Creative writing: How to create a sense of claustrophobia


27 January 2023
Want to make your characters feel uncomfortably hemmed in? Locked-room thriller author Martin Griffin explores how to do it well.

If you’ve ever been mid-station when a packed tube shudders to an unexpected stop, or hemmed-in by bodies at an airport security check, you’ll know how claustrophobia can unnerve. Perhaps it’s our desire to test ourselves against our fears that explains the proliferation of nail-biting stories set in single locations. When I recall the books I’ve read white-knuckled and holding my breath, they often have a stifling sense of entrapment – Stephen King’s Misery, Emma Haughton’s The Dark, and Will Dean’s The Last Thing to Burn all spring to mind.

The Second Stranger was my contribution to this most suffocating of sub-genres. A thriller set in an isolated highland hotel during a snowstorm, it tells the story of Remie Yorke who, working her last ever nightshift, receives a visit from a police officer claiming to have been involved in a traffic accident on the mountain road. The prisoner he was transporting has escaped, he says, can he come in and help secure the building? It’s an innocent enough request, and Remie complies. The nightmare begins when a second man arrives. He too claims to be a police officer and to have lost his prisoner. One of them is lying, and Remie has to work out which.

So how might we go about creating a sense of claustrophobia in our writing? Most obviously, we could emphasise the hostility of the outside world. In The Sanatorium, Sarah Pearse isolates her characters on the top of a Swiss mountain. Hanna Jameson, who also chooses Switzerland in The Last, uses a combination of isolation and fear; are the other survivors of the apocalypse waiting to kill our characters if they dare venture beyond the perimeter fence? The external threat pens our characters in, limiting choices. I often enjoy stories where characters’ options dwindle gradually rather than all at once, so that the freedom of movement or decision-making they have as the story begins, narrows as tension escalates. This approach works particularly well for me if rare windows of possibility are used for contrast; an occasional glimpse of the outside world or a distant view of something unobtainable serve to heighten frustration. In Tim Weaver’s Missing Pieces, for example, a woman is trapped on a tourist island over winter when the last ferry leaves, and every passing boat she vainly tries to signal reminds us of the freedoms and luxuries denied to her.

There are other components you can play with. Gothic novels often make use of the weather to heighten atmosphere and increase a sense of suffocation. Andrew Hurley’s The Loney, set in and around a house on an isolated stretch of English coast, is masterful in its use of rain, fog and tide. Lucy Foley’s The Hunting Party uses snow to great effect. And bad weather can recast the familiar as something far more sinister – just think of what Susan Hill does with sea frets and tide timetables in The Woman in Black.

Light and dark can help too. We don’t necessarily need to close down the space in which our characters are free to operate; we only need their perception of the space available to diminish, so think about how a room changes when illuminated from just one point; a pool of rippling light around a fireplace for example.

Boundaries are often useful as well. Fences, walls, treacherous bridges and closed-off pathways all imply a penning-in of available options. In The Second Stranger, I even went as far as placing the hotel on the very edge of an OS map so when characters try to plan a route out, they have to wrestle with two maps to jigsaw-together the topography of the surrounding hills.  

A final thing to consider is the readiness of your characters to cope with their incarceration or disconnection. Obviously the predicament becomes far less dramatic if characters are well-equipped to deal with it so consider putting your cast through something that tests their limits. Gregarious extroverts lose their minds if alone for too long; active, inquisitive characters become frustrated and gloomy as their agency decreases, and trackless, boggy wildernesses are a nightmare for fashionably-dressed urbanites with boxfresh trainers.

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Flawed characters can quickly be made uncomfortable so consider the psychological wounds your group are carrying and the possibilities these weaknesses might suggest. In Shari Lapena’s The Unwanted Guest for example, the cast of characters – trapped in a lodge in the Catskill Mountains with no electricity – struggle psychologically; one is a war correspondent with PTSD, one is haunted by whispers about the death of their partner.

Exploring these opportunities can lead to rich sources of conflict and drama, so experiment! A claustrophobic situation can mean different things to different people; what might happen when your freewheeling, proactive action-hero is confined to a locked room with a twisted ankle? Or your misanthropic introvert is bounded by crowds in a regency ballroom? Tormenting your characters like this can be quite a lot of fun.          

All of which might be some small consolation next time you’re trapped with ten strangers in a lift fit for five.

The Second Stranger by Martin Griffin is published by Sphere (£8.00)


Explore putting relationships under pressure in a psychological thriller with this piece fromm The Haven author Amanda Jennings