Search This Blog

Using Physical Boundaries To Add Conflict

Last week, we discussed blurring psychological bounaries. This week, we'll tackle utilizing physical boundaries as conflict at the scene and overall story level.

The concept of physical boundaries ties in with the thematic question of ownership. Do we ever really “own” anything? Characters draw chalk lines and erect fences, warning signs, hedges, and walls to define physical boundaries.

Characters in any genre can argue the fine points of the debate whether they are talking about a desk, a house, a country, a dog, a child, or a partner. Trusts, inheritance entailments, and wills are drawn up to ensure that the ownership of a thing passes down in the desired way. 

These often play a part in a Mystery or Thriller, but can be used in any genre.  Physical boundary conflicts escalate until a crisis point is reached. These conflicts can be resolved amicably or resolved because only one is left standing. They can result in a new division of territory or someone takes all. Such are the basis for world or interstellar wars.

Skirmishes erupt between neighbors over the borders of their yards and driveways. It can erupt between cities and counties and states and countries. Border wars make great overall story problems and thematic arguments: borders are arbitrary versus borders are necessary. No one should fence in anything versus enforcing borders keeps its residents safe. When countries redraw borders, people get displaced and that makes a terrific thematic argument to explore. Humans are willing to kill over scraps of land, even if the land lacks water, food and clean air. Is every scrap of land worth fighting for? Some would argue yes, others no.

Battles over borders could also serve as a problem at scene level if Dick needs to enter a geographic area to gain something and can’t go there. He may have to find a way in that is subversive or get someone else to go there for him.

Characters get testy when people trespass on what they believe to be theirs, whether they are accurate or not. A character might object if someone else’s children played on his lawn or swam in his pool without permission. The same character might make justifications when his children do it to someone else. Characters get really testy, even violent, over their perceived boundaries. Try trimming someone's prize rose bush and you'll know what I mean.

Arguments over physical boundaries can involve a country’s borders, a contested parking space, a room with a view, or the scope can be narrowed to a very personal boundary. Making Dick confront physical boundaries creates conflicts whether he has to jump over a railroad track or cross into Palestine from Israel.
Use physical boundaries to trip up your protagonist and make his scene goal more difficult.

For more information on these and other obstacles for your fiction, pick up a copy of Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict in print or E-book version.

Five Ways to Use Context to Add Tension

Context is the frame that defines words, actions, and people.

1. When the mind registers something out of place, it hangs onto the image and tries to reconcile it. This dilemma can eat away at your character, and the reader, until it is explained.

Dick will either deny what he saw, decide he didn't see what the thought he had, or blame it on a trick of light.

A slick detective will notice the slightest thing out of place. The image will keep churning in his brain until he figures out why it bothered him. Things presented out of context cause cognitive dissonance. Dick will pick up on things a witness says that are out of context. Poirot and Sherlock were masters of detecting conflicts of context.

If Dick sees someone walking down an urban street in a pioneer costume, he may have caught a fleeting glimpse, but his mind will hang onto the image. His rational mind won't be able to resolve it easily. Dick might see someone who looks familiar, but he is seeing them out of context so he can't quite place them.

2. Context shifts when a character is relocated or finds himself in a different world.

The frame changes when small town football star, Dick, goes off to college. He becomes a small fish in a big pond. That's why college is a great place for characters to reinvent themselves. Everyone there is out of context. Whatever your character's past, he or she can start over with a new identity or self image.

3. Shifting context can shed a different light on something said or done or cause misunderstanding. 

Advertisers, politicians and news headlines do this all the time. You see a headline and think something must really be wrong. Then you read the same words in the context of the article and realize it meant nothing. It is also a way to advance false data to support a proposition.

If Dick wants to make Jane look bad, he can take something she said out of context and distort her meaning by making her quote sound more simplistic or extreme. When asked to confirm if she made the comment, she'll have to admit to it. She may not be given the opportunity to defend herself by explaining the context. This tactic is used in courtrooms to great effect. If Jane said she wanted to "kill" Sally for being such a bitch, she may have said so as a joke or in a moment of ire. She did not intend to ever harm Sally. On the witness stand, Dick will use her words against her.

Dick can also use this tactic by quoting an authority out of context to support his argument. If an article states that cigarettes cause cancer in six out of ten smokers, Dick can state that the article said cigarettes don't cause cancer in all smokers. He is technically correct, but that was not the intent of the article's author.

