I’m sure you’ve heard the saying that a good book should have conflict in every scene. This is wise advice, since well-written conflict begets tension for our characters, which can be passed on to readers, who will sense a rise in energy as they feel that nervous, jittery sensation signaling them that something is going on. We all want readers to have that heightened awareness and interest when they’re reading our stories, and a good way to bring that about is through conflict.
While the most obvious source of conflict is an antagonist who opposes our hero and his goal, it’s simply not reasonable (or sensible) to drag him into every chapter. As a result, we have to find other struggles that make sense for each scene. It may not seem like the most intuitive choice, but I’d like to propose that the setting is one of the handiest sources of conflict, for a number of reasons. First, every scene has a setting, so it’s already built into your story. And with the sources of conflict inherently included in each location, there’s no need to fabricate them—no lengthy set-up involved to put these difficulties into your protagonist’s path. If you’re wondering what sources of conflict I’m referring to, consider the following:
This kind of conflict is great because it’s so literal. Washed-out roads, a blizzard, the parade that shuts down half a city’s streets—all these obstacles keep the protagonist from getting where he physically needs to be. And roadblocks like these are easily incorporated into a variety of settings. Keep in mind, too, that literal obstructions don’t have to be large and impressive to be effective. A locked door or a small but loud dog can provide the resistance necessary to make things difficult for your character.
Mirrors to a Painful Past
Everyone has baggage—including our characters, if we’ve done our job well in the backstory department. While every location has conflict, there should be some settings that are especially problematic for your protagonist. Forcing him to revisit one of these places at a pivotal point in your story can act as a trigger, heightening his emotions and encouraging a bigger, more dramatic response.
Consider John Rambo, from the movie First Blood. Being arrested on a technicality by a prejudicial sheriff wouldn’t be a pleasant experience for anyone, but most people could navigate the situation and bring it to a resolution. For Rambo, being locked up brings to mind his time as a POW. When he’s taunted by a group of officers and threatened with a straight razor—the same item used to torture him in Vietnam—he flips out. His current situation directly mirrors a traumatic experience from the past, and he reacts violently, setting in motion a series of events that can’t be undone or made right.
If you know your character’s past, you’ll know which settings can act as emotional triggers. To ramp up the conflict and tension in an important scene, have your protagonist revisit one of those places.
While the antagonist should be the Biggest Baddie in your story, there are plenty of other rabble-rousers that can make things difficult for your hero, and you don’t have to go far afield to find them. You usually don’t have to look past the people who naturally inhabit your setting.
Let’s take a fitness center, for instance—not exactly the most combative location. But there are so many people naturally found here who could provide conflict: inexperienced guests, demanding trainers, overzealous managers pushing memberships, competitive guests with huge egos, ‘roid-raging bodybuilders…the list goes on and on.
The truth is that every setting has its own built-in cast of troublemakers. So when it comes time to write a scene, ask yourself: what does my hero want to achieve here? Consider what kind of characters might get in his way, then pick a setting where those people abound, and voilà: instant conflict.
It’s sad to say, but in real life, it’s not the strangers and acquaintances that cause us the most heartache and drama. Usually, it’s our family members. Because of our history with them, tension easily builds before they’ve even done anything. They’re great at pushing our buttons, and their constant proximity makes us more sensitive to their quirks and jabs.
If you’re looking to add some tension to a scene, set it in a location where certain family members are likely to turn up: the backyard, a child’s birthday party, the shopping mall, or at church. Then sit back and watch the sparks fly.
The beauty of using a setting to provide conflict is that you can approach it from a number of ways. One method is to choose a setting based on the conflict needs of your scene. With this approach, the location is flexible; it can be any of a number of places. As you plan out your scene, decide what brand of conflict is necessary and choose a locale that contains that kind of trouble. Alternatively, if you already have a place in mind for a given scene, look for naturally occurring sources of conflict within that setting and use them to ramp up the tension. Either way, the location you choose can provide a ton of realistic conflict for your story.
As you can see, the setting is an incredibly versatile tool that can do more than simply set the stage. Turn your lazy locale into a multitasking one by using it to ramp up the tension in every scene.
Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels, including The Rural Setting Thesaurus and The Urban Setting Thesaurus, which will be available for purchase in June. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library filled with description and brainstorming tools to help writers elevate their storytelling. You can find Becca online at both of these spots, as well as on Facebook and Twitter.
Setting as a vehicle for conflict by @BeccaPuglisi
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