September 22, 2021 at 2:29 pm #142237
Many moon ago, I told Josiah that I’d write about the idea that conflict is not the most fundamental aspect of good story… You know, against that thing every good writer accepts as basic fact!
I’ve finally published that essay, and you can read it for free right here.
"...the one with whom he so sought to talk has already interceded for him." -The Master and MargaritaSeptember 22, 2021 at 3:12 pm #142238
@taylorclogston – Reading it now and absolutely enjoying it. I love the research and exposition.Will come back with more complete thoughts when I finish.
Published author, student in writing, works with HazelGracePress.comSeptember 22, 2021 at 3:52 pm #142239
@taylorclogston – Bravo! That was both extremely engaging and highly insightful. The contrast between typical Western structure vs Eastern structure is possibly one that writers should understand better than any other contrast–for in it lies every concept you discussed.
I’ve found that the Western structure hurts my brain, as a writer. It seems overly forceful when I want to lay my story down bit by bit, and asks for answers when I haven’t even considered having questions. If typical Western structure is the most correct way of writing stories, I am essentially lost unless some enlightenment strikes me.
Further, I’ve found a deep satisfaction from typical Eastern structure as employed by Dostoevsky in Brother’s Karamazov and A Gentleman In Moscow by Amor Towles, and Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief.
Not only do I find these stories engaging on a level that many typical Western books fail to engage with me, I also find they expand my ability to perceive and understand through and across contexts more so than structures that lean heavily on the Western mindset.
High respect for you for researching for and writing this article. It was a pleasure to read such a well articulated take on literature and writing.
- This reply was modified 3 weeks, 6 days ago by Buddy J..
Published author, student in writing, works with HazelGracePress.comSeptember 23, 2021 at 4:43 pm #142293
@wordsmith Thank you so much! I always enjoy reading your insights on stuff when I come across them on the forum, so that means a lot.
I agree with you that writers need to learn the differences between East/West structures. Just that they exist, even. I don’t think the Western structure is inherently bad, but I don’t appreciate all its assumptions and I don’t find the structure inherently engaging.
But for most genre writers, you can slap together the Western structure with genre and subgenre trappings (which include a palette of human experiences and fantasies the subgenre serves) to create a product lots of people find engaging and valuable, and the same can’t be said for the Eastern structures that I’m familiar with. Most craft books and courses are aimed toward these genre writers (or Hollywood writers, which are very similar), and learning about different structures isn’t necessarily going to help those writers at the present time because their readers want something very specific.
That’s an idea I struggle a lot with. Like you, I can’t relate to Western structure when writing. On one hand, I want to glare at the lowest tiers of genre fiction and feel superior to the literary equivalent of gas station cheeseburgers
On the other, I’m not skilled enough to write them, so I have no right to find them dumb.
(also, I invite you to read my short story Bowling with the President of the United States of America, since I tried to use as much of the theory I talk about as possible when writing it)
"...the one with whom he so sought to talk has already interceded for him." -The Master and MargaritaSeptember 25, 2021 at 10:33 am #142319
This is fascinating. I’m not especially familiar with the differences between Eastern and Western storytelling, but it was encouraging to read about Eastern structure and be reminded (again) that there’s nothing wrong with my current novel being more focused on the world and the impact of a Conflict on character relationships than on the Conflict itself. There is plenty of conflict–I suspect this book would fall somewhere in between Eastern and Western structure? If such a middle-ground exists–but it’s more for the sake of showing character than pushing the story.
It’s interesting, though… I do think I agree with your assessment that beauty and wonder are valuable, particularly alongside conflict. If you compare these concepts of conflict and beauty and whatnot to the overarching Biblical narrative, it makes perfect sense that we would seek both these things in story. The world is in conflict ever since the fall; our story is, in a sense, defined by conflict; it’s inescapable, whether it be external Conflict (war, argument, etc.) or even just the change we go through in our lives (the conflict of our old self vs. the new being a large part of that). But at the same time, when we acknowledge the realities of God and salvation and a coming paradise Kingdom, we know to look for the order and beauty of things. And I think we instinctively look for them even if we’re not aware of them, since they’re fundamental realities of the world. But as Christian authors, I think we’re in the best position to leverage both conflict and wonder, because we have an understanding of where both come from. We understand that they’re both inescapable facts of life (they’re shared experiences), and we also understand why.
