Squeeze More Conflict Out of Your Settings

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

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?