Becca and I are big believers in making the setting work hard in EVERY scene. A terrific way to do this is to turn a setting into a magnet for conflict. After all, the hero or heroine’s path to their goal should never be a leisurely stroll. Instead, we want bumps and upsets, a route paved with inconvenience and obstacles. A sunny walk through the park should have the storytelling equivalent of hot lava to navigate, a swath of man-eating grass, and heck, maybe even a zombie toddler or two stumbling around looking for their next man-sized happy meal.
Conflict keeps readers reading. It transforms lumpy gobs of description into a vivid landscape of activity. It creates tension–that tingly, uncomfortable pressure that builds in a reader’s chest as they worry about the outcome. (And as writers, we LOVE making them feel that!)
Obstacles also power up story stakes by blocking the character from their goal and giving them one more thing to overcome. If they fail to circumvent the obstacle, this set back might mean their ability to achieve their overall goal is even less likely.
Create a Gauntlet of Challenges
There are many different ways to use the setting to stress the hero or heroine, triggering a response that shows, not tells, who they really are. Here are a few to sink your teeth into.
Any setting has the potential to cause trouble for the protagonist. Whether it is Lego strewn across the family room carpet as your character breaks into a house to steal important documents, a river that runs deeper than it appears, or a driver texting rather than watching the crosswalk your heroine is on, danger is everywhere. Look to the natural environment your character is in and ask yourself, what could go wrong here? Then, if it makes sense for the story, set your character on a crash course with danger. Not only will this cause the reader’s pulse to race, how your character responds will show readers what they are made of.
On the other side of the danger coin is plain old bad luck. Sometimes unforeseen events land in our character’s lap at the worst time, and guess what makes that happen? That’s right, the setting. From bad weather that makes travel difficult, to a car breakdown, to being in the wrong place at the wrong time and witnessing a murder, misfortune creates mayhem. How does your character react–fight, or flight? Do they wallow, retreat, throw in the towel? Or do they shake off disappointment and regroup with a new plan?
Remember with misfortune, a little goes a long way. If you use it, ensure your event is logical for the setting and the circumstances so it never comes off as a plot device.
In every scene, your character has a goal. Physical obstacles can be a great way to derail the protagonist’s progress or cause painful delays.
Whether the hero or heroine is stopped short by a locked door, missing car keys, a washed out bridge, or a forest fire caused by a lightning strike, roadblocks force detours. This challenge can showcase their creative problem solving and adaptability, as well as test their resolve.
People and Obligations
Ah, people. There they are, all around your character–family, friends, strangers, enemies. Running into one at a bad time is no fun in real life, and can cause big problems in the fictional world. Did that nosy neighbor see something she shouldn’t have? Do the parents of your hero show up for a surprise visit just as his swingers’ party is getting underway? Does your heroine stumble upon a backwoods meth camp while out looking for her lost horse? People can be natural disruptors, messing up plans and creating complications.
This goes double for the people your character is obligated to. Real world problems stemming from relationships add realism while creating a quagmire of problems to navigate. Take the hero’s sister dumping her kids at his apartment because she needs to check herself into rehab. Caring for children when he wasn’t expecting to will create some stress, sure…but if he also happens to have his own demons to contend with, the situation can become dangerous. Imagine becoming suddenly responsible for two young children while he’s actively trying to dodge loan shark tough guys looking to collect an overdue payment. Now, the repercussions of his obligation is no longer a mere inconvenience. It could lead to a child being hurt.
The Little Things
If every challenge and obstacle was some catastrophic event, we’d be tangoing with melodrama in no time. Luckily, little obstacles can be just as effective and remind readers of the real world. After all, who hasn’t spilled coffee on their slacks right before an interview, taken the wrong bus on route to an important doctor’s appointment, or discovered a broken tent pole only after completing a four hour hike into the mountains? The little things are like midges biting at the skin, and how gracefully (or not) your protagonist bears the pain as things pile up will humanize him to readers and teach him resilience, something he’ll need if he’s in it for the long haul.
If you find your scene is flagging, try planting an obstacle or two in your character’s path. Besides, whatever it is your protagonist wants most is something they need to fight for. Winning becomes so much more of a rush for readers when the protagonist has really worked for it.
How do you challenge your characters? What are some of the obstacles you’ve thrown in their path? Let us know in the comments!
Looking for more ideas on how to use the setting to create conflict, as well as examples of this in action? The Rural and Urban Thesaurus books can help…and show you all the other amazing things your setting should be doing in your novel. It’s so much more than a backdrop for the action of the scene!
