Do you avoid conflict? Most of us do, but when it comes to fiction it’s good not to fear it. I say ‘fear’, because I have a sneaking suspicion that it’s fear that causes some new writers to scorn and be defensive when it comes to story telling – and conflict, which provides story. Such writers claim that they wish to represent the arbitrariness and futility of existence to make Art (with a capital A), but consider what Kurt Vonnegut has to say about this:
‘I guarantee you that no modern story scheme, even plotlessness, will give a reader genuine satisfaction, unless one of those old-fashioned plots is smuggled in somewhere. I don’t praise plots as accurate representations of life, but as ways of keeping readers reading.’
Art does not = Life, or what really happens in life. Beginning writers can resist this, saying ‘but that’s how it really happened’. If it’s how it really happened then you’ll need to create a fictional situation, because what really happened might be fascinating to you, but will probably not be fascinating in a fictional narrative. The fictional narrative, including conflict and the plot that comes from it is what brings your story to life and pulls your readers in.
It can take a while of trial and error to get this. It can be scary for new writers to let go of over-thinking in order to let characters discover their stories.
If you struggle to write a story, take heart from this: Before his success, Vonnegut was on the verge of abandoning writing. He was asked by his employer Sports Illustrated magazine, to write a piece on a racehorse that had jumped a fence and tried to run away. He stared at the blank piece of paper on his typewriter all morning then he typed,
“The horse jumped over the fucking fence,” and left.
I prefer to think in terms of shape and movement when it comes to stories, plays and poems. Above is the great man talking about the ‘beautiful curves’ of stories in a way that both manages to send up overly complicated theoretical analyses of plot and to genuinely inform and inspire.
Do you plot before you write, or do you, like me, feel your way through your first draft and let instinct hone in on the characters’ conflict which you then develop later?