Double Trouble: Put Your Setting to Work
By Daryll Lynne Evans
You’ve got strong characters having knock-down, drag-out arguments in exotic locals, while a pack of lions lurks just outside of camp, yet it feels like your scenes are a little…one-dimensional.
An instant fix is to have more than one kind of conflict going on at a time. Have characters arguing during the exciting car chase; have your hero struggle with self-doubt while climbing the mountain to find the treasure. Already the scenes feel more relevant and tense.
We’ve got three kinds of conflict to work with in fiction:
- Person vs. Person (whatever species or creatures your characters may be)
- Person vs. Self
- Person vs. Environment
Most of the conflict in story is likely to come from two or more characters negotiating, arguing, or fighting over something (P v. P). It’s easy and probably pretty natural to weave in the hero struggling with personal issues or self-doubts (P v. S) as she argues, cajoles, and strives to achieve whatever goal she’s after. But we forget to have the environment—the setting—play a part during scenes where other kinds of conflict are happening.
We often think of using Person Vs. Environment for survival-level issues: a tsunami or an avalanche takes out a village; a fast-flowing river the hero must cross. Jack London’s “To Build a Fire,” Tom Hanks character stuck alone on a desert isle in Castaway, or Pi stuck alone on a boat with a tiger in Life of Pi are nothing but Person vs. Environment.
But environmental conflict is more than the life-threatening, natural elements in a story. Environmental conflict can come from the buildings and physical structures, the daily weather, the availability of resources and tools, and the detritus of daily life. Your story’s setting can do a lot more work to increase stakes and tension even when the main conflict in the scene is focused on P v. P or P v. S.
…require that characters deliver their news while climbing three flights of stairs, place a protagonist’s important interview in a too-noisy or sinister location that will put her off balance.
Add environmental conflict in ways large and small to increase tension and force your hero’s hand. Does she have a confrontation with a despised co-worker? Sure, the verbal argument is already tense. But how much better if you make the room too hot, give that irritating co-worker a pen to click incessantly, and put them near the copier so other people keep walking between them?
Does your hero need to race across town for an important meeting? Add icy windshields that must be scraped, slippery roads, and a gaggle of geese crossing the street. This gives your hero something to do, small impediments that raise the stakes, or an external action to focus internal thoughts on and reveal her state of mind more naturally.
For low-tension scenes where characters are delivering fairly mundane but necessary information, add a few uncooperative buckles your hero must work, require that characters deliver their news while climbing three flights of stairs, place a protagonist’s important interview in a too-noisy or sinister location that will put her off balance. These small inconveniences give an instant boost to the tension in the story so readers willingly read through all the background info you’re imparting.
So, turn up the heat, add some banana peels and marbles, throw in an itchy shirt and a flat tire–put your story’s environment to work to up the stakes and keep readers flipping the page.