Given that Conflux is apparently this weekend (yikes, where did the month go?), it seems portentous to have stumbled across this list of Hot Tips for Writers At Conferences…
Rachel Manija Brown on story without conflict.
I’m always really (a-har) conflicted by these sorts of posts, because on the one hand I agree—I love quiet scenes and cutrainfic and so on—but, on the other, I think in some respects they sell the notion of “conflict” itself short. Yes, there is an over-emphasis on superficial external conflict (e.g. violence, arguments) in a lot of media nowadays, see pretty much every action movie, for example. But, also, I think it’s possible for subtler forms of conflict to exist within a narrative, including metatextual conflict between the narrative and itself, the narrative and other works, or the narrative and the reader.
Brown mentions the “secret garden” genre, for example, as one that tends to be without conflict. But I’d argue that the attraction of the secret garden is, in fact, rooted in a metatextual conflict in this latter sense. That is, it’s the conflict between the reader’s unfulfilled desire for their own secret garden and the fact that the protagonist has one that the reader, by the very action of reading, intrudes upon and eventually takes over (by subsuming the book, and thus the garden, into their own memories).
Curtainfic, meanwhile, is a work that’s almost always in conflict with its own source material. A solid third of all fics tagged curtainfic on the AO3, for example, are in the Supernatural fandom, with the next biggest chunk coming from the MCU. These are not canons known for their fluffy domesticity! As someone who loves a curtainfic, and particularly loves its Villains Out Shopping subtrope, I can assert the fun in both reading and writing these scenarios is definitely in exploring the conflict their quiet mundanity presents against either the canon or the characters. (See also: why villain/antihero/antagonist fandoms tend to be full of “fluffy” memes.)
For another, related, example, see any time anyone trots out kishōtenketsu as a “story without conflict” trope… and then proceed to give a handful of examples all of which include some kind of conflict. The fact that the conflict is usually framed as the story presenting contrasting narrative elements, with the conflict between them occurring within the reader’s head as a kind of dialectic—as opposed to direct “on the page” action—does not, in fact, actually mean the narrative is “without conflict”. But, like. Good luck getting anyone to admit that.
“But, Alis!” you might be thinking. “What you’re describing is contrast, not ‘conflict’. You’ve even used the word multiple times!”
Yeah. And what I’d argue is that, in almost all circumstances, when people talk about “conflict” in the context of narrative what they actually mean to talk about is contrast (a.k.a. tension). Two random characters having a fight is conflict, but it isn’t narratively interesting unless you’re one of those people who nuts to mechanized descriptions of fight scenes.1 Two characters having a fight over differing ideologies, on the other hand, is interesting, particularly when each side has some valid points and the audience themselves is engaged with attempting to determine who to root for and why. This is also why so many “popcorn villains” are so flat and kinda bullshit.
Think about, say, Strickland in Shape of Water, for example, who is pretty much the epitome of an uncompelling antagonist. This isn’t the fault of Michael Shannon, who does great; it’s because in the context of the narrative Strickland is just a one-note bad guy. He’s a bigot who hates the fish man! Okay, well… good on him, I guess. But the reality is Strickland could be replaced by literally anything else—including nothing at all—and the film’s conflict would remain the same. Why? Because the conflict in the film isn’t “oh no gubba gonna getcha fish, gurl”. It’s “ahaha in every other story like this the fish guy is either evil, or dies, or turns human at the end”. It’s a metatextual conflict, in other words, between the audience and their expectations for the genre. This is also, incidentally, why I thought the film was kinda meh; because I read a lot of monster romance, I have no genre expectation of the narrative going in any way other than “girl fucks fish man”. Because that’s how monster romances work!2 Which means the actual narrative itself felt empty in the “superficial conflict no contrast/tension” way.3 Also, the romance was really flat. Like, really flat.
I did look pretty, though. So… there’s that I guess.4 Also, it won a bunch of Oscars, which just goes to show why narrative conflict is such a minefield, since it leans so heavily on being able to anticipate the mental/emotional states of your audience…
- No judgement, you do you. ^
- Except when they’re, like, “boy fucks fish man”, or “girl fucks eldritch horror”, or “enby shares non-sexual intimacy with demon”, or whatever. ^
- Also see: the Obvious Hints that Sally is also, in fact, a fish monster. Meaning the story isn’t even “girl fucks fish man”, it’s “fish woman fucks fish man” which… eeeeeh. ^
- Though don’t get me started on the whole “sassy Black best friend with deadbeat husband” and “tragic queer uncle” tropes because, ugh. What is it about del Toro films and throwing intersectionality under the goddamn bus? ^
For all that there tends to be reams and reams written on writing craft, and how that relates to a work being “good”, I think the function of id gets overlooked a lot. And part of the reason is I think, historically, SFF writing’s id has been… invisibilized, in a way? Like, there’s an Assumed SFF Id and where works cater to that id, the “iddishness” of them isn’t remarked on.