If Dick is caught quoting someone's inflammatory statement, Jane can turn on him and pretend the statement came from Dick himself, when in fact the remainder of Dick's comment countered the inflammatory statement. This is often done with biblical quotes. Just because a scribe in biblical times said that something was okay does not make it an acceptable, rational choice in modern society. Or the person takes a quote from a trusted text and uses it out of context intentionally (or ignorantly) to support their proposition.

Jane can state there is some evidence that a specific medical treatment was effective. She leaves out the part where the article stated that it was effective in such a small sampling as to be considered ineffective and not worth further study.

Dick could film Jane doing something and edit the film to make it look like she was doing something wrong or illegal. In a world where virtually everyone has a cell phone camera, it's easy to take a random shot or video clip of someone and use it however you like. This is a frequent tactic by paparazzi when it comes to celebrity hookups. They show two actors standing together and call them a couple when all they were doing was posing for an upcoming film promotion.

4. Seeing photographs or images out of context can make Jane view something in an entirely different light. An example would be the "this is your brain on drugs" that showed an egg frying in a skillet. Juxtaposing different verbal images can have the same effect.

Commercials sometime stream images of unrelated images together to illustrate a point. The images are all out of context but work together to change perceptions. The E-trade baby commercials where they show toddlers talking like adults or the identity theft commercials where they show teenage girl voices emitting from a middle aged man are good examples. The switch in context makes them funny. The photo of an oil rig next to an oil-soaked duckling is another example. Sometimes it is not until you see something out of context that the reality sinks in.

5. Conflicts occur when something Dick says is taken out of context or misunderstood. He can have the best intentions in the world, but if Jane is having a bad day, feeling overly sensitive or Dick's words catch her at just the wrong angle, he has conflict. This happens all the time in all facets of life. Small misunderstandings create big wounds. We all have our issues and sensitive moments. Jane can be experiencing emotion due to something else entirely and an innocent comment from Dick can set off a storm of retaliation.

Sally can reveal information she didn’t intend to under these circumstances. Characters have their hot buttons and comments can push those hot buttons. Sally might perceive someone’s comment as a blow to her pride, honor, integrity, intelligence, generosity, or belief system. A casual comment from a spouse, friend or relative, even if it was meant to be funny, could result in a massive blowout if it strikes an unintended nerve. What Jane said might have been funny if it hadn't been out of context. If Jane intentionally says something knowing she'll strike a nerve, that’s another conflict.

Characters hear things wrong, interpret things wrong, and relate information filtered through their past experiences and personal preferences. They could repeat something that was said to them. They may believe in the accuracy of what they are saying. That does not, however, make it true or accurate.

Conflicts of context can be utilized in all genres and all aspects of a story from setting and character description to dialogue.

For more information on using context and other obstacles to create conflict, pick up a copy of Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict in print or E-book version.

Characters with Blurred Lines

Boundaries can be geographical, social, psychological, or physical. 

This post will address psychological boundaries: the lines that are drawn that separate one person from another. Blur these lines and things get messy fast. No one likes having their boundaries violated. Cross them and you create conflict. 

Characters adopt behaviors, coping mechanisms, verbal warnings and body language to defend psychological boundaries. Psychological boundary violations are often very subtle and complicate relationships between protagonists and antagonists, siblings, lovers, parents, children, friends, coworkers, and teammates.

Relationships are supposed to bring people together. In healthy relationships, boundaries are flexible. We grow and adapt to allow the other person in, but keep the self intact. We give in only so much and will only go so far. We allow the other person into our personal space. We allow them to touch us. We give them access to our deepest thoughts and feelings. If someone uses that access to harm us, it is betrayal of the highest order.

Most of your characters would be hard-pressed to vocalize what their boundaries are, but feel violations all the way to their core. Boundary violations can inspire heated arguments, divorces, revenge plots, and serve as motive for murder.

1. A woman who tries to get too close too fast will unsettle Dick. He will either decide that she is up to something or that she is emotionally unstable. If he is at first flattered by the attention, he will soon realize that he should have been more wary. Such is the stuff of many a horror story. Romances thrive on love at first sight and sex with a stranger, but that is rushing intimacy. In real life this scenario typically does not end well. That level of intimacy implies connections that haven't been formed yet. It is forcing a character to trust someone they don't know with their health and welfare. It is a boundary violation that runs rampant throughout modern fiction. It's also a plot hole, especially when it happens because "the script calls for it."

