Monday, June 6, 2011

Damn, we're in a tight spot!

We've been talking about tension. And setting. Well... okay, you haven't, but I have. Anywho... I've been thinking about the two, and how the setting of a story often times is what produces the tension in the plot. In How to Grow a Novel, Sol Stein writes that, if you want to create conflict in your story, place your characters in a setting that they can't escape. Or, as George Clooney so perfected the phrase in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, a tight spot. This "tight spot" could be as literally confining as a prison cell, or something more metaphorically confining, like a small town with it's mentality and prejudices, or a dysfunctional family, or a loveless marriage.

I recently read Room by Emma Donoghue, a novel where the setting is a major factor in both the character development and the plot. Narrated by five-year old Jack, the book takes place in a one room shed where the boy and his mother are being held prisoner. Jack has never been outside of the "room," and the author does a fantastic job of exploring themes of identity, place, space, and the mother-child relationship .

Another book I enjoyed where the setting played a key role in the story is Life of Pi by Yann Martel. The majority of this book takes place on a shipwrecked raft in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, where the protagonist Pi is fighting to survive not only the elements, but also his sole companion on the boat - a Bengal tiger.

Both novelists trap their characters in a tight spot - which keeps the reader turning the pages just to find out how, or if, they will be able to escape. In each novel, the setting alone produced tension and an interesting storyline, and also provided an interesting lens to develop the themes of the novels.

So, I guess my writing advice for myself (and for you, if you want to take it), is this: try putting your characters in a tight spot. And then, try to write them out of it.

Where are some of your favorite novels set?


  1. My favorite novel right now is The Hunger Games, and most of that is set in the arena. It's definitely a tight spot since Katniss can't get out of it unless she kills everyone else in it. Thanks for the good advice, setting can be so important!

  2. Hey, I'm totally reading your blog while I'm on vacation at Niagra Falls, Canada but I nabbed free wifi :)
    I LOVE OBWAT! That movie is genius!
    Right now I'm reading a book called HECK about a kids pergatory. The MCs in this book really are "Damn'ed, we're in a tight spot!"

  3. Oh, Susan, I agree with you - The Hunger Games puts Katniss in a definite tight spot!
    And Shelly, Niagra Falls? Really? I'm jealous :)

  4. Try putting your characters in a tight spot. And then, try to write them out of it.

    Excellent advice.

  5. Yeah, it's the "try to write them out of it" that can be the major challenge!

  6. Can I be in your writing club! I am learning tonz!

  7. Shelly! I am also reading this blog on my vacation--sneaking time away from Disneyland! So, Kim, nice job competing with Uncle Walt and winning. :)

    I LOVE that Cohn Brother's film. And you're oh so right about writing your characters into tight spots. One of my favorite novels about tight spots is The Old Man and the Sea.

  8. Vacation? Where are we, Europe? Curtis, I'm just glad to see you're still alive and well. I was beginning to think you had had some sort of altercation with Rulon :)