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When I’m working on a new novel, I try to turn to old favorites to mine for examples of what I’m trying to do. Brian Evenson’s Immobility is one of those, for me. Today we’ll be examining a scene that’s doing something I’m attempting in the WIP–using a simple setting as an obstacle for a character. As much as possible, I’ll try to avoid spoilers. 

The Challenge:

When you want to have a character alone in a room, interacting with a setting, building stakes and conflict, how can you maintain that for an entire scene? In what ways can settings and characters interact to create forward momentum in a plot? 

I’ve tried this in the past, and whenever I go back to the scene, it always seems to be mostly internal monologue, and it gets a tad redundant the longer the scene goes on. So I went back to a novel I enjoyed a lot a while ago that, at least in my head, had a lot of these moments. 

The Story:

Although I’m a huge fan of all of Evenson’s work, I think that Immobility likely would has the broadest appeal to genre readers. It’s set in a post atomic-apocalyptic world and has a huge backbone of mystery, and a culture more or less foreign to us. One of the things that floored me about it was how the author maintains a sense of suspense and kept my interest despite its rather simple plot, and one of the ways that was accomplished was by allowing the main character’s physical handicap to create obstacles out of rather simple things–in the novel, he simply has to travel a few miles without any mechanical form of transportation. Main trouble being, he can’t walk. 

In that context, the setting of the book becomes a concrete obstacle–it becomes physical in the same way a well-drawn villain does. You’ll see one of the more direct moments of this in the excerpt below:

     The Tunnel was wide and high, rounded at the top, and continued back for what seemed to Horkai, pulling himself forward by his hands, a very long way. It ran deep into the mountain. The stone floor was cool and had been cut straight and polished. It was dusty, but other than that seemed to have suffered no damage. 
     The hall continued straight back, curving not at all. Every ten yards or so, the light that was now behind him would click off and a light in front of him would click on. He counted six lights before he saw, just beyond the sixth one, a thick metal door, like a door to a vault. 
     He knocked on it, but his knuckles hardly made a sound. HE looked around for something to strike it with but found nothing. 
     What now? he wondered. 
     He sat there for a little while, staring at the door, gathering his breath. Finally he struck the door again, slapping it with his open palm this time. The noise it made was only slightly louder. 
     The light above him went out and he was plunged into darkness. Briefly he was seized by panic, his heart rising in his throat, but the light came immediately back on when he began to wave his arms. 
     He cupped his hands around his mouth. “Hello!” he yelled as loud as he could. “Let me in!” 
     The noise resonated up and down the shaft of the hall, but there was no sign he had been heard. 
     What now? he wondered again. Should he crawl back down the hall and out again, find the mules, get them to open another gate for him? And if that didn’t work, would they go on to the next, and then to the final one? And what if that one didn’t open either? 
     He pulled himself over until he was leaning against the wall. 
     And what if I’ve been sent on a wild goose chase? he wondered. What if Rasmus was wrong about what is actually here? What if someone was here but now they’re gone? 
    But that wouldn’t explain the redone road signs, unless whoever had done them had left recently. Even if they had left recently, it wouldn’t explain the plants they had seen–freshly watered, not even a day ago. No, someone was somewhere nearby. And with a little luck, they were here. 
He cupped his hands around his mouth again, yelled anew. His voice echoed up and down the hall, but again there was no sign that anyone on the other side of the door had heard. 
     He stayed there, wondering how long he should wait. He was still wondering, when the light switched off again. 
    This time, frustrated, he didn’t bother to wave his arms, just lit it stay dark. 
     There was a hint of something else other than darkness from the far end of the tunnel, the opening out in the night, where the sky was not completely dark but fading fast. There was something else, too, he realized as his eyes adjusted, a strange tint to the darkness around him, not enough to help him see, but something keeping it from being completely dark. He cast his eyes around, looking for whatever it might be, but saw nothing, no crack under or to the side of the door, nothing on the floor or the walls. But it was still there nonetheless, puzzling him. 
     And then suddenly it struck him. He looked all the way up, at the ceiling, and saw there, above his head, a small red light. 
     He clapped his hands once and when the light came on saw ,on the wall above him, a small camera. AS he watched, it made a slight whirring sound, angling differently, looking for something. Looking, he realized, for him. 
     He knuckled across the floor and to the other side of the hall, where the camera could see him. It whirred for a little longer as it tracked past him. He stared at it, one hand lifted in greeting. Suddenly it stopped, moved to point directly at him. 
    “Hello,” he said to the camera. “Can you hear me?” 
     The camera didn’t move. He turned to determine if it possessed a microphone or speakers, but saw no evidence of either. Feeling helpless, he raised his hands high above his head as if surrendering, then gestured at the door. 
     Immediately he heard a thunking sound and the door loosened in its frame. As he watched, it swung open a few inches, then stopped. Because of where he was in the hall, all he could see was the door itself, not what lay behind. 
(pg 113 – 115) 

The Solution: 

In this small excerpt, there are quite a few tricks to pick up. It’s not a long scene (certainly not as long as the one I’m planning, and maybe that’s a signal to me), but the action here is slow, even slower than most of the action lead up to it, and it’s methodical. Four main takeaways: 

  1. The setting acts very similarly to a character-based obstacle. It has a mind of its own, and after each attempt of Horkai’s to overcome it, it is given a moment to react. The resounding silences, the lights going on and off, the movement of the camera. It’s acting very much like an adversarial ally, because while it’s not working at exactly crossed purposes with him (he wants to be found and it, being half security system, wants to find him) but largely the conflict comes through the incompetence of the system and the mystery/suspense of who controls it. 
  2. Horkai begins with the most obvious of attempts–knocking. And from there he moves to less obvious stuff until it finally demands a discovery (the camera) before the obstacle can be overcome. It’s important, for this part, to know the layout of the setting, to have a good sense of where everything is, excepting the one detail. 
  3. The failures only last a paragraph or two. Horkai makes an attempt, gets a reaction from the setting, then regroups and tries again. By far the longest attempt is the final, successful one, which is not immediately successful but does end up paying off. 
  4. The failed attempts build to make sense of the setting, to teach us how this puzzle works. Knocking won’t work (it’s too quiet) and slapping won’t either (still too quiet) but movement does something (there is a motion sensor). This all leads up to the camera being obvious in hindsight, a kind of foreshadowing. Once he discovers the camera you think duh, it’s a security door. Why didn’t i think to look for a camera?

There’s a simplicity and clarity to this conflict that captivates, although it also helps that it’s at the breaking point for one of the biggest mysteries of the book: Horkai’s true identity. That has to be what gives this scene its sense of stakes. 

Finally:

Keep it simple. Treat the setting as an opposing force, trying to get a word in edgewise. Understand the relationship between your character and that setting: does it want–is it designed to–help them get what they want but need help to do so (yes, but) or does it exist to stand in the way of what your character wants (no, and). For an inanimate obstacle to take on the suspense of a living one, it’s important to consider these things. 

How do you maintain a conflict between character and setting? Any major examples you can think of? Do you notice any tips that I’ve missed from the excerpt above? 

Thanks for reading!