of room to have fun with your characters and plot. These sorts of unique features should provide opportunities or obstacles for your fictional folks.

Balancing Familiarity and Unfamiliarity

Striking a delicate balance between familiarity and unfamiliarity will give your reader enough space to feel comfortable while leaving enough room to stress them the heck out. And they're reading suspense novels for that reason, right?

A familiar location provides a sense of relatability, allowing readers to connect more deeply with the story. On the other hand, an unfamiliar or exotic setting can instill an air of mystery, drawing readers into uncharted territories.

Use this balancing act to reinforce your plot twists and literary jump scares without forcing your reader to Google where your story takes place.

Establishing a Setting With Purpose

We’re back to my favorite question: Why?

A well-chosen location should not only serve as a backdrop to your story but also play a purposeful role in the narrative. It should mirror the emotional journey of the characters, reflecting their fears, desires, and inner conflicts. This is especially true in psychological thrillers. 

Additionally, your location should influence the plot, presenting challenges and opportunities that propel the story forward. A remote, snow-covered mountain can isolate characters, intensifying their vulnerability, while a sprawling urban jungle can offer countless hiding spots for danger to lurk.

Heighten the Senses, Build Suspense

The key to ensnaring readers in any genre (but especially in the thriller genre) lies in engaging their senses. A well-crafted thriller goes beyond visual descriptions; it draws readers into the heart of the narrative, enveloping them in a world rich with sensory cues. 

By skillfully appealing to sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch, you create an immersive experience that hits readers on a visceral level.

Engaging Multiple Senses Through Descriptive Language

As a thriller author, your words are the brushstrokes that paint vivid pictures in the minds of your readers (see what I did there?). 

Describe not only what your characters see but how they experience it. For instance, don't simply state that the room is dark; evoke the feeling of oppressive darkness that weighs on their chest.

Check out these show, don’t tell worksheets to improve these skills.

Amplifying Tension Through Sensory Cues

Sensory cues act as building blocks of tension, steadily constructing the atmospheric pressure that keeps readers hooked. 

A sudden, deafening silence before an impending danger, the rhythmic tapping of footsteps drawing nearer, or the metallic scent of blood in the air—all these cues heighten anticipation, making hearts race and nerves tingle. 

You want to subtly sew these cues into your exposition so they start layering on the tension as your reader devours your words.

Crafting a Symphony of Sensations

An adept thriller author weaves a symphony of sensations, carefully orchestrating each sensory cue to create an unforgettable experience. 

Combine visual descriptions with haunting sounds, mysterious smells, and the tangible touch of danger. In a suspenseful chase scene, the pounding of footsteps echoes through dark alleys, the scent of rain hangs heavy in the air, and the cold, wet cobblestones underfoot add urgency to every step. 

Can you already see how much this symphony brings a simple setting to life?

Balancing Sensory Immersion With Pace

While sensory immersion is paramount in thrillers, it's essential to balance it with the pacing of the narrative. The right sensory cues can enhance the tension and intensify emotions, but an overabundance can slow the pace, dampening the thrill. 

Select moments where sensory descriptions pack the most punch, complementing the action and emotion in a seamless blend. Allow readers to breathe during moments of respite, then plunge them back into the sensory whirlwind as suspense escalates.

My best advice for finding this balance: get outside help from beta readers or writing friends.

History and Culture Add Depth

When used properly and deftly, infusing history and culture into your setting can turn it from a place your audience is reading about to a place they’re lost in. Anywhere can have creepy moments, unique features, and details that play on the senses, but adding in historical and cultural influences make that place feel lived in.

Even if the people living there aren’t real.

A tip for this section, though: don’t overdo it in this genre. These sorts of details can enhance your setting, but only if you make it feel natural and authentic. And, of course, always ask yourself why you’re including it.

Incorporating Historical Events or Legends

History is replete with enigmatic events and legends that captivate the imagination. Intertwining your thriller novel with historical happenings can imbue your narrative with a sense of realism and intrigue. 

I’m talking about a secret society dating back centuries, a long-forgotten artifact with mysterious powers, or a notorious criminal from the past resurfacing—these are some of the things that can add layers of depth to the present-day setting.

Reflecting Cultural Nuances and Beliefs

Embrace the opportunity to reflect cultural nuances in your setting, allowing readers to explore the multifaceted world of diverse characters. 

Cultural beliefs can serve as motivations, creating unique perspectives and driving characters' actions. Additionally, cultural settings can add a touch of mystique, as ancient rituals or folklore become integral to the plot. 

Be careful to do your research and don’t use other cultures as a cheap plot device, though, and consider hiring a sensitivity reader.

The Intersection of Past and Present

One of the most captivating aspects of incorporating historical and cultural influences is the intersection of past and present. 

Unearth long-buried secrets that have ramifications in the present day, as characters grapple with the consequences of age-old events. These are great for plot twists and to keep your readers guessing. 

The allure of the past can merge with the urgency of the present, culminating in a gripping narrative that unfolds multiple mysteries at once. This is expertly done in thrillers like The Da Vinci Code.

The Ultimate Duo: Thriller Writers and Dabble

Listen, writing a thriller novel isn’t easy. You’re not just managing complex characters and an intriguing plot, but you need to create an immersive world that helps reinforce those elements and write it all together in a heart-racing package.

So maybe it’s being a thriller writer that isn’t easy. But you don’t have to go at it alone.

Dabble lets you keep all your worldbuilding, setting, and character development notes in one place, right next to the Plot Grid that can help you manage all your plot lines. And all of that is just one click away from your manuscript.

You can store all the deets you want about your creepiest, most stressful settings—even images to help your imagination run wild when you’re trying to build that atmosphere or add subtle sensory cues.

You can harness the power of Dabble for your thriller novel for fourteen days, no credit card required, by clicking here. And you don’t even need to burn the evidence.

Doug Landsborough

Doug Landsborough can’t get enough of writing. Whether freelancing as an editor, blog writer, or ghostwriter, Doug is a big fan of the power of words. In his spare time, he writes about monsters, angels, and demons under the name D. William Landsborough. When not obsessing about sympathetic villains and wondrous magic, Doug enjoys board games, horror movies, and spending time with his wife, Sarah.