(Excerpt from “Conflict & Suspence” by James Bell )
City or country, rural or populated, every setting holds the possibility not just for conflict between characters, but for being part of the conflict itself.
That’s where you need to take your mind.
InGood in Bed,Cannie Shapiro’s infant daughter is in critical condition at a Philidelphia hospital. The circumstance has rubbed ra all sorts of issues for Cannie, from her father relationshp to her fitness as a mother. Author Jennifer Weiner uses this as an opportunity for the setting to conflict with Cannie:
I walked and walked, and it was as if God had fitted me with special glasses, where I could only see the bad things, the sad things, the pain and misery of life in the city, the trash kicked into corners instead of teh flowers planted in the window boxes. I could see the husbands and wives fighting, but not kissing or holding hands. I could see the little kids careening through the streets on stolen bicycles, screaming insults and curses, and grown men who sounded like they were breakfasting on their own mucus, leering at women with unashamed lecherous eyes. I could smell the sting of the city in summer: horse piss and hot tar and the grayish, sick exhaust the buses spewed. The manhole covers leaked steam, the sidewalks belched heat from the subways churning below.
1) Start with your own living situation. Write a page of straight description of your immediate setting - work from your residence outward to neighboring homes, streets, town centers, parks, undeveloped land, and so on.
2) Take apart the individual settings and give them their own page.
For example, maybe your original page had this:
The main highway is about a mile from my apartment. I can hear the trucks at night, hauling whatever it is they haul up north toward Stockton or down south toward San Diego.
Put those lines at the top of a fresh page.
3) Now make up a character alone, in trouble, in that setting, and write a couple of paragraphs where the setting, not another character, adds to the conflict:
She stumbled up to the shoulder of the main highway. The gravel bit into her knees. How had she gotten here? The honk of a giant truck kicked her heart. Then the lights of the oncoming monster blinded her. She threw herself backward, falling on the incline. Above her the truck slammed by, showering her with bits of tiny rock.
4) Try that for every one of the settings you’ve described. What you are doing is training your mind to be on the lookout for ominous locations, which are anywhere you choose.
5) Now pick a location you’re unfamiliar with. Do you live in New York? Try Sioux City, Iowa or Kent, England. Do some online research. Familiarize yourself with the place via travel sites, blogs, and firsthand accounts.
6) Now repeat steps 1 through 4 for this new location. You will be pleased, if not downright amazed, how these excercises get you juiced about writing. That’s the magic of conflict.
7) Look at your Work in Progress (WIP). Go to every passage where you describe the physical location. Highlight in yellow each line that is nuetral in description - that is, where the description is not adding to the tone you’re after.
Example: You’re writing about a runaway teenager arriving at a house at the dead of winter:
Icicles were under the eaves.
That’s okay as far as it goes, but you can do more:
The icicles pointed down like accusing fingers.
HIghlight in another color [(Blue, Green, whatever)] every passage that does “double duty,” that sets up a feeling or tone of conflict as well as describes.
8) Eliminate or change every passage in yellow until there are only passages in your other color.
Note that the conflict does not have to be outright dread (though there’s never anything wrong with that!). Even a feeling of discomfort in the character can be enhanced, thus adding to the inner conflict of the passage:
The sun beat me with unforgiving heat.
The car still smelled like Henry. She could almost hear his accusing voice from the passenger side.