Writers in the Storm

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September 1, 2017

6 Ways Your Setting Can Create Conflict

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

No matter what form it takes, conflict is at the core of every story. It’s part of what drives the plot, and it’s what makes readers eager to read on to see if the protagonist succeeds. Characters face problem after problem, and with each trouble found, they’re forced to make tough decisions about what to do next. It’s this constant flow of dealing with problems that keeps the story moving.

But conflict also exists in the world around the characters which has nothing to do with them personally—it’s just the inherent conflict of the world. The setting can be rife with problems that prevent your protagonist from solving her problems and even add to her internal conflicts.

These environmental conflicts are the issues and situations that make it harder for the protagonist to face the challenges of the novel. Getting food when you live in a big city is different from getting food if you’re lost in the woods with no gear or survival training. Dealing with a backstabbing co-worker during a team-building ride in a hot air balloon is more problematic when you’re terrified of heights.

Let's say you have a scene where you want your protagonist to feel uncomfortable because she's confronting a coworker who just stabbed her in the back at work over a promotion. She’s uncertain about her actions, because it could backfire on her and create more trouble than losing a promotion.

Where would you set it?

The most obvious choice is at work, since that's where she interacts with this person. She'd likely do it somewhere familiar to her, because she'll want a position of strength for this confrontation. But that means she'll be in familiar and safe territory, which will probably keep her calm and lessen her apprehension of this meeting. Being calm and feeling safe will not add conflict to this scene, so the setting is doing nothing to help it.

Instead, let's move this meeting to a location that puts the protagonist at a disadvantage, so the stakes go up and the tensions are raised. Instead of work, let's choose a place that makes her uncomfortable and let the setting reflect the emotions we want both the character and the reader to feel.

For example, if she wants to confront the coworker in private, let’s force her to confront her coworker in a public place where anyone might overhear. What she’s willing to say to someone in private changes when she has to say it in a room full of people. If she's a recovering alcoholic, we'll send her into a bar where drinks are flowing heavily. If she dislikes kids, we'll make her attend a birthday party for twenty ten-year-olds. Whatever triggers her discomfort is a potential setting, because it will add another layer of difficulty to her objective.

If we use the environment to push the emotions of the protagonist to new heights, we'll make her goals harder to accomplish, which adds conflict and raises tensions, since it's far more likely something will go wrong.

Let’s look at some ways you might use your setting to add conflict to a scene.

1. Choose a location that puts the protagonist at a disadvantage.

Look for places that will force the protagonist into a position of weakness. It might be on the enemy’s turf or an unfamiliar location, as long as the setting strips away whatever inherent advantage the protagonist might have had.

2. Choose a location that has inherent conflict of its own.

If there’s conflict all around, that naturally spills over onto the protagonist and her current problem. A war-torn land, office politics, political strife, even the teenage cliques and social hierarchy of high school can provide additional challenges to solving a problem.

3. Let the environment add another layer of difficulty to the task.

Weather can be an interesting factor here, as overcoming a challenge is usually much harder when the weather is bad. Unfamiliar terrain is also a problem that could hinder achieving a goal, such as being in a new city, or being forced to go out onto a lake when you’re not sure how to sail—or swim.

4. Let the setting mirror or echo the emotional state of the character.

Tone and mood can be useful tools here, with stormy weather or creepy locations adding atmosphere, but the setting can also contain elements that resonate with the protagonist’s current conflict. A reconciliation dinner with a loved one who betrayed you is going to be much harder if there’s a couple at the next table who is clearly having an affair.

5. Use an environment that presses one of the protagonist’s buttons.

If there’s something that sets off your protagonist, why not have elements of that during a difficult time? If your amateur sleuth has strong views on sexism, put the witness she needs to question behind the bar during a wet t-shirt contest. Give her reasons to trigger a side of herself that will cloud her judgment or color her opinions.

6. Use a setting that shows others having a similar conflict.

Being stranded by a delayed flight at the airport is a pain, but being one of thirty passengers all upset over the delay exacerbates the problem. Tensions rise and everything becomes more difficult. People who would have normally been agreeable don’t want to compromise. Sometimes, problems shared do not ease the burden at all.

Environmental conflicts are often smaller elements of the story, but they can add a rich and textured aspect to that story. Take advantage of what your environment can do to layer in emotions, create conflict, and make a character really work to resolve her challenges.

Because sometimes the world really is out to get you, and just getting through the day is a huge challenge.

What ways have you used setting to create conflict in your stories? Do you have examples of how other authors have used setting to amp up the conflict?

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Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the fantasy trilogy, The Healing Wars, and multiple books on writing, including Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It), Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure and Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft. She's also the founder of the writing site, Fiction University. For more advice and helpful writing tips, visit her at www.fiction-university.com or @Janice_Hardy.


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Looking for more tips on creating conflict? Check out my latest book Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means), an in-depth guide to how to use conflict in your fiction.

Janice Hardy takes you deep inside one of the most important aspects of storytelling--conflict. She'll help you understand what conflict really is, discuss the various aspects of conflict, and reveal why common advice on creating conflict doesn't always work.

With in-depth analysis and easy-to-understand examples, Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means) looks at how to develop and create conflict in your novel. It also explores the things that affect conflict (such as tension), and the misconceptions that confuse and frustrate so many writers.

Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means) is more than just advice on what to do and what not to do—it’s a down and dirty road map to how conflict works, designed to help you create the right conflict for whatever genre you're writing. By the end of this book, you’ll have a solid understanding of what conflict means and the ability to use it to craft strong and compelling fiction.

24 comments on “6 Ways Your Setting Can Create Conflict”

  1. These are wonderful suggestions and reminders. And weather, for example, doesn't have to be extreme. Nothing bugs me more than an author setting a story in Florida in the "summer" (every day other than February 3rd) and not mentioning the crippling heat and humidity. If characters aren't sweating, I can't buy it.

    Here in Colorado, the weather is always an issue--we can have 4 seasons in one day.

    Traffic is another one that gets glossed over as a way to build conflict. Nobody navigates the LA freeways without dealing with the sea of red tail lights.

    1. Thanks! As a gal who grew up in and currently lives in Florida, I have that same pet peeve 🙂 Great example with the LA traffic. Bad traffic can put anyone in a terrible mood, and make them snap at the wrong person at the wrong time.

  2. I was just talking to Laura Drake about this post the other day. There are so many many things to have fun with in terms of setting. And using it to highlight character? That's just awesome-sauce. 🙂

  3. Always informative, Janet. I hadn't thought about making an MC be in an environment that pushes her buttons - like the wet t-shirt contest you mentioned. Great tips!

  4. Loved this post and will utilize all of your great suggestions. My current WIP has the love interest trying to slog his way through knee-deep fully snow to rescue my protagonist from her attacker... Didn't even knew I used weather but born and raised in Wisconsin it kind of came naturally.

    1. I bet! But it's a great example of how setting can provide challenges. It's simple, but it makes it harder, and it helps create realism in the scene.

  5. Janice this is so good! Just what I needed today. I'm printing it and posting it on my wall, my literal wall in my writing space not my facebook page, lol! My novel is set in Korea in the 60's post Korean War and it's a life of poverty for most and survival. Just reading your list gave me some great ideas to push up the conflict for my main POV character.

    1. Oh good! Glad I could help. LOL I have post-it notes I stick to my monitor, so I have my own mini-wall.

  6. Apologies to all for my late responses. I got a bit distracted by Hurricane Irma and all the prep involved in getting ready for her. All is well now (we were very lucky and suffered no damage, though we did lose power for a few days), but I feel bad about taking so long to reply 🙂

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