Setting as Obstacles: How to Make Your Environment Impact Your Plot
Strong settings impact your plot because you are using them as more than a back drop. If you can pick up your story and move it to a different place and/or time, you are not using your setting effectively. People, governments, weather, even time are all aspects of setting that can become obstacles your characters need to overcome. Here’s how.
Confine Your Characters for Tension and Conflict
When your characters can’t leave a space to escape an argument, person, or situation, that setting has become an obstacle they must overcome. This can be anything from a long car ride filled with a difficult conversation to someone who has been buried alive to a prison.
Regardless of the situation, most people don’t like to be confined. That feeling of being trapped makes our adrenaline start pumping and puts us on edge. We either fight to suppress these intense emotions or act out because of them. Either way, we can’t wait to escape. Your characters should have similar emotions when confined in a less than ideal situation. How they react to these situations will define them and advance your plot.
One Person’s Dream Is Another’s Nightmare
Some confining settings are universally difficult like being buried alive. Other settings are only obstacles because of a character’s specific quirks. A person who loves dogs will react differently to a character’s excited pooch jumping on them than someone who was attacked by a dog and is now terrified of them. For one character, the dog is an obstacle in the setting, for the other it is not.
Think about a place your protagonist would hate to be. Is it stuck with their mother-in-law? Kidnapped and forced into a suffocating closet? A friend’s messy apartment where your character’s fear of germs is challenged? Make a list of these challenging settings then force your character into them. Do they overcome the obstacle or give into their panic? Use your setting to create conflict to keep your story moving.
Challenge Your Characters with Their Environment
What Could Be Worse
There’s a writing cliché often seen in movies where a character says “At least it can’t get any worse” and it starts raining. While I don’t recommend using this particular setup, weather is an excellent way to transform your setting into an obstacle. Anything from wind whipping your character’s hair into her face to a hurricane bearing down on your sailors can be an obstacle. Even if your characters are inside, thunder can interrupt a conversation.
When it comes to your setting ask yourself what could be worse and list aspects of the weather you could use to build obstacles. Try to think beyond natural disasters to ways your setting can interfere with your characters specifically. For a character struggling with depression, a string of overcast days can be an obstacle. For someone in heels, a patch of ice can be a challenge.
You can also use manmade aspects of setting to make things worse for your characters. A power outage traps your characters in an elevator or a laboratory with doors that require electricity to open. A bomb or some other explosion could go off. A bridge could collapse or be closed for construction. Use your setting to make things worse for your characters.
Make Your Characters Work for Their Goals
Another aspect of the environment of your setting you can use to build obstacles is distance. Distance can be such a strong obstacle, it has become a trope in science fiction and fantasy. Running out of fuel between star systems in space operas and journeying across a mystical land in epic fantasy are well established tropes.
Distance is an excellent way to make your characters work for their goals. Don’t put the item the thief needs on the first floor, put it on the seventeenth. When your character’s goals are physically farther away, they are forced to put more effort into attaining them, which makes your readers empathize with them more and builds tension. Like with weather, even subtle distances can matter. A character reaching for the table can miss, causing them to drop their mug where it shatters and they cut their foot or splash their computer’s power cord and lose that big work project. Look for ways you can use distance to make your setting more of an obstacle.
Society as a Threat or Hindrance
When it comes to setting, other people can create the biggest obstacles. Whole sub-genres are built around overthrowing governments and overcoming one’s station. Think about your character’s place and role in their society and ask yourself how that can become an obstacle. Are they in love with the prince when they are a peasant or vice versa? Have they broken the law and need to escape before being caught?
Cultures and traditions can be obstacles when your character doesn’t believe in them, doesn’t know or understand them, or is physically incapable of completing them. How to Train Your Dragon the book series and movie are about a boy who disagrees with his society’s beliefs about dragons and fights to change their minds. The Sea Witch by Sarah Henning is about a girl who is shunned for being friends with a prince and fighting to overcome her loneliness. In both stories, society is a huge obstacle.
And then there are wars. Armies, rogue soldiers, and lack of resources are just a few aspects of war settings that can become obstacles. Whether your character is directly involved in the war or not, they will have to face its challenges in some form or another. If you have a war happening when your story takes place, use that war to create obstacles through your setting.
Why an Editor Recommends Using Setting as Obstacles
When you transform your setting into obstacles for your story, things happen. Your characters are forced to make decisions. The plot advances. Setting can drive your story if you utilize it. Making your setting an obstacle also makes your story’s landscape more interesting and exciting because it becomes more than a backdrop. Your setting doesn’t need to be an obstacle in every scene, but it should be sometimes. A strong setting influences your story and leaves an impact on your reader. Use your character’s immediate surroundings, confine them, play with weather and distance, and make society a threat to Ignite Your Ink.
What are some ways you’ve used setting as an obstacle in your writing? Share them in the comments below. For more tips on writing and a free guide to developing strong settings, subscribe to Ignite Your Ink.
Ignite Your Ink is written by editor and author Caitlin Berve. She holds a MFA in Creative Writing and Poetics, actively participates in multiple writers’ organizations, and is dedicated to helping writers produce content that leaves an impression on readers.