And it’s only sort of recently that works that deviate from that model (which is very straight, very white, very middle-class, very male, and very UK-/US-centric) have gotten any kind of substantive traction.
I think one of the issues is that writing craft has a kind of objective element to it. Like, writer voice varies but at some fundamental level things like prose, theme, structure and so on can be analysed as being either “good” or “bad”.
But a work can be “good” (i.e. have solid craft) but still not work for any one reader because the id doesn’t line up, and id is purely subjective; either a trope is Your Bag Baby or it’s not.
Ditto the other way around: a work can have… not great craft (or even outright lousy craft), but still be adored because it hits 110% of all a reader’s id-buttons.
The problem is I think a lot of reviewing/analysis/etc. of published works is not very good at making this distinction. Which is why you get the, “Ugh, how did this get published?” argument. (Spoiler: because it hit people’s ids enough in a way that translates into cold, hard cash.)
And, on the flip side, you get situations where people write very iddish works that do very well in their particular market, thinking that they’re “good writers” who no longer have anything to learn about craft. When that is… obviously not the case, ref. their actual works.
And, like. This isn’t saying that anyone should tone down their ids; some of the most successful and lauded works in history are just so obviously raw belching idfests. But rather, don’t mistake id for craft, and don’t assume that just because you’re good at craft, your id is for everyone, or that if you’re good at it, your craft is on-point.
(This post brought to you by a bunch of things I’ve seen and done recently, all freezing together in my brain this cold winter morning. Thanks for coming to my toot talk.)
Hot Takes on beta reading.
So it’s been almost exactly two years (with a break in the middle to write the DEMONS… IN SPACE!!!! book) but… it is done! At least, the draft is!
This turned out shorter than I was aiming for, i.e. 80k, but that seems to be a trend in my writing at the moment, particularly since both this and DEMONS have been single-POV.1 That kind of sucks in the adult market—a bunch of Big Name SFF publishers won’t even look at something if it’s under 100k—but DRAGON is YA, so… hopefully the ~70k mark is okay?
Guess we’ll find out soon!
Now the hard part: revising. Ugh.
- Well… mostly. DEMONS has four “cheat” chapters. ^
Film Crit Hulk on the suckitude of the three act structure.
So despite the fact that both Liesmith and Stormbringer are divided into three parts, the secret is they’re both actually written against a five-act outline (roughly: set-up, inciting crisis, whoops-we-made-it-worse crisis, showdown, wrap-up). I’ve always found that structure much, much easier to write against than the three-act version, and Film Crit Hulk’s explanation of not just the acts in this template but the purpose of acts in general is one of the best and most accessible I’ve seen.
There’s this frustrating vicious cycle in tech that goes:
- SME is bad at writing.
- SME has to write doco for exec.
- Exec gets frustrated by garbage bafflegab stream-of-consciousness nonsense and pushes back.
- SME assume exec is “stupid” and can’t understand “technical documents”.
- SME rewrites doco to read as generic anodyne boilerplate.
- Exec accepts document because at least it’s comprehensible.
- SME learns wrong freakin’ lesson.
Above all, worldbuilding is not technically necessary. It is the great clomping foot of nerdism.
M. John Harrison on worldbuilding.
I’ve said this before, both here and on con panels, so it’s always nice to see it reiterated years earlier by other people.
For the record, I can always tell “worldbuilt” fiction, since its “Big Idea” is always something mechanical or setting-based, with characters designed to support that rather than the other way around. It’s not a “wrong” way to write a book—there’s no “wrong” way to write a book—but most of the outcomes don’t work for me that well. It’s also not the way I write, which is always driven by character concepts: “What if Loki survived Ragnarok and was also Steve Jobs?”, “What if a tax accountant turned into a tentacle monster and went on a Hero’s Journey?”, “What if a demon performed odd jobs in exchange for mortal souls… IN SPACE!!!! and also had to steal an angel?”, and so on. The “worldbuilding” then becomes a way to first construct, then deconstruct, then reconstruct those characters; the plot becomes the character development between pages 1 and 300.
Because I tend to write what I like to read, this is also the core of my big problems with “worldbuilt” fiction: its characters tend not to change very much, even if the world around them does…
So as mentioned previously, last Wednesday I was on a panel at our local SFF writer’s group, talking about author platforms along with co-panellists Elizabeth Fitzgerald and Chris Andrews. It wasn’t a super-formal panel, and I didn’t take notes, but I’m sure some of the discussion will be of interest to some people, so I’ve done my best to recap the salient points below…