Anyway. Thank you for sharing! This was a really well-written and thought-provoking article. 🙂
Fantasy/dystopian/sci-fi author. Mythology nerd. Worldbuilding enthusiast. Singer. Fan of classic literatSeptember 25, 2021 at 12:05 pm #142320
@taylorclogston – It does me so much good to see not only the way you’ve handled the topic, but also the discussion you’ve encouraged. So, my thanks to you.
Yeah. I don’t think we stand in a place to judge (in the ultimate sense) Western story telling–though it is arguable we have warrant to discuss and criticize any form of literature, especially as it builds us and others around us up.
I’d also like to think that the two general structures have so much overlap that the best of literature does overlap the two structures. Or, at least a lot of the best does. In the ideology that contrast and shared experience are the core of good stories, both structures need them. As R.M. Archer (@r-m-archer) pointed out, beauty, wonder, and conflict are some of the underlying truths of life…which means one aspect of them or another is going to show in just about any story. To use algebraic language, just as much as the fallen and corrupt world are constants in our world of variables, so also is God a constant. In fact, he came before it all.
The constants are the underlying structure of story. The variables are the changing shape of it.
So, thank you also, R. M. Archer.
Published author, student in writing, works with HazelGracePress.comSeptember 25, 2021 at 12:41 pm #142321
The constants are the underlying structure of story. The variables are the changing shape of it.
That is an excellent way of putting it.
Fantasy/dystopian/sci-fi author. Mythology nerd. Worldbuilding enthusiast. Singer. Fan of classic literatSeptember 25, 2021 at 12:42 pm #142322
@taylorclogston – That story was an excellent read, Taylor! Truly excellent.
Published author, student in writing, works with HazelGracePress.comSeptember 25, 2021 at 12:43 pm #142323
@r-m-archer – Thank you. I’m glad my words are sense-ful.
Published author, student in writing, works with HazelGracePress.comSeptember 28, 2021 at 11:53 am #142394
There is plenty of conflict–I suspect this book would fall somewhere in between Eastern and Western structure? If such a middle-ground exists–but it’s more for the sake of showing character than pushing the story.
There is certainly huge overlap between most story structures that I’m aware of, and plenty of books I’d say are definitely Eastern have plenty of conflict and linear story beats to them anyway. As you know, what your specific audience needs is more important than something as abstract as a specific story structure. Thank you for your thoughts! I really enjoyed reading them :-}
I think you’re 100% right that the best of literature overlaps and encompasses everything I mentioned. Even among my favorite books in Eastern structure, I believe I would love them far more if they had taken more inspiration from Western structure. I mentioned Haruki Murakami in the essay, and several of his books are my all-time favorites. Yet, for example, his book 1Q84 opens with some bizarre and wondrous worldbuilding and mystery which is completely abandoned by the end of the book because we realize the whole narrative has been about two people separated by parallel worlds coming together again, that all the questions of cults and subterfuge are meaningless compared to two people who belong not at all to the worlds around them finding a state of existence where they do belong.
The story served its thematic purpose. I think it would have been objectively better if it had answered all the questions it initially raised. That would have meant more adhesion to Western structure.
Despite the many issues I have with Dostoevsky’s books, I think he and C.S. Lewis strike the best balance of Eastern and Western storytelling I’ve ever seen.
I’ll join R.M. Archer in saying your algebraic example is a brilliant way of putting it =P
Finally, thank you for reading my story, Buddy! I’m glad you enjoyed it.
"...the one with whom he so sought to talk has already interceded for him." -The Master and MargaritaSeptember 28, 2021 at 7:03 pm #142412Noah Cochran@noah-cochran
Thanks for tagging me in Taylor. 🙂
What I hope I’ve showed is that there is more to storytelling than conflict. Moreover, a story can be worth consuming without being driven at every turn by conflict.
