The reverse side of voluntary absence is confinement. No one likes feeling trapped and the desire to escape is an intense motivator. It speaks to a universal need for safety. Readers root for characters that need to escape catastrophic or horrific danger. There are more subtle ways to play with the conflict as an overall story problem or a complication at scene level. Confinement forces a character to deal with a person or situation because they can’t escape it.
Dick can feel trapped in an airplane seat. Add an obnoxious row-mate and his discomfort increases. Replace the obnoxious stranger with an angry spouse and your characters are strapped in for a few hours of heated debate or icy silence. Strap a bomb to his row-mate and it becomes a matter of life and death. It’s difficult to escape an airplane. Sure, seemingly rational men and women make a sport of escaping perfectly intact aircraft, but most of us would die if we attempted it.
Trapping Dick in a car can have the same effect. Characters often have intense and important conversations while strapped in their cars.
Being confined in a car, elevator or waiting room can provide Dick with ample time to think something through as well.
Dick may hate being alone and isolation makes it difficult for him to breathe. He may suffer from anxiety or panic attacks when he is alone.
Dick might want to break free of romantic relationship or marriage. Depending on his personality type and childhood wounds, he might find commitment suffocating. It can be as simple as Dick not liking that his romantic options have narrowed or been eliminated, so he refuses to propose to a girl he loves. He’ll live with her but he doesn’t like the prison bars that marriage suggests. If Jane sees marriage as a desirable bond, a sign that Dick values their relationship and promises to always have her back, she won’t understand his reluctance. This provides terrific tension in a romance or romantic subplot. Dick and Jane, as well as the supporting cast, can argue whether marriage entraps or frees them. Dick can overcome his internal resistance and give in. Dick and Jane can agree that their commitment to each other is more important than the piece of paper. Or, their differing belief systems and needs are a deal breaker and end the relationship.
Sally might want to break free of a confining friendship. Let's make Sally the type of easy-breezy personality that loves to be around lots of people and considers twenty people her best friend. She befriends Jane who values one tight, soul-sister over lesser acquaintances. Confine these two in an apartment or a college dorm and the game begins. Whether physically confined or merely emotionally confined, their differing needs and definitions of loyalty and trust provide obstacles to continuing their friendship.
The situation can be explored in a sweet literary story about why friendships fail. Jane could cause problems for Sally, the protagonist, in other genres as Sally negotiates her exacting friend’s emotional neediness while solving an unrelated story problem. This claustrophobic dynamic has been explored in horror films about scary roommates, but it can also factor in virtually any plot line. Pairing friends, or lovers, with differing connection needs creates believable conflict.
Jane might want to escape a confining job. She may be afraid to leave a lucrative career but be stifled by the monotony or lack of challenge. She may love the job but hate her boss or coworkers. The entrapment will either force to her make a life changing career move or renegotiate her reality within the confines of her job.
Dick might need to escape from a confining belief system, societal rules, or cult at the story problem level. This type of conflict fuels many dystopian and Science Fiction plot lines. It also works in literary and coming of age stories. The focus can also be narrowed to cause problems with friends, relatives, lovers, etc. at scene level.
At story problem level, Sally can be confined by a family, a tribe, a gang or a dying planet. The situation can be an abusive or intolerable situation or place she needs to flee from. She might literally have to escape to save her life or the lives of others. Life or death stakes ratchet up the tension. Add a ticking clock and you’ve escalated the conflict to Thriller level. She may simply need to escape to pursue the career she loves or marry the man of her dreams.
Jane may want to escape a family dinner. Family get-togethers are rarely the love-fests featured on episodes of The Waltons or Little House on the Prairie. They are hot beds of festering unmet needs and resentments. Personalities clash and clang and grate, fomenting snide remarks and truth-revealing tirades. The quickest way to exit an undesirable family event is for your character to make statements they know will stir the family pot. They can escape during the ensuing verbal brawl. An investigator might stir the pot to get a suspect to reveal himself. If going home feels like entering a prison, then Jane isn’t going to enjoy going there, even for a holiday much less a week. She may return home to take care of an ailing parent, but the situation will make her feel like she is being strangled, particularly if irritating siblings insist on visiting.
Dick may want to escape a corporate board meeting. There are two theories on meetings. One, that they accomplish things by bringing different “team members” together to brainstorm and share information. Two, that meetings are pointless and were invented to torture employees. If Dick’s boss is a big fan of meetings, and Dick would rather chew shoe leather, they have a conflict. If Dick is forced to sit through a meeting when he’d rather be fly fishing, or saving the world from imminent disaster, he will chafe at the restriction.
Sally may not like being confined to a desk at school when she’d rather be outside playing with Puff. She may fidget and doodle and earn herself a detention.
In a con or heist the team may need to escape a prison. They may have to overcome other obstacles such as manacles or laser alarm systems.
There are multiple ways to use confinement as a conflict in your stories. Next week we will explore conflicts of attraction versus repulsion.