2. A character who offers too much personal information too soon will make Dick suspicious. This is effective as a plot complication. However, if a character enters the story and shares way too much personal information for no reason apart from delivering information, it becomes a plot hole. Readers will be irritated by it, unless they relate to the situation because their own boundaries are fuzzy.

3. Readers sense boundary violations in your story. They won't necessarily stop reading to shout, "Their boundaries are off!" Rather, they stop reading because they don't like the characters or think the plants and payoffs aren't realistic. I have tossed several books aside because the protagonist fell on either extreme end of the unhealthy boundary spectrum. This is often true in Thrillers where the protagonist runs around shooting people in a display of badass. Protagonists without conscience don't feel particularly heroic to the reader. They may still root for him to succeed but they don't necessarily like him. It may turn readers off so that they don't read the next book in the series. We want our heroes to care. They may have to take drastic measures to save us, but we don't want them to be the monster, even if you are writing paranormal.

4. Con men often approach and get real chummy too fast. Dick takes the stranger at face value initially. Unless Dick is professionally trained to detect liars, he won't stop to think, "this man is being way too friendly." Instead his intuition will tell him that something doesn't quite add up. As you relate Dick's responses, your reader will feel that same tug of intuition. As the plot progresses, Dick will begin connecting the dots and the reader will too.

5. At the extreme end, characters lacking sufficient boundaries remain in toxic, even abusive situations, befriend serial killers, or allow other characters to walk all over them. Most characters fall somewhere in the middle or slightly off center on the fuzzy-rigid spectrum. Circumstances can force any of them to be slightly rigid or slightly fuzzy.

6. On the mild end, they enable their children, can’t say no to excessive overtime, think celebrities are actually friends, or insist on taking photos of their butts on the company copier during the Christmas party. They cling and make outrageous demands, manipulate through guilt, or spend their time trying to fix broken people. They expect to be admired for their sacrifices and outrageous efforts to please and repair.

7. Use characters with poor boundaries to complicate Dick's life. If Dick is the responsible hero type he will try to drag this person back to a healthy sense of self or convince them of the error of their ways. In the end, unless it's a biography or a down-ending tale, Dick should be willing and able to accept that he can’t and isn’t responsible for fixing them. Even if it means losing them or letting them self-destruct. He may get sidetracked or dragged down temporarily by the toxic character, but his boundaries should be healthy enough for him to know when to walk away.

The toxic character may make solving the overall story problem next to impossible. Your antagonist, if you have one, is often toxic or is surrounded by toxic types enabling his erroneous ways.

8. A fairly well-balanced Dick can be driven to some derivative of fuzzy or rigid behavior depending on the circumstances. He would have to tolerate incursions to work for a rigid character. He would have to become a bit rigid when solving a problem with a fuzzy character. Extreme circumstances can force him into extreme behaviors.

9. If Sally has a weak sense of self, she’ll find it difficult to distinguish herself from the characters she forms relationships with. She will use the other people to fill in her missing pieces or the emptiness she feels when she is alone. The problem is, no one can do that for her and no amount of trying will make it so. It could show growth if she starts off a little insecure and grows into confidence. However, characters with a truly weak sense of self make poor protagonists. I could list a few contemporary examples.

10. If Jane is rigid, she will find it difficult to adjust her boundaries to allow the other person in. She ends up in emotionally detached relationships and is incapable of intimacy. She will make a lousy friend and a difficult lover. Rigid characters make excellent antagonists and foes.

11. Put fuzzy Sally with rigid Jane and you have a neurotic, passive-aggressive relationship. Their opposing approaches will make anything they undertake unsuccessful. They will get frustrated with each other and constantly return to the arena to repeat their tug of war.

Pair a healthy Dick with a rigid Jane or fuzzy Sally and the game is on. They will disagree verbally, thematically, even physically.

12. Dick can fear hurting someone he cares about, so he gets a little fuzzy. It’s easy to kick out a terrible tenant. It’s harder to evict an aging father with a Vicodin habit.

If Dick has healthy boundaries in all other respects, he may get fuzzy when it comes to dealing with a wife who is emotionally abusive due to mental illness or a child who has violent outbreaks.

Boundary conflicts can be a thematic argument, an overall story problem, a disruptive factor at scene level or serve as a motive. It can complicate things for your protagonist in any story.

Next time, we will explore physical boundaries.

For more information on how to use boundaries and other obstacles to create conflict, pick up a copy of Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict in print or E-book version.