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?