Squeeze More Conflict Out of Your Settings

by James Scott Bell

Clare’s post on Monday brought up the subject of what I call “the lifeblood of fiction”—conflict. This is usually the first lesson a young writer learns, and rightly so. No conflict, no story. No conflict, no interest. Maybe you can skate along for a page or two with a quirky character, but said character will soon wear out his welcome if not confronted with some sort of disturbance, threat, or opposition.

When the subject comes up in fiction workshops, we focus on conflict between characters—story people with differing agendas, clashing. It can be as simple as a couple arguing about what to make for dinner, or as crucial as a cop interrogating a suspect. But some sort of conflict or tension—even if it’s inner conflict when the character is alone—is needed in every scene.

And don’t ignore the potential for conflict in a setting. Where you place your story world and each individual scene should never be done without a little brainstorming on the physical locale as a way to create more trouble.

Three areas to consider:

  1. Story World

What is the macro world of your story? How can you use it to heighten the tension?

Most of my Mike Romeo thrillers, like Chandler’s Marlowe novels, are set in my hometown, Los Angeles. Not just because I know it, but because it is in my humble opinion the greatest noir/crime/suspense city in the world. Any big city has its crime beat, but in L.A. it’s marvelously varied and malleable. So many neighborhoods, each with a unique vibe. Crime is not limited to the night, which is usually what you get in a film noir set in, say, New York. Here in L.A., crime is a daytime thing, too.

Every now and then Romeo goes off to another place. In Romeo’s Way it’s San Francisco. I wrote about that research here. I felt I had to visit and walk the streets I was writing about. I came up with some great details I wouldn’t have found any other way.

Romeo’s Stand, on the other hand, takes place in a small desert town in Nevada. What was my research on that one? My head. I made the place up. That’s a time-honored method (think of Ross Macdonald and Sue Grafton using Santa Teresa as a Doppelganger for Santa Barbara). It allows you to make up physical locations as you see fit.

But do make them up, just as if they were real places. My imaginary town was as vivid to me as any place I’ve ever visited, right down to the heat on the streets and the paint peeling on the buildings.

  1. Scenes

Los Angeles has an infinite variety of locations for setting a scene. Some of the settings in my new Romeo, Romeo’s Town, are Skid Row, Juvenile Hall, Paradise Cove, Hollywood Boulevard, Simi Valley, Box Canyon, even little Johnny Carson Park in Burbank. I’ve visited them all, and when writing each scene I let my imagination roam a little bit over the landscape to see what popped up.

For example, Box Canyon is the most rustic community in L.A. county, tightly packed into hills made up mostly of sandstone boulders. I chose this location for a particular scene because the rocks presented a unique challenge for the characters.

  1. Backstory

And don’t forget backstory as a means of generating conflict. Only in this case, it’s inner conflict by way of “the ghost.” That’s an event that deeply and negatively affected the character in the past which now hovers over her present. A vivid setting helps here, too.

A prime example is Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs. She is haunted by the memory of when she was ten years old. The setting was a sheep and horse ranch owned by her mother’s cousin, where Clarice went to live. Clarice would wake up early in the morning, while it was yet dark, hearing the screaming of spring lambs being slaughtered. The diabolical Lecter prods this story out of her and uses it to dig deeply into her psyche. This ghost intensifies our sympathy for Clarice.

I’m not one for massive character biographies or dossiers before I begin to write. I like a few salient details, mainly about looks and vocation. I flesh the character out as I write to fit the developing story. But for main characters I do spend time brainstorming key backstory settings and events. I’m looking for that ghost that can partly explain how and why a character is acting the way he is, and not revealing it until later in the story.

Suffice to say Mike Romeo has such a ghost. It’s with him in every book.

Which brings me to my announcement that the new Romeo I mentioned, Romeo’s Town, is up for pre-order. You can lock in the deal price of $2.99 by ordering now. Here is the link. If you’re outside the U.S., simply go to your Amazon site and search for: B09CFTLDKJ.

The ad line:

L.A. is Romeo’s Town. Keep off the grass.

Lets chat:

In your WIP, where is your Lead’s story world? Have you thought about its physicality as a source for conflict? Does your Lead have a “ghost” from the past that haunts the present?

