The DNA of Conflict in Speculative Fiction

You’d think from the way I talk about the teaching of creative writing that I believe the solution to writers who have the skill to bend the rules teaching writers who don’t have the skill to bend the rules that they, too, have the skills to bend the rules that the solution would be, teach the rules better. The fact that some writers in that group are good enough to bend the rules (and become teachers too) doesn’t change the fact that the only learning involved in teaching learners that exceptions disprove the need for structure is that most learners learn they don’t even need to learn what isn’t needed in the first place.

But the solution is not to teach the rules better. I joined the writing community in a time where everyone taught the rules better, and I didn’t learn a darn thing until I was ready to hear I needed to learn them. Thanks to twenty years of intuitive instructors teaching concrete learners how to learn like they did, every writer thinks following “the rules” can’t possibly help their story, no matter how much just showing the reader what they need to understand will help the story unfold organically instead of just being linking sections of description, exposition and dialogue.

Is it possible to write great stories that are just description, exposition and dialogue? Of course. Is it easy? Of course not. Is it easier than just setting a character at a moment in their life where if they don’t change, they can’t grow? Of course not. Is it a highly competitive field filled with the very best writers who are very good at writing description, exposition and dialogue in a way that almost does as much work as a character wanting to change something they don’t like about themselves, their world or their path in life then sets out to do so?

Absolutely, yes.

There are so many different aspects in a character’s life that conflict can come from. Character versus themselves, a time limit, a deeply held belief, the environment, other characters and the speculative nature of the story itself are the asparagine, glutamine, histidine, lysine, proline, and threonine of speculative work. Yet I’ve read thousands of stories in my life in my MFA program and out that had a character who never has any doubt that they’ll succeed at the thing they’re doing succeeds at the thing they’re doing. If a character starts with a problem that they don’t have a doubt in their mind they can’t beat or even have a realistic chance of failing, where’s the conflict? If an unpleasant thing happens to an unpleasant protagonist, who feels the schadenfreude? If the character never had a chance to escape or change their fate, what other feeling is the reader supposed to have but a feeling of inevitability?

All those stories can be done well. But they have to be done extremely well to even compete with the already large group of writers who can all tell a story on rails very well. And all to fill the absence created in a story that doesn’t have a character the reader can invest their time in to see if their best efforts are good enough to overcome the challenge they’re facing where failure feels like a real option. If there’s no doubt they will succeed or fail from the start of the story, where does the tension come from?

The rules of writing are dead. It’s time we start respecting the ingredients of a good story enough to learn how to use them effectively each time, every time. I get that there’s a feeling in the writing community that thinks conventional stories are easy and that true art exists in the unconventional. And again, I’m not arguing the concept.

But a learner can learn how to write a conventional story. They have to teach themselves how to write an unconventional one. A child has to teach themselves to self-ambulate before can try to learn how to fly and there’s nothing easy about learning to self-propel your body through space for the first time in all the different ground-based gaits. Not even trying to learn the foundations of the crawl, walk and run before trying to throw oneself onto the ground and missing seems like the absolute worst way of trying to learn how to do anything.

So forget the rules. Learn the ingredients. And conflict is the egg of the story. It provides the easiest form of structure but there are ways to work around their lack. I can teach you how to cook the best French souffle possible and even if it doesn’t work, you’ll still have yummy cheesy eggs. If you want to learn how to bake an eggless souffle, though, you start by studying the techniques while you practice the steps multiple times or be willing to fail until your end result is an eggless souffle.

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