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The Significance of Plot without Conflict
Posted: Tuesday, July 3, 2012 10:31 AM
I ran into this article via a friend's blog several days ago and thought I'd share it here.


What do you think?

It describes largely how I write. Does anyone else write this way? I've found that either people like or strongly dislike this style.

Colleen Lindsay
Posted: Tuesday, July 3, 2012 9:24 PM
Joined: 2/27/2011
Posts: 356

Bumping so others can see this!

Jay Greenstein
Posted: Tuesday, July 3, 2012 9:49 PM
The problem is: where will you sell it? Western readers, for whatever cultural reasons, are action oriented.

Posted: Tuesday, July 3, 2012 10:07 PM
My first book has already been sold and comes out in January. There are three more (or four) in the series.

And not all Western readers are "action oriented". Actually, I probably read more British fiction than I do American fiction - they're quite a bit different, even if both are "Western".

Atthys Gage
Posted: Tuesday, July 3, 2012 11:47 PM
Joined: 6/7/2011
Posts: 467

I have been accused of writing this way.  I actually think the problem may be one of definition.  Conflict is too often reduced to very simplistic actions:  Boy wants girl + Can't have = conflict.   Bad man wants to control the world + good guys want to stop him = conflict. 

Conflict produces tension.  Western art is obsessed with tension.  Just look at Western classical music.  Tension, release, release undercut, tension resumed, release postponed, tension increased, until finally (whew!) the return to the home key and the catharsis.  This model occurs again and again in drama and literature and even in visual arts.  It is one of the most basic.  (Part of its appeal, it must be admitted, comes from the sexual model, ie: pleasure is itself primarily relief from tension, and we can all relate to that.) 

The suggestion that we ought to move beyond this model is worth considering.  People have been known to derive pleasure from non-cathartic music.  But more often than not, the pleasure is contemplative, serene, relaxing.  It is almost as if the pleasure is derived from the escape from the tension-and-release model we're so used to.  Relief without the tension is possible because we live in such a tense world.  We carry the tension with us.  Anything that gives us a break from it is pleasurable. 

What does this have to do with writing?  I dunno, yet.  I'm still thinking, so don't interrupt.  Tension exists in many forms.  A book where very little happens can still be full of tension.   Some of the things that make us tense is writing are actually quiet things.   Alfred Hitchcock -- who knew something about the subject said -- ahem, put two people on a train and have a bomb go off.  There's a big explosion and they both die.  Excitement, maybe -- but no tension.  NOW, instead put them on the train with the bomb.  The audience in the theatre sees the bomb ticking away, but the two passengers don't know anything about it.  What are they doing?  They're talking about baseball.  Riding along, without a care in the world, talking about baseball, while any second now they will be blown to bits. 
That's tension. 

Very quiet books can be very tense.  Conflict can be built into the writing itself.  A sentence can be full of energy, even if what it is describing is dull and commonplace.  Not to sound all pretentious or anything, but consider a book like Robbe-Grillet's Jealousy.  Not a damn thing happens in that book -- just the unnamed third person narrator replaying mundane events over and over again, all of which may or may not add up to the fact that his wife may be having an affair.  In the end, you learn nothing.  It isn't even possible to be sure which events were real and which were imagined.  It would be pretty boring, except the tension is unrelenting.  It's a marvel of pacing, more than anything else.  It's been years since I read it, but I still have a visceral reaction, almost a shudder, when I consider it.

Sentences -- and paragraphs and chapters -- grab us because they surprise us, put us off guard, screw with our expectations, reverse our assumptions, dazzle us with their perfect coherency, or knock us sideways with their impossible asymmetry.  The power of the writing itself far outweighs considerations of whether
the plot has enough juice in it or the characters are sufficiently
conflicted to hold our interest. 

Posted: Wednesday, July 4, 2012 4:51 PM
Very well said. Thank you!

Kevin Haggerty
Posted: Wednesday, July 4, 2012 8:57 PM
Joined: 3/17/2011
Posts: 90

I tend to think that the fundamental unit of narrative is not conflict/resolution but expectation/surprise which is perfectly illustrated by the sited blog. The storyteller's job is to create expectation and then just when the expected result seems innevitable, the narrative takes a surprising turn. If the storyteller is any good, the reader/audience will be delighted. You can have all the conflict in the world but without surprise, without any twists in the plot, no one will care.

The girl having the "conflict" with the vending machine illustrates this perfectly. Who cares that she was able to get a can of pop out of the vending machine? What else did we expect to happen?

When I review books on BC, I find that I'm much more likely to find a book with plenty of conflict, but no good surprises, than I am to find a book lacking in conflict.

Sometimes, and this can be even more frustrating, I'll read a book that has plenty of surprising events, but without any solid expectations set in place, the surprises have no impact. The story becomes a kind of shopping list of "exciting" action.

Here's my quaint illustration: a woman is making dinner and chatting on the phone about the latest episode of Grey's Anatomy. Then ninjas bust through the windows and take her hostage. The ninjas are a surprise but without more context we have no idea where this story is going.

