story craft #7 The Engine of Fiction

Mike GristStory Craft 4 Comments

Everybody knows, it`s about conflict. Without conflict a story has no reason to be, it`s just a pretty picture, a post-card.

I think about this a lot with regard to the Dawn book I`m working on. I went to a writing group on Sunday and took along three different potential opening scenes. They each belong to three separate drafts, and are different ways of presenting the beginning of the tale. I asked the 5 other members in the group to let me know which one got their attention the most, and why.

Of course I would hoping they`d choose the most recent draft as the best. I wrote it last week, and it syncs well with the new material I`ve been writing for the beginning of the book. And did they?

They all chose it last. For first place they chose the very first draft, the one I wrote not only a year ago (when I started the novel), but something like 4 years ago, when this whole Dawn thing was a few scenes of a short story with nowhere to go.

The bad thing about this is that I thought I`d moved on from that beginning. The events in it occur some 11 years before the story proper gets going. It`s a jump I hoped to avoid. Well, perhaps I can and perhaps I can`t.

The good thing is that it`s easy to see why they liked that opening better. It`s the same reason I kept going back to it for the 4 years since I wrote it, trying to do it justice. The big difference is in the way it`s told. Back when I wrote it I was reacting to the overbearing bulk of milieu stories like Mieville, Jordan, and R.R. Martin. I can`t even read those books any more. They`re bloated with D and D manual type stuff, anemic on story, on character. As far as I can tell they have no skeleton, they`re just a lot of fatty tissue. I had wanted my voice to be something different. Yes with moments of great description, and made-up words, and a whole world in back- but primarily about a character, and the spine of that character`s story through the world.

That draft has spine though, at least one tough character making things happen because she wants them so bad.

So, this reminds me of that.

I go to my writing books to seek advice. The Writer`s Journey by Christopher Vogler says it plainly, as does Immediate Fiction by Jerry Cleaver. A story needs an engine, and that engine is not pretty descriptions or gimmicky narrative styles, but conflict. And conflict is about a WANT, meeting an OBSTACLE, and CLASHING/RESOLVING.

My most recent scene had none of that, because we`re picking up too early in Dawn`s ordinary world. He doesn`t WANT anything yet. He`s just a kid, bumbling along. Later on (even a few pages later) there are plenty of other characters who WANT stuff and will CLASH with any OBSTACLE to get it. Dawn becomes chief amongst them. But not at the start.

So for the start I need either a different pick-up point or another character to step up and carry the burden of WANT to the homeplate.

It`s good to have this clarified.

Going to the crit group with 3 possible alternate scenes and asking- `which is better` is probably the best approach I`ve taken to such groups, and I`ve been to a few. I don`t know how many times it`ll work though. Once they get to know me and my writing style, surely it`ll be as hard for them to be dispassionate about my work as it is for me. Also I don`t know how often I`ll have three versions of one scene written out.

That said, there`s not many scenes as important as the opening one, so there are few that need as much work. Especially for a beginner writer. If the first page, the first paragraph, the first line, doesn`t grab an editor`s attention, then surely they`ll pass. It has to zing with promise.

The next group, another one, meets in a month. I`ll hit them with an updated 3 scene choice for the intro and see if the new engine gets good gas.

Dawn 1 current word count– 145,500

Comments 4

  1. The standard wisdom is of course standard for a reason, but I have my doubts when applying it to fantasy and science fiction. Certainly series TV viewers love to hear their beloved characters talk in direct violation of the screenwriter’s maximum “don’t tell, show.” I can’t honestly say I remember the plot lines and conflicts from my favorite Heinlein’s, Van Vogt’s, and Vance’s. I’m sure characters, conflicts, and action existed but only in the service of world-creation and didactic moralizing. “Beauty is only skin deep” but where else would you want it? Perhaps a good skeleton is necessary for a great body but it is not sufficient and won’t get you noticed.

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      Thanks for your comment Michael. I`ll agree straight away that a skeleton of plot is not sufficient to stand out, though it is necessary. The books you`re talking about undoubtedly had it, as the engine that took readers through the great worlds they invented, even if it wasn`t memorable itself. Without it and some kind of conflict, those books would have just been a series of D and D masters handbooks.

      You mention characters existing in the service of world creation and not being particularly memorable on their own, but I think that depends on the quality of the character, I`ve read some Heinlein, and most of the people he writes were pretty bland (as I recall). They are not acting out deep drives, merely reacting to immediate threats. That`s fine, he was writing SF idea stories, so it wasn`t what he was shooting for.

      What I`m shooting for are more real characters with deep drives, like Orson Scott Card`s Ender. Ender is inextricable from the world and the conflict his life takes place in. We get inside his head and find out what motivates him. The world becomes real to us through his eyes.

      I want something like that, where the character`s drives organically move the story forwards, not some skeletal plot or distant conflict I impose over the top. The characters and world develop in tandem. I feel like I haven`t seen much of that in fantasy writing.

      1. “Ender” is a great example, Le Guin’s “Eathsea” would be another. Harry Potter is an league all by himself – always surprising yet always natural. I also like your ‘D and D masters handbook’ critique. For the sake of conflict, I can’t resist saying that “The Book of Revelations” is the mother of all D and D masters handbooks. Of course John the Divine had an awesome publishing house behind his work but he’s no J. K. Rowling. I think I’m getting uncomfortably close to the true engine of fiction.

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