Stirring the Plot with Isolation
Earliest man lived in small tribes. With fewer people, they relied on each other more. Such is the stuff of Historicals, Westerns, and Literary pioneer stories. When people died, especially in large numbers due to disease, famine, or drought, it preyed on the survivors' mortal fear of being alone. These stakes can heighten a story problem or create a scene conflict.
If the population of a planet is dying, Dick has an overall story problem.
If Jane feels alone in her marriage, she has a personal dilemma or overall story problem.
The situation in a dark, spooky mansion is heightened if Dick is alone, as would a perfectly normal forest. A planet would be terrifying if he was the only surviving astronaut.
The smaller the population, the higher the stakes of survival and the more claustrophobic the situation becomes. Put Dick in a city of a thousand people and he can easily get lost in the throng. That makes a good Mystery. Putting ten people in a space station makes a great Science Fiction story. Killing them off one by one makes a great Thriller or Horror story. Post apocalyptic stories explore our fear of being alone and the desire for survivors to find one another. Science Fiction stories explore our desire to not be alone in the universe.
On a personal level, most of us prefer to live with someone. A few thrive on the freedom of living alone.
How far is Jane willing to go to feel connected? Jane may marry someone she does not love, become friends with someone she wouldn’t otherwise, build a robot so she has a companion, join an organization she does not agree with, or draw a face on a football so she has someone to talk to on a deserted island.
How far is Dick willing to go to live alone? He might rent a cabin in the Dakota badlands or buy an island and find out he needs people after all.
Characters who are hurt by something or someone often withdraw from the people around them. Some do it for a week, others a month, at the most extreme end they withdraw from life entirely.
At the scene level Dick may need to be alone to accomplish something but all his well-meaning friends keep dropping by to chat.
Dick may momentarily find himself in an empty house, which creates the perfect opportunity for the ghost to visit.
Isolation adds an element of creepiness to any situation. It is a keystone of Horror stories. The characters must be trapped in a building, a city or on a planet from which there is no escape, so they must turn and face the horror instead of run away from it.
Isolation is critical in a Gothic novel for the same reason. The hapless governess cannot simply walk away from the creepy plantation house. She can’t board a bus or walk into a Starbucks. She can’t have a cell phone – not one that works anyway – or call a cab. She needs to be isolated so that she is forced to unravel the mystery or uncover the secret instead of running away at the first sign of trouble.
Isolation is also a key component of YA because so many teens feel isolated: from their family, their peers, their world. Isolation leads to depression and anxiety and feelings of low self-esteem. The character can realize they aren’t alone after all. They can graduate high school and find their “soul mate” friends in college. They can leave their all-Caucasian neighborhood to live in a predominantly Hispanic one and find themselves at home, or find the new community has its share of issues to contend with.
In a Literary story, Sally might embrace her mid-life crisis by selling up and moving to a house in Italy only to realize the locals don’t want her there. All that high life and camaraderie she expected are denied her. The doors remain shut but the curtains are pulled to the side so they can spy on her. Sally sits in her wilting, rustic money pit an unscrupulous salesman talked her into and realizes she should have stayed at home. It was boring but people liked and accepted her there. If murders start happening, it could become a Mystery and Sally the sleuth forced to solve them. In a Thriller, someone could want her to leave their family home and she becomes the target.
In a Romance, the opposite could happen. Sally could feel isolated in her home town because all of her friends have moved away or moved on. Her family might not be supportive or emotionally connected. She kicks the traces and runs off to a charming seaside cottage in Ireland and finds the circle of friends she desperately needed and a lad with a charming brogue to keep her warm at night.
If Sally’s best friend is moving away, in a sense abandoning her, the situation can cause subtle conflict as Sally attempts to overcome the overall story problem or a momentary distraction at scene level.
You can use isolation to fuel any genre at any story level.