Image #2: heysalzmanngmailcom
Image #3: Stux @ Pixabay
Image #4: Sandid @ Pixabay
Image #5: Founry @Pixabay
Image #6: StevePB @ Pixabay
Angela is a writing coach, international speaker, and bestselling author who loves to travel, teach, empower writers, and pay-it-forward. She also is a founder of One Stop For Writers, a portal to powerful, innovative tools to help writers elevate their storytelling.
My main character wants to prove herself; not to men or anything like that but to herself. She knows she inexperienced and lacks field experience but she still applies herself, pushes herself and makes herself strive. The odds are is that despite the system she’s bound to, due to her rank and brief resume in the battlefield, the system doesn’t allow her to compete here or go their. What’s worse is she causes the death of a fellow commerade on her final exam. Brutal.
The challenge I’ve given her is trusting the system and learning discernment with those who sincerely support her goals and those who only support them for the sake of their own gain; their pleasure at the expense of her pain.
ANGELA ACKERMAN says
Sounds like you are making good use of the world around the character to provide lots of challenges to overcome. Good stuff! 🙂
J.L. Callison says
Great post! In my current WIP, a thirteen-year-old girl drops and breaks her lantern when she finds a skeleton in a cave she is exploring alone, and nobody knows she is there. I had been somewhat stuck at that point, but you have given me some ideas for moving forward in the race to find her. She will not be the only one having troubles.
I had a setting as an obstacle in an unusual way. Pa wanted to make a surprise for his two daughters when they went to the lake to skate. He cut holes in the ice. Both daughters thought the surprise was to ice fish which both disliked but didn’t want to hurt his feelings so they didn’t mention this. But, the holes were not for ice fishing and Pa used them to really create a great surprise in the end.
ANGELA ACKERMAN says
This is incredibly creepy…I love it!
Sharon M Hart says
C. S Lewis described our bodies as “vast and perilous estates.” That is the overall setting I use for my characters. For example, Rhino tells his brothers, “I never make a mistake.” With that going on in his inner world, I can place him just about anywhere with an expectation that something will happen.
I have found everyone’s comments very helpful.
Bill K says
Boo. Hiss. On your week-long Amazon giveaways for the Positive Trait/The Negative Trait Thesaurus! I love these books and your Emotion Thesaurus, and have all three on my Kindle. But when I tried to win copies of the printed version, I was locked out because I already bought them on Kindle. Had I known how often I’d refer to your super-useful reference books, I would have bought them in print to begin with. I hate you both. (And can’t wait for settings.) 🙂
ANGELA ACKERMAN says
Thanks for the feedback Bill–We didn’t know it worked that way. And thanks for your excitement!
Carol Baldwin says
Another thought provoking post, Angela. Thanks! I have a goat in my book who brings trouble to my characters. Hmmm….maybe I should make her even more troublesome?
ANGELA ACKERMAN says
I seriously love that you have a troublesome goat in your book–way to think outside the box!
Allison Collins says
This is a fabulous post. It reminds me to look at every detail in settings. It also shows me I did a couple of things right in my WIP. A serene setting my hero loves is marred now due to new physical challenges, and a hysterical little girl. So yay, me!
I always learn so much from y’all!
ANGELA ACKERMAN says
Thanks Allison! I hope your character learns to love the setting again, but in a new light/way. 🙂
Patrick Witz says
Here’s one of my short stories, genre: Tragedy… brief story synopsis: “Catastrophic events strike at a moment’s notice, wherein states, counties, towns, and individuals develop in advance protective measures to reduce the impact of potential disasters. A young family planned and prepared for such an event. However, when the family is caught in the path of a menacing tornado, were their defensive measures as good as they thought they were?” Nature can be a HUGE intense obstacle!
ANGELA ACKERMAN says
Exactly! And we always want to believe we will be prepared for a catastrophe, but often we are not. The shock of it impairs our logic and critical thinking skills. I leaned this firsthand once!
Kathy Steinemann says
An obstacle I put into a recent sci-fi short is an unfamiliar environment: A human from the future is transported into a 2016 vehicle without the audio controls he uses in his time. He has no idea how to stop the forward momentum and plows into a police car. The police officer he hits is the wife of the car’s owner.
Joy Pixley says
I was going to say a similar thing: in my novel, one of the obstacles my characters face is that they’ve moved to a foreign land. They don’t all speak the language, they’re not sure how things work, and they keep messing up the customs (and annoying the locals).