First off, I want to say that those to statements in your conclusion (quoted above), I agree with. I have also heard all the phrase “when in doubt, add more conflict,” and one of my favorite booktubers (Abbie Emmons) who has loads of great content on story craft, is always talking about adding more and more conflict. Here’s the thing, I agree with them, but this has never made me think that story is only about conflict. Thus, your comment about storytelling being more than conflict is absolutely true, but I don’t know of many people that would disagree with that statement. I also agree with the second statement, that of a story not needing to be drive at every turn by conflict, but I will say that a story needs a central conflict/contrast to develop the protagonist and plot. With no conflict and internal conflict, there are no important decisions to be made, and thus your protagonist and plot will be quite flat and shallow.
You made many comments in the essay about books that are just about human experience, and using a story to create shared experience. You gave examples of how eastern structure and some western authors use this concept of relying on shared experience and human experience. While I don’t debate any of those points, I would argue that human experience is full of conflict, and no matter what experience one is sharing, it should have a central conflict. It can be as simple as discovering some philosophical question or attempting to prove oneself to their love interest, it doesn’t have to be some big epic villain’s plan or massive character flaw, it can be simple, and yet central to the story at the same time.
As for the argument that stories can be more about the beauty of prose and the sensation of being transported, that is true, but that is more in the genre of poetry and literary focused stories than the telling of a human story and the adventures they go on. I have not read anything by Rothfuss (I have problems with him), but I do know quite a bit about his work, and to be candid, there is plenty of conflict. True, he is known for exceptional prose, but that doesn’t take away from the conflict the main character goes through in his life. Again, human experience is nearly equivalent to conflict, if written correctly. To anticipate a rebuttal, I will say that writing human experience can be void of conflict. I could write a story about a man going to the dentist, and everything goes well, but it would be quite boring. I could also write a story about a man going to the dentist who runs into much conflict, that could be interesting.
I enjoyed reading the essay, Taylor, you obviously have extensive knowledge on the subject of storycraft. 🙂September 29, 2021 at 7:22 am #142428
You’re welcome for the tag! You’re another person whose thoughts I always enjoy seeing pop up.
Here’s the thing, I agree with them, but this has never made me think that story is only about conflict. Thus, your comment about storytelling being more than conflict is absolutely true, but I don’t know of many people that would disagree with that statement.
That’s a perfectly reasonable response if you haven’t encountered this much yourself. I’m afraid I’m in the position of having to ask you to believe me when I say I didn’t just conjure up a strawman, but that actual people who would disagree with my statement are very real and they are everywhere, especially in genre fic communities.
I will say that a story needs a central conflict/contrast to develop the protagonist and plot. With no conflict and internal conflict, there are no important decisions to be made, and thus your protagonist and plot will be quite flat and shallow.
I sort of agree with this, but sort of don’t, and I tie that with your central points below:
I would argue that human experience is full of conflict, and no matter what experience one is sharing, it should have a central conflict … human experience is nearly equivalent to conflict, if written correctly … stories can be more about the beauty of prose and the sensation of being transported … but that is more in the genre of poetry and literary focused stories than the telling of a human story and the adventures they go on.
I’m afraid I’m not willing to concede this point, but I think the original article defends itself well enough that I don’t need to explain why I disagree. It sounds like we have a fundamental philosophical difference as to what the core of human experience is and as to the value of poetic and literary vs conflict and plot-driven narrative. I would say that literary and poetic quality is one of the core elements that makes all the great classics great (and that we should strive for it in every story, so long as it won’t actively harm our audience’s experience), though if I started talking about the role of classics and conflicts we might just go back to talking about our specific definitions of conflict and go nowhere.
Something I should have talked more about is the ratio of conflict vs literary quality we see in a given work. That’s apparent from your point about Rothfuss:
> I have not read anything by Rothfuss (I have problems with him), but I do know quite a bit about his work, and to be candid, there is plenty of conflict.
With all due respect, I have actually read the seventeen hundred pages of his first two books, and I can confidently say the conflict comes infrequently and is usually the weakest part of the book. Maybe other people who have read it can chime in. (I definitely don’t blame you for not reading because of issues with Rothfuss, though)
That was more to my point than “These books don’t have any conflict.” Despite them being modern classics, my experience with even the general secular writing community regarding these books is “The plot is laughable, but the words are liquid poetry.” Which I’d still argue is more than enough to justify being a book, and a disagreement to that end is just a fundamental difference in our narratologies that I don’t think can be solved with debate.
Since I don’t want to ignore your final example:
I could write a story about a man going to the dentist, and everything goes well, but it would be quite boring. I could also write a story about a man going to the dentist who runs into much conflict, that could be interesting.
