Conflict and Setting!
If writing a book seems daunting to you—something you’ve dreamed about but don’t know how to get started—then ask yourself three questions:
1. Who is your protagonist?
2. What trouble is she or he facing?
3. Where does the story take place?
Since I explored Question 1 last week, it's time to touch on Questions 2 and 3 to help kick-start your book.
Without a substantial problem in your book, the events will lead nowhere, offering little interest to the readers. Think of your favourite book. Why is it your favourite? What is the key problem in the story? Until this was solved, you couldn’t put the book down, right? The book was that gripping.
With your overarching problem in mind, picture your book as a series of causes and effects or actions and reactions. A book needs both Action (plot or events) and Reaction (the emotion garnered from these events) to increase dramatic potential and intrigue.
Plot, more than emotion, dominates action-packed movies (or books) such as Stranger Things (when a young boy disappears, his mother, his friends, and a police chief must confront terrifying forces to get him back), while the emotion is stronger in books such as Nicholas Sparks’ The Notebook. The story is more about Allie Nelson and Noah Calhoun’s enduring love, spanning decades, rather than the day-to-day events in their lives in New Bern, North Carolina.
By balancing action and reaction in the story, you can influence its pace. With action, the story speeds up, while with reaction, the story slows down. Readers need a chance to press pause, which they get when the pace decelerates. If your story is full of car chases but has scant character development, think of how exhausting it is to read.
Before you jump into the deep water of your own book, try this warm-up task:
In one sentence, describe the key problem in your favourite book.
In my favourite book, To Kill a Mockingbird, the problem is racism: a white lawyer, living in a bigoted US town in the thirties, defends a black man accused of rape.
Describe how your protagonist solves the problem in your book.
The story setting is important because you can develop plot, mood, backstories, and more with it. Consider how you could advance the plot in the following setting:
Under the sunny sky, you are sitting in a rowboat tucked in a cove on a quiet lake, fishing, when the wind picks up and dark clouds move overhead. As the waves swell, the boat heads towards the open water. Despite your family’s warning to take a lifejacket with you, you left it behind. As you paddle feverishly against the current, a wave tosses the boat into the air, flipping it on its side.
Thriller-writer Linwood Barclay developed plot, mood, and suspense from this setting in A Tap on the Window:
“Can you swim?”
“Man, you’re crazy! Let me go!”
“Because even if you can, I don’t like your chances. We’re so close to the falls, the current’s unbelievably fierce. Before you know it, you’re swept over. And it’s a long way down.”
“Let me go!”
“You might grab onto one of the rocks just before the top, but the thing is, if you hit one, it’ll probably kill you. Like driving into a wall at a hundred miles per hour. If you were in a barrel, like some of those daredevils who’ve tried going over in one, you might have one chance in a hundred, which is pretty good odds, when you think about it.”
“I’m tellin’ you, mister, swear to God, it wasn’t me.”
“I don’t believe you. But if you’re honest with me, if you admit what you did, I won’t throw you over.”
“It wasn’t me! I swear!”
“If it wasn’t you, who was it?”
“I don’t know! If I had a name I’d give it to you. Please, please, I’m begging you, man.”
“You know what I think? I think when you go over, it’ll feel like flying.”
(Barclay, A Tap on the Window, 3.)
Author Lisa Scottoline is also a master of the nail-biting book but created a harmonious mood in the following setting:
Christine followed Marcus inside the house, slid her laptop from her quilted tote, left her purse on the chair, and kicked off her flats. Her nausea had abated slightly, and the cool of the house came as a relief. They kept the central air on during the day since she’d gotten pregnant, and it was worth the money. Marcus went ahead of her into the kitchen, and she padded after him across the hardwood floor, patting their dog Murphy on the head when he came to greet them, wagging his thick comma of a tail. Murphy was a chubby yellow Lab, still hyperactive at six years old, so they’d finally given up waiting for him to mellow. His nature was gentle enough to ignore their cranky orange tabby Marmalade, nicknamed Lady, which they had rescued back in the days when they were practicing for the kids they couldn’t have.
(Scottoline, Most Wanted, 23.)
By using your senses, you can enhance the realism in the setting. When you imagine entering your favourite restaurant, what do you hear? What do you smell? If I wandered into my favourite diner, I’d hear plates and cutlery clinking as the waitstaff empty tables, dumping items into bins. I’d smell roasted coffee beans—strong and fresh—which remind me of sunny mornings after a good night's sleep. To fully experience a setting, I try to go there in reality and shut my eyes. When I don’t rely on my sight, my other senses kick-in more and then dominate my written descriptions.
When I crack open a window in the house after a summer thunderstorm, I smell the roses that climb the trellis by my front porch. The air is light, and the sun is warm as it spills across my bare feet onto the hardwood floor.
Here's another warm-up task:
Use your senses to describe the can of pop you just pulled from the fridge. Describe how the can feels (wear a blindfold to keep your eyes shut). Does the can sweat when it meets the warm air? Pull the tab off, and what do you hear? Take a sip, and what does it taste like? Does the taste remind you of anything? Your senses will help you develop a backstory, a character, a plot, and more. You could be surprised!