39 thoughts on “Squeeze More Conflict Out of Your Settings

  1. Thanks for another great post, Jim. That’s a great ad line. It can be taken in more than one way…

  2. Thanks for another great teaching moment, Jim. And thanks for letting us know about Romeo’s Town. I pre-ordered this morning.

    Lead’s story world in WIP? I just published “Heart Brain 180,” a middle-grade – YA fantasy adventure in my Mad River Magic series, a story of phone addiction set in a giant circulatory system, where the giant heart is inhabited by giant chess pieces and playing cards. The beauty of fantasy – unlimited opportunities for conflict.

    Ghost from the past? Bolt, the MC is haunted by the loss of his father, who had muscular dystrophy, as does Bolt. Now, he is losing his mother to phone addiction.

    Thanks for a great post, and have a great day!

  3. JSB on TKZ. Must be Sunday. Congrats on the new release. My current WIP is another Triple-D Ranch novel, so it’s taking place in rural Colorado, on a cattle ranch and the nearby towns, loosely based on places I’ve been and experiences I’ve had.
    The setting offers potential for conflict. Rugged terrain, crazy Colorado weather (something else that should be considered, and maybe I’ll write a post about that on my next turn), wildlife.
    As for characters: Since it’s a romantic suspense, I have two lead characters. The hero, I know a little about, because he’s a returning character, but since he was a secondary character, I didn’t have a lot of his back story, which he’s revealing as we go along, including his ghost from his past days as an army Ranger. My city-bred heroine is brand new to me, and you’ve reminded to wheedle her ghost from her.

  4. I like the idea of setting as a partner in conflict. In my current WIP, I have two relevant settings: the complicated city of Boston and a retail co-op that houses a diverse group of crafty characters.

    – Just pre-ordered Romeo’s Town, can’t wait to discover what he’s gotten himself into lately.

  5. Mine takes place on a horse farm that has been in the family for three generations. The husband puts the place up for sale without telling his wife.

    I made up the house only to see one very much like it come up for sale.

    Congratulations on your new book!

  6. Thanks for another great post! My 1980s cozy library mystery series is set in the fictional southwest Portland neighborhood of Fir Grove, inspired by the actual southwest Portland neighborhoods I know so well from my library career. Lots of wooded hills, houses from the early 20th century, even a manor from the late 19th when the place was mostly hillside pastures and a few farms, then many houses from the 1930s-60s, an “old” 1940s style shopping center, a community center, schools, churches, book stores, a video rental place, coin shop etc. and of course, the library, which is one of the last Carnegie endowment ones, and which has been added on to, Frankenstein fashion, with lots of nooks and crannies.

    Needless to say, I’m putting together maps of the neighborhood and the library. Development is a potential murder-level conflict in the series. The biggest point about the setting is the library being a nexus for all sorts of community groups, interests, and individuals, and the staff, volunteers and hard-core library patrons who inhabit it.

    Congratulations on your latest Romeo novel–I just pre-ordered it. Have a wonderful Sunday!

  7. As a kid growing up in flat & featureless Maryland, reading western novels where setting was a crucial part of the story saved my sanity and it’s always a critical part of my decision making in story settings. At times I have to be careful not to let it take over too much in my writing.

    As for ghosts, I’m currently brainstorming that for the heroine of my current story. There’s been some trauma in her life–I just have to zero in on the main issue with her (it’s usually a battle of too many ideas, not too few).

    • “Flat and featureless.” Sheesh! No wonder you got into Westerns, BK. I grew up near where a ton of TV Westerns were shot: Chatsworth, Simi Valley, Malibu Canyon, Thousand Oaks. Never had a hankering to visit Maryland…but I’m sure there are places WITH features there, no?

      • In the natural landscape? No.

        They have a few historical places worth seeing. Fort McHenry comes uppermost to mind. I remember how awed I was visiting it as a kid. I’ve never been to the Antietam site from the Civil War, & I believe the B&O Railroad has a museum there.

        But that’s okay. Even though it’s not the place for me, there are many who love it (especially people who enjoy seafood) and I’m glad.

        As for me, I’m thankful every single day to be living in the west that I read about and dreamed about as a kid.

  8. Good morning, Jim, and congratulations on Romeo’s Town! I just pre-ordered it and I’m eager to see what mental and physical gymnastics Romeo’s involved with now.

