Breaking a few rules and tension fires

The author’s intentions can be sacred in creative writing instruction even if the market for that creative writing could not care less about it. If there is one thing I hate hearing after giving a critique that’s been asked for, it is the author protesting they meant to break a few rules. If they meant to tell the reader everything after the fact, they don’t need to show or have conflict. But that ignores the tension fire that needs constant tending to burn that all stories need at the very least.

The tension fire in the story is what keeps the readers warm and that warmth keeps them reading. The hotter and more meaningful it burns, the more the ideal reader is the palm of the author. Not all tension burns on conflict, of course. But a story based on the character trying to avoid what happens if they do nothing grows its own fodder to burn as the understanding of the problem gets larger. The greater the conflict, the more tension it creates when the cost of failure also escalates. It’s certainly not easy to do this well. A conflict-driven reader acclimatizes quickly to the ambient level of tension. They always want to feel warmer.

Not that tension fires always burn conflict. But fueling that fire takes far more effort than just keeping what a character knows a step behind what’s happening. Anything can burn in a tension fire, but the reader wants to feel as rewarded as the genre reader for their time invested in reading. Some work doesn’t even need a tension fire at all. We call those stories “significant literary award-winning Literature (with the big L).”

“I broke the rule on purpose” is certainly true when writers of a commercial genre choose not to include aspects of story. It’s hard to accidentally leave conflict out of a work and still have the story give the reader what they need if not what they exactly wanted. Publishing is a buyer’s paradise. No paying market has to settle for less than a rewarding experience to their reader. Work without conflict must stand on its own against all the great stories that used all of the tools in their writer’s toolbox and all the great stories that use fewer tools to build more than that.

For so many years, the creative writing community has let the fact that the easiest way to tell emotionally engaging stories is to learn how to use all the tools in the toobox as a reason to not need to learn them.

Climbing a mountain in Japan is not an easy task even if there’s a clear-marked path and vending machines along it. It still takes effort to climb. Climbing a mountain in North America past the tree-line is more difficult, but still easier than climbing mountains that have death zones. Fourteen mountains on earth have death zones but even that has varying levels of difficulties. No step along that chain needs to be “easy” to be easier than something that is more difficult.

Writing a story in which conflict drives an engaging story for the reader is the writing equivalent Cho Oyu, the easiest mountain to climb over 8000m. Doing the same without conflict fueling tension is like climbing Mt. Everest without supplemental oxygen.

When a writer “breaks a few rules” without compensating for that the lack of structure is arriving in base camp with less tools and less experience than all the seasoned mountain climbers have. Writing a story without conflict is like climbing a dangerous mountain without clamps. It can be done by the most experienced of climbers, but experienced climbers just trying to summit the mountain or tell a great story would go back and get such an important piece of equipment.

The one universal lesson objective I saw in my MFA was the absolute that only the author’s intentions matter. It was bad enough they taught conventional genres did not need anything to happen. They taught literary writers that literary fiction is just conventional fiction minus the conventions of fiction. Week after week over two different classes, the protagonist talked about who they were and their problems while other characters listened and explained things that the protagonist couldn’t. A small portion of the work was exquisite but the vast majority still needed to learn that showing the character doing more than talking develops better worlds, characters and problems.

Students will always think “breaking a few rules” is fine if they’re taught it is. Even if rules they break are “show what’s important to the reader to understand independent of the character” and “conflict is the easiest thing tension can burn.”

Or, as the rules we use to remind ourselves of those facts “Show, don’t tell” and “Stories need conflict.”

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