So, here's the same situatation with a proper set up: a woman is making dinner and chatting on the phone about the latest episode of Grey's Anatomy. She interrupts the discussion to mention that her boyfriend is late. She's annoyed. This is not the first time he's been late to one of their dates. Her friend tries to console her. Maybe there was traffic, he had trouble parking. Maybe he went to buy her flowers and it's taking him a little longer than expected. Our heroine laughs just a little to heartily at that and the doorbell rings. "He's here" she says and hastily hangs up to answer the door. But when she opens the door--IT'S NINJAS!!!

It's still a silly surprise, but now it has an impact that it just didn't have the first time. AND it sets up in the audience's mind the question of "What happened to the boyfriend?" We know now that he's gonna play into this plot somehow. Now we're anticipating his entrance into the narrative. We're engaged.

I'll take a well-crafted surprise over mere conflict every time!

Jay Greenstein
Posted: Thursday, July 5, 2012 12:31 AM

• The storyteller's job is to create expectation and then just when the expected result seems inevitable, the narrative takes a surprising turn.

I have to disagree, in that what you mention is the method. The storyteller’s job, like that of the poet, is to manipulate the reader’s emotion. People come to us for something more interesting than what their life offers, seeking what they would like to have, but don’t.

Thus in bad economic times readers and audiences seek comedy to relieve the tension. In good times drama, which they don’t have to live with, is desirable. But reading, in both cases is to achieve a temporary change in emotional outlook, as an entertainment.

That’s why there’s such an emphasis on showing. Making the reader view the character's world as the character is the easiest method with which to create a rapport between character and reader.

I agree that the unexpected is titillating, but the feeling that we’re in over our heads and must find a solution before it’s too late is what hooks the reader.

Alfred Hitchcock’s films almost never had people jumping out of closets, or suddenly appearing ninjas. Instead, he relied on suspense. He’d put two men at a table talking, then show the viewer that there was a bomb under the table, ticking. Elsewhere, people were frantically searching for the location of the bomb, or racing to where the men were, setting up a situation where what happens is uncertain. Perhaps the men at the table will leave, or discover the bomb. Perhaps the people seeking the bonb will arrive and save the men. Perhaps they won’t.

The men, unaware of the frantic activity talk on. If one of them moves his knee might hit the bomb and cause him to look. Perhaps the phone rings, but one of the men says, “Let it go. If they want you they’ll call back.” It rings again, while the clock moves toward zero and the viewer shouts, “Answer the damn phone,” at the screen. A simple scene. No surprises, but the manipulation of the audience’s emotions makes it memorable.

We often lose track of that, and focus on events and surprises. But in my mind, job one is to screw with the reader’s mind, not report events.

Kevin Haggerty
Posted: Thursday, July 5, 2012 1:43 AM
Joined: 3/17/2011
Posts: 90

Hey Jay,

Not seeing much of a disagreement from you here. Sure, my example was indeed crude (it involved ninjas interrupting a phone conversation, after all), but the principle is the same. We're both talking about the central importance of creating an expectation--in your example, the expectation that the bomb will go off any second and our friends chatting away will never know until it's too late. That's the expectation, the dread that hooks us. You're describing a higher order of surprise than sudden ninjas, certainly, but it's still the surprise/relief of the writer's ingenious (surprising) solution that delights us after the suspense is resolved (that is, if our two chatty gentlemen survived).


Elizabeth Moon
Posted: Saturday, July 7, 2012 12:38 PM
Joined: 6/14/2012
Posts: 195

"Conflict" does not have to mean a slugfest, or a win-lose situation--even stories with obvious conflict can end in reconciliation with both side winning, just by a new definition.   I've long been fascinated by the internal dimensions--the many competing motivations that we all have, and how those emerge in one behavior (whether a conscious choice or not.)   Does the guy who got the soda to give the girl buy a soda he doesn't like, because it's one she does?  Does he have enough money for only one soda?  How long would he wait (if it's a soda he does like, and he's thirsty?) before drinking it himself?   Has the soda gone warm and flat, while he's waiting, so she's not thrilled with it?  (I've seen that in a manga I looked at years ago--an attempt to do something nice backfired.)

But--leaving aside definitions for the moment--a desire to publish writing includes a desire for a readership.  There are readerships for a wide variety of story types.  So the trick (not that it's a trick) is to find the readership that fits your innate mindset--what you will write best, because it is the story you want to read.   Even if it's a small readership, you will be happier writing what you want than if you try to please people whose values you don't like.

Some readers want car chases, explosions, slugfests--all action.  Some readers want intelligent detectives on the trail of an art thief.   Some readers want two passionate individuals eventually realizing their passion for each other.   Some readers want a quieter, less emotional tone, less or no overt conflict--others want the opposite.  Cultures differ, too, in what they value--and there's also literary fashion to contend with.  Fashions change.  .   This does not mean one is better than the other--just different. 

But it's certainly an error to characterize all Western literature as characterized by obvious physical or economic conflict in which one side wins and the other loses. 


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