    My WIP takes place on a fictional university campus. You know, the ivory tower, the search for the truth, and all that. Some pretty strange things have been happening in this educational utopia. The university librarian turned up dead (apologies to Dale), coded messages have been left in the prayer box at the chapel, and belligerent professors and incompetent administrators litter the landscape. And then there are the two young girls who decide to “investigate.”

  9. Dale,
    Great idea. Libraries absolutely qualify as believable hubs for murder and murderers, especially a public library. I’m surprised more bodies don’t turn up in them.

    • Thanks, Truant! There’ve been a number of library mysteries over the years, but most seem to be focused on the community outside the library, rather than the one inside, and the other communities which meet at the library. I also wanted to go back to the library I knew in the 1980s, when I was fresh out of college and a wet-behind the ears library clerk.

  10. I spent years prior to coming across your books on writing thinking about these aspects for my WIP that I hope to self publish in a month or two. The location was my biggest problem.

    Back in the early 2000s, I spent three years working in the Middle East and realized that this was a powerful setting to write about characters and conflict. There are enormous amounts of drugs, alcohol abuse and prostitution in those countries. For me, it’s a magnificent setting for a washed-up mentor to hide who had a drinking problem and commitment issues.

    I also wanted to write about an Arab man I used to work with who could have been gay. I thought maybe my co-worker came out to one day, but if he did, he would have been putting his life in jeopardy. Not that I would have turned him in, but it’s a death sentence to be gay in the wrong place. But as the years went on, it made sense that this man lived with a death sentence from birth because he was born a homosexual. It inspired my antagonist, who is spurred on to do strange things because of the stress of living this way.

    I’m worried that I might upset an enormous mass of people if I based my story in the UAE like Abu Dhabi or Doha in Qatar. To solve that, I made up my own country called Azurbar to hopefully not draw attention to anyone country in particular.

    However, in Azurbar, there are no high standards to worry about. That solved my next problem with why my protagonist would go there. But the solution was right there, and I made it so he has PTSD and third-degree burn on his leg. In short, he goes to Azurbar to work with Dave, (the former mentor) as a firefighter in an oil facility that is under constant threat of terrorism.

    • Wow, Ben, that’s loaded with conflict. I think you made a good decision re:location. Many an author has done that to great effect. Readers don’t mind, though I recently had an email from someone who said they’d gone bonkers trying to find the town I wrote about in Romeo’s Stand. I told her it exists…only in my head!

  11. Thanks, Mr. Bell, for the post and the new Mike Romeo story. Already pre-ordered.

    One of my current WIPs is set in the wild mountains of NE Washington State, places I’ve been acquainted with all my life. The region is hit by a massive freak snowstorm, unusual even for that area. The storm drags the raging storms out of my characters-who are three families, strangers to each other, stranded together for a long weekend.

    All kinds of juicy conflicts arise, aided and abetted by the PTSD suffered by two marine vets-and their wives who’ve lived with it since the Vietnam and Iraq wars. Tension climbs in the wake of a devastating secret revealed, in the worst way, to a teenage girl, daughter of the Iraq war vet.

    Then she disappears and total chaos ensues.

    I think the storm-laden setting provides a vivid backdrop to the internal storms of the three families.

    • You bring up a good point, Deb, that the weather in a place, if distinctive, can be great fodder for more trouble. The think about L.A. is our weather is so darn nice…but maybe an earthquake…hmmm….

    • Very good point, Deb!
      Weather should be a major factor in scene-setting (imho.)
      I write fantasy, but weather is as necessary to my settings as it would be any other story. To me, it’s like colour; if I don’t know what temperature the character is feeling for certain situations, I’m missing out as a viewer. (For example: they just walked from indoors to outdoors, or from a bathhouse sudatorium to the caldarium.) It’s all good layering and can often contribute directly to what the character feels at that moment.

  12. Pre-ordered. More Romeo is always good news. Congratulations, Jim!

    My thrillers are set in Montana–home of notable criminals like the Unabomber, a cannibal pedophile, and a bride who pushed her new husband off a cliff in Glacier Park.

    Wild animals here can be four-legged…or two legged.

  13. Congrats on the new book, Jim! Looks awesome.

    The setting of my WIP (Grafton County Series #5) is the quaint town of Alexandria, NH, with its sprawling farmlands, thick forests, and plenty of abandoned cabins. I also live there. My husband and I often go on research trips to look for prime murder or body dump locations. He’s such a romantic. 😉

    Strangely enough, Alexandria is also the setting of my true crime/narrative nonfiction project. Which makes it easier to pingpong between the two manuscripts.