I’d take the conservative and defensive argument that I don’t see why the story of the man going to the dentist and finding conflict would be more inherently interesting, in a vacuum separated from all other literary and narratological theory, than one without more than cursory conflict. I’m happy to concede that I can’t think of a great story completely without conflict so I won’t try to brace myself in my corner any further than that.
I suppose I have to ask if you feel I wasn’t fair in my case studies? I’m confident to point to them as examples that my theory can work very well for even general audiences, but if you feel that I’ve missed the point in any regard than we might either have something more to talk about or that might just highlight irreconcilable worldview differences.
I really appreciate the detailed response, Noah! Thank you very much for taking the time to read, think, and respond.September 29, 2021 at 3:26 pm #142436
@taylorclogston – I would add authors like Tolkien and Card to the list of those who mix structures extremely well. Card–with his highly philosophical approach–nailed the pacing and movement of Ender’s Game. And Tolkien uses the extensive layering of his setting to provide what’s necessary to follow the main character through not only a path of conflict and resolve, but an established world and history. Almost like everything around Frodo (the world around him) is moving in a more “Eastern” pattern while Frodo himself takes a “Western”‘ journey through that greater world and universe.
I would be curious to read IQ84 with that in mind. Often I find that main characters rely on what’s going on in the world around them to find purpose. In fact, Orson Scott Card takes an interesting look at this as he wraps his characters in the discussion of ethics and belief system, and makes them discuss how that belief system responds to what is at hand. Dostoevsky seems to do the same. So…does that opening of IQ84 serve as either a mirror for the characters? Or, does it instead provide a contrast for where the characters end up?
I look forward to hearing your thoughts.
(Also, thanks for the encouragement!)
@noah-cochran – Interesting thoughts, friend. I look forward to hearing more of your responses.
Published author, student in writing, works with HazelGracePress.comSeptember 29, 2021 at 3:36 pm #142439
And Tolkien uses the extensive layering of his setting to provide what’s necessary to follow the main character through not only a path of conflict and resolve, but an established world and history. Almost like everything around Frodo (the world around him) is moving in a more “Eastern” pattern while Frodo himself takes a “Western”‘ journey through that greater world and universe.
That’s a really interesting observation. I think this actually nails the reason that I enjoyed it so much the last time I read it. And probably the reason that people who call it “slow” don’t enjoy it.
Fantasy/dystopian/sci-fi author. Mythology nerd. Worldbuilding enthusiast. Singer. Fan of classic literatSeptember 29, 2021 at 5:14 pm #142440
Just a quick warning that all Murakami’s books have a lot of sexual content, so if that (understandably) bothers you, probably best to stay away.
1Q84 doesn’t flawlessly mirror each character in where they start out and where they end, but it does introduce a double handful of motifs and themes and will carry forward even when the plot intrigue is dropped. One of the main characters gets frustrated with a taxi stuck in traffic on a bridge, and she gets out to take a maintenance staircase downward, which leads her, unknowingly, to the parallel world. The author gives us this exchange between Aomame and the driver:
“Thanks very much,” he said. “Be careful, it looks windy out there. Don’t slip.”
“I’ll be careful,” Aomame said.
“And also,” the driver said, facing the mirror, “please remember: things are not what they seem.”
Things are not what they seem, Aomame repeated mentally. “What do you mean by that?” she asked with knitted brows.
The driver chose his words carefully: “It’s just that you’re about to do something out of the ordinary. Am I right? People do not ordinarily climb down the emergency stairs of the Metropolitan Expressway in the middle of the day – especially women.”
“I suppose you’re right.”
“Right. And after you do something like that, the everyday look of things might seem to change a little. Things may look different to you than they did before. I’ve had that experience myself. But don’t let appearances fool you. There’s always only one reality.”
On the second read, that certainly plays into the way the narrative is about two people lost in their own perceptions of reality fleeing from supernatural intrigue and just finding the place where they know each other exist. (I find it funny, whether or not it was intentional, that the driver says all these things while looking at Aomame using the mirror, when she’s about to go through the looking glass, as it were)
And yes, I see both these patterns in Card and Tolkien also, which is a big part of why I enjoy them both so much =P
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