19 May 2023
Novelist Natasha Calder's top tips for making your readers uneasy – and gripped to the page
There’s something delicious about being unsettled. The books that have unnerved me are the ones I remember best, the ones for which I can provide – not merely a synopsis – but exact details of when I read them. For instance: I picked up H. G. Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau at random from a shelf at school in Canterbury – just as I was coming out of my first depressive episode – and spent a night absorbed in the horrors of vivisection; I read Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw during my Senior Freshman year, sitting propped up in a creaking bed in Phibsborough, my course notes lying forgotten around me; and I escaped into Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House during the first Halloween of lockdown, cut-out bats and scratch-foil pumpkins grinning down from every wall of our one-bed flat in Bray.
When it came to writing Whether Violent or Natural – which tells the story of two survivors in a world devastated by antimicrobial resistance and how their reality starts to crumble when a woman washes up on their island – I wanted to affect the same kind of unsettlement I’d delighted in so often before. Whether or not I achieved this is a matter for the reader to decide, but I hit upon a few tactics that I hope will prove conducive if you’re seeking to create a similar experience.
• Use a doomsayer. My protagonist, Kit, not merely foreshadows what’s to come, but actively conveys dread at the prospect. A cheap trick, perhaps, but one that can be highly effective if not overdone, and that can be expediently introduced if you have a framing device or a first-person narrator who can address the reader directly.
• Weaponise the setting. Part of unsettlement is a suggestion of things being not quite right and of there being no easy out for the characters. Find a way to isolate them in some regard and/or put them into a landscape that holds elements of threat – drop them into liminal spaces with unclear boundaries, trap them somewhere claustrophobic, or give them horribly breachable borders and hint towards what might be lurking outside, waiting to get in. And 'hinting' is key – there’s a sweet spot between vagueness and specificity that allows the reader just enough space to fill in a few gaps with their own fears and get properly rattled.
• Introduce an element of doubt. Not every detail has to be vexed, but if enough of them are, the reader will start questioning everything. Use an unreliable narrator, use conflicting perspectives on the same event, introduce details that contradict one another. There’s too much comfort in certainty, so sabotage it whenever you can.
• Don’t let your reader look away. This means your stakes should be clear as soon as is practicable but it also means working your sentences hard – they have to flow one from the next. More than that, they have to grip your reader, drag them beneath the surface and hold them under. You’ll need the occasional moment of reprieve so it doesn’t become unrelentingly grim, but save these for once the reader’s fully submerged.
• Immerse yourself. If you can get into an unsettled mindset, it will bleed into your writing. You don’t necessarily have to turn to fiction for this – and, indeed, you’re less likely to end up plagiarising the works that inspire you if you draw on them only through the haze of memory. But there’s plenty of art that can serve the same purpose. In my case, I listened to David Bowie’s Blackstar while I was writing and frequently re-read John Donne’s funeral sermon, ‘Death’s Duell’.
• Put your manuscript in a drawer. Leave it for a month or more if you can. Although you won’t be able to recreate the experience of a first-time reader – you know too much, after all – a little distance will defamiliarise you just enough so that you can see what is and isn’t working. You won’t have many chances to do this sort of read-through, because at a certain point you’ll stop being able to dissociate yourself from the text, so don’t waste it.
Whether Violent or Natural by Natasha Calder is published by Bloomsbury Publishing, Hardback, £16.99
Read more advice on how to create tension in your writing from acclaimed crime author Dominic Nolan here.