The situation is the nucleus of your story: it contains the kernel of your conflict from which the rest of your storyline will grow — and a real storyline cannot exist without some sort of conflict.
But what exactly is conflict? In writing circles, you hear the word incessantly, and yet you almost never hear it defined.
Conflict is clash. It is a clash of desires. And desires presuppose that your characters want something. That latter thing is, I believe, critically important because the want is the crucial component to the art of storytelling (and, for that matter, the art of life: Life is a process of valuing, to paraphrase Nietzsche).
It is the pursuit of values — The Want — that will propel your plot and infuse your story with meaning. When you pit that pursuit against an opposition, you create clash.
That is conflict.
The purposeful pursuit of values is in large part what will keep your readers interested.
If you have a specific message that you wish to get across (for instance, the destructiveness of superstition), it is ultimately that message that will shape the specifics of your story’s situation.
If, though, you don’t have a specific message, you must then begin by thinking up a good central conflict — and by “good,” I mean a conflict that is important enough to hold people.
For example, if you’re hungry for cookies but you’ll only allow yourself one cookie, and you then find in your cookie jar two peanut butter and two sugar, there is here a certain conflict that you must resolve — i.e. you must choose between those two things. But this isn’t the kind of conflict upon which a story can be built. Why? The conflict — the clash of desires — is not important enough and the choices aren’t strong enough to be of lasting interest.
To be of lasting interest, the conflict must be of certain relevance to many people. That last thing is sometimes known as universality. Good stories — timeless stories — are universal.
New writers often wonder if they should decide their theme first, or their plot first. The answer is, it doesn’t matter. Some writers first think of a subject they want to explore, and some writers first think of a situation.
The method you’re most comfortable with is a personal preference. Sometimes, in a fit of inspiration, you get an idea for a subject, and you must then figure out how to dramatize it, the act of which is called plotting.
Or sometimes you get a good idea for a story — a real clash of desires — and you must then, if you’re philosophical, figure out a way to convey a universal message which that conflict can represent.
In Moby Dick (which, incidentally, is poorly plotted) Herman Melville, who worked a brief stint as a whaler, saw good potential for conflict in the idea of an indestructible whale and the men who hunt whales. He then infused that conflict with a mighty theme, so that by the end, the whale and the hunters have taken on a much weightier meaning.
If you don’t have a universal message — i.e. a theme — your story will be a plot story without an added level of depth. Soap operas and much commercial fiction are examples of this.
The hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold is one of the most famous (and played-out) Situations in literature: Pretty Woman, for example, with Richard Gere and Juilia Roberts, used it. Leaving Las Vegas, with Nicolas Cage and Elisabeth Shue, also used it, though that story gave it a distinctly dystopic twist.
The reason the hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold is such a popular Situation is that it has a built-in conflict (a woman who betrays a certain respectability and then falls in love) and also because it’s inherently sexual, which is one of the most universal desires there is.
Here are some less common Situations:
The Situation of Crime and Punishment is this: a man who believes that great people are above conventional morality commits a crime and is then condemned by his own moral sense.
The Situation of Madame Bovary is this: a small-town French girl, bored by her petty bourgeois marriage, engages in numerous adulteries and dies as a result.
The situation of the movie Amadeus is: a marginally gifted musical composer named Antonio Salieri grows increasingly consumed by his jealousy over Wolfang Amadeus Mozart’s prodigious musical talents and so plots and carries out Mozart’s murder.
The Situation of House of Leaves is: a mysterious house that’s bigger inside than outside, and containing endless unlit hallways, is explored by the family who’ve just moved in — explored until it almost kills them. (This Situation is symbolic of their marriage.)
If you’ve ever read a book or watched a movie wherein the characters do little more than engage in long, philosophical discussions, then you’ve seen an example of a plot that doesn’t support its theme — which is to say, a theme that is not well integrated into the plot. This is a flaw in the storytelling, and the basic standard of measurement for that is this: how complex are the events of your story, and are they complicated enough to support the philosophy that you’re putting into the mouths of your characters — without, mind you, taking readers out of the framework of the story?
The main point, though, is that theme, if it exists, must be integrated into your clash. This means, among other things, that when you’re searching for a good Situation — i.e. a good central conflict — you must find a Situation complex enough around which a whole story can be built, and which will support your theme.