quickie: story revision, determinism and the link between the two

As a layperson’s working definition, determinism is the idea that individuals may think they have free choice but mostly they do not. Every decision a person can make is influenced by who the person is and what they understand to be true. The example I heard most recently was the idea of a person going to Disneyland. They may think they can ride the Tower of Terror, but their fear of heights makes going on the ride impossible, even if the choice to ride it appears to be theirs.

I feel revision notes on the average underpublished writers have the same flaw. The author would argue until they’re blue in the fact that they have chosen not to include conflict as a stylistic choice. A creative writing instructor should be able to write at a level where nothing seems to be happening but the tension continues to ratchet upwards. To them, leaving out conflict would be a conscious choice, though not one to be taken lightly.

The question is, did this student in this particular work accomplish their goals for the piece?

It is difficult to tell an engaging story with external and internal sources of conflict.

It is more challenging to tell an engaging story with only internal sources of conflict.

It is incredibly complicated to tell an engaging story with no source of external or internal conflict.

I trust a creative writing instructor should be able to tell a good story regardless of which story ingredients they use. They are not incorrect when they state that not all stories need sources of conflict. But any instructor must know to aim their advice to the story on the table.

Rather than stating it is technically possible for a writer with an exceptional skill level to create a meaningful story without external obstacles, they should focus on whether meaningful obstacles on the character’s path would help the story being reviewed. But that means understanding that while the instructor may leave out sources of conflict that force the protagonist to act, the learner most likely doesn’t know how to include them.

Hence, they’re taking the class or have joined a writing group.

The author may understand the importance of external obstacles at the theoretical level, but they must learn how to show the protagonist overcoming obstacles through character growth or devolution.

To return to the example set in Samwise Gamgee and meaningful character growth, Sam didn’t need to change who he was to bring Frodo home to the Shire. It was a feat of character development to show his steadfast resolution while being tested for someone else’s battle. But the kid trying to get into Julliard only knows how to work harder and hope they’ll be part of the 7% acceptance rate. Whether they are accepted or not is out of their hands. Their character isn’t tested beyond what the story’s premise establishes until external events make working harder more complex than has already been established.

That can be anything from their parents getting divorced to seeing a dancer with exceptional grace also applying. It could be their best friend who needs them as a friend for the first time. Whatever the conflict is, they need to overcome it and still attempt to enroll in the best school in the world.

Could a creative writing instructor write a story in which the only conflict is a young, talented ______er practicing _______ing to get into the best ______ institution in the world still be a meaningful story?

Of course.

Should underpublished writers attempt to write a story in which nothing challenges the protagonist to overcome but still engages the reader?


But the answer to the constructive criticism of this story doesn’t present the protagonist with any significant obstacles to overcome in a way that detracts from its whole isn’t a skilled author could tell that story and move the reader! It takes Piaget’s false knowledge in the hallway to believe that because they could tell that story, any writer would know how to.

The average writer an instructor instructs isn’t the author who could have added meaningful conflict to the story but chose not to. If there are students in the class who could, they could be teaching the program, too. The average learner is a learner who doesn’t understand that if they don’t know how to add conflict, they probably won’t agree any story needs it.

But that’s the thing with determinism. Only the very self-aware — or the well-educated — see any difference between a choice with two equally likely outcomes and the illusion of a choice when only one outcome can be achieved.

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