    • Sounds like a real cozy relationship you have with your hubby, Sue. Marriage counselors frequently advise couples to go looking for body dump sites together.

      I also love doing the ping pong between fiction and nonfiction, and sometimes between full length and short fiction. Get those words done!

  14. Thanks for the link Prof. Bell, waiting for Sep 5 del.
    My WIP’s ghost haunts him from his 13 year old past. First love cut short by girl’s mother because he “was a boy of such poor prospects.” Ouch! That really hurts a 13 year old boy’s ego. Yes, personal experience.
    Spittin’ image of Huck Finn, bare footed with raggedy cutoff blue jeans, etc. Girl made him promise to knuckle down and become “someone of substance” so they could be together. Neither had any idea how long that would take. Hint, few 13 year old girls are that patient. (A coming-of-age slice.)
    Plot opens 11 years later, MC is nearing his exit from being a poor boy. Just a few more steps, like the little issue of getting through 4 years of war relatively unscathed and reclaiming the well-paying job he had just started. The “poor prospects” ghost causes conflicts with romantic interests who are listening to a ticking clock growing louder.
    Regarding locations. A tumbleweed and I had a contest to see who could move the most (still playing second fiddle at 32 places of residence.) I have lots of locations to choose from (including several in CA from San Diego up to Monterey, including a few in the LA basin.)
    I’ve seen flat across the central plains where the only “hill” for 20 miles in any direction was a prairie dog mound. Listened to an argument between two sergeants of mine about which state was larger, W. Virginia or Texas. Since I had been in both for a few years, I found the argument interesting.
    The female was a 5′-10″ beautiful blue eyed blonde from WV honed to near perfect physical condition by daily PT. She was matched against a 6′-2″ guy from TX, same PT regimen. Girl (the common term from 50 years ago) won the argument when the guy was laid out on the ground with a busted nose. Probably should mention the argument occurred during a volleyball game and I’m pretty sure she was just psyching him out. He was ogling a couple of her best assets as she jumped to spike the ball.
    She tended his injuries, telling him, “Ya gotta keep dem eyes a yourin on da ball or yous’ll get hurt.” We had a couple Georgia peaches that spoke in a similar fashion. Woe be to anyone who mistook their manner of speaking for low intellect. They were all sharp as a tack. Her final comment about the argument was if WV was put on an ironing board and flattened out like a bed sheet, it would be bigger than Texas which is mostly flat, at least according to her. And no one who valued breathing through their nose would argue.

      • Starting with your “How to Write Best-Selling Fiction” from the Great Course series, I branched out trying to absorb as much as I could from other great authors who offered online courses during the Covid year(s). Each offered new POVs and additional parts of the puzzle that is writing novels.

        Amy Tan offered an idea that has intrigued me. She suggests that, as authors, we recall the deep emotions we felt during a previous event in our lives and carry it like the fragrance extracted from a rose, into a new fictional event in our manuscripts.
        Having done that, I believe I can make the action seem more real by it including how the MC’s heart raced or the feeling of deep sadness or disappointment physically affected him. Time will tell if readers agree.

  15. Love that you cited location/setting as a source of conflict. I’m of the mind that setting is often a neglected “character.” (And hence often a good antagonist) And yeah, it’s good to write whereof you know, ie LA, or in my case Michigan and SW Florida. But it’s great fun to build a place from the mortar of your own imagination. We did that with our second book, “Dead of Winter.” That little Michigan berg of Loon Lake is as real to me as any place on earth.

  16. Story world: fantasy/alternate history amalgamation of Roman Empire, the Ottoman empire, and the nomadic desert tribes of both Africa and Middle East, . Another major continent has touches of Greece.
    I drew a great deal of personal memory from the towns, cities, and mountains of Morocco.
    My husband and I had great fun, sitting at cafes in Fez and Marrakech, or sleepy Chefchouen, inventing fight scenes for my characters based on the crumbling, multi-layered architcture that surrounded us.

    Scenes: my character returning home after years of being trapped in a foreign country, forced to experience the changes along with the familiarity.

    Backstory is also her Ghost: her past self and how drastically the lost years (in the foreign country) have affected/changed her.

    Congrats on the release, Jim! I really need to delve into that world of yours.

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