Tuesday, August 22, 2017

MAKING A SPECTACLE OF IT

guest post by Alec Osthoff 

If you have been in a beginner fiction workshop, there is a good chance you’ve either been told that a story must be built around conflict, or that every character must want something, and must struggle trying to achieve their goals. These are effectively the same statement. And I often question if this is the right way to get students thinking about writing.

I don’t necessarily disagree with the rule. Unless you are writing microfiction or something highly experimental, it is almost certainly true that the story will feature conflict of some kind. And the word “conflict” is awfully broad. Even the quietest of struggles or questions suffices for this rule.

What I find problematic about this maxim is more what it implies, which is that conflict is the hook that keeps your readers interested. Any piece of the book or story can be used to hold the reader’s interests, usually multiple are being used simultaneously. By handing this assumption to young writers, we limit the kinds of stories they will produce, both in these intro level classes, and potentially far into the future, as these early assumptions are often difficult to dislodge.

While this isn’t a bad way to think about writing, it can be a narrow approach, and many students would benefit from taking other avenues for considering their own work.

As an example of conflict gaining too much weight in a story, I wrote an overblown collapsing marriage plot for my advanced fiction writing course in undergrad. I had no idea how to write a collapsing marriage, and it was all really an excuse for providing sketches of late night Minneapolis. A conflict where the narrator is an insomniac would have sufficed better for getting my character out into the world I was interested in, but I felt the conflict needed to be bigger.

This is a bit of an embarrassing theme in my earliest stories—I always assumed that the conflict should be the most important piece because my intro course, like many intro courses, taught me to think about stories in that way. And these earliest short stories make me cringe now with their inflated conflicts, when clearly the Midwestern setting is what I was most interested in presenting.

Again, the rule wasn’t the problem, and my intro to creative writing teacher shouldn’t be blamed either. My problem was that I saw the rule, and like many students, gave it more weight in my stories than was helpful. I heard the narrow implication behind the broadest of statements, and following that implication led to stifling my own work. I needed to change the way I thought about stories, and after thinking on it for several years, I believe I have it boiled down to something I can explain to other writers.

There are as many ways to think about writing as there are writers. But what has helped me think about my own work is that all stories have a spectacle. That is, all stories have something the reader will ideally pay attention to.

Often there will be several spectacles, but the writer should be aware of the ones that stick out the most and have the biggest impact on a reader’s interpretation of the story.

To illustrate the point, if I had taken that divorce narrative and instead of thinking of the story as a centralized conflict, thought of it as a spectacle, then I would have built the story around the strange late-night wanderings my protagonist moves into. When building the story around the spectacle, I would have focused on the part of the story that most interested me—the after-midnight culture of a city I was very familiar with. And I could have spared myself the embarrassment of trying to prop the story up on a conflict I wasn’t committed to.

For example, if a setting is particularly strong, readers will generally take notice, and that will inform how the reader internalizes the rest of the story.

Maybe there is a strange item at the center of the story, or an anticipated event the characters are looking forward to. These things do not have to relate to the conflict to hold a reader’s interest if they are properly emphasized. With this approach, it will be immediately clear to students that the narrative glue does not necessarily have to be the story’s conflict, and by starting students out this way, I think we open the potential for more diverse narratives.

If the writer doesn’t have control over their spectacle, or is unaware of what piece of the narrative is drawing attention above the norm, then they don’t have control over how readers value or interpret the story, so this new method doesn’t let students off the hook. Really, this teaching method requires that students have a greater understanding of their work, and may result in a greater struggle for them, but the result is a classroom of writers who won’t be bogged down by a particular assumption. If we change the way we think about building stories, we change the stories we produce. And by taking this broader approach to story building, we expand the kinds of stories we have at our disposal.

What’s worth emphasizing about this method of thinking about stories is that it doesn’t overwrite the classic rule about conflict. This method in no way challenges that most stories will require characters, conflict, and a setting. This new way of thinking doesn’t even discredit or discourage conflict focused stories, as conflicts make great spectacles.

What this method does do is encourage more diverse approaches to storytelling than the standard workshop adage. The way we think about building stories impacts the stories we create.


Alec Osthoff is a recent graduate from the University of Wyoming MFA program in Fiction. He is a 2017 Mari Sandoz Emerging Writer, and his writing has appeared in Atticus Review, Midwestern Gothic, and as winner of the 2016 Blue Mesa Review Fiction Contest. 

Alec recently attended the Story Catcher Writing Workshop, where he met Lynn Carlson and many other talented writers. He currently lives in Laramie with his wife, August, and two cats.

4 comments:

  1. As I venture cautiously out of poetry only into some fiction, I find articles like this particularly valuable because they help me see different ways to approach a story. My current work has strong conflict on several levels, but the next one may be what Alec describes as using setting as the spectacle, not failing to have conflict, but the conflict can be quiet compared to setting. I'll have to chew on this for a while, but it seems worth chewing on. Thanks, Lynn and Alec.

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  2. Over the past year or two, I have become less and less enamored of writing "rules." Thank you for this wonderful insight on one of those that I see often.

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  3. Thank you, Art! I work a lot with poetry, and I wonder if in part that's what steers me away from thinking about conflict as the driving force of a story. Best of luck on both your current work and your future piece.
    All best, Alec.

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  4. Me too, Susan. The "rules" were always offered as suggestions to me by my teachers, but at some point they hardened into unbreakable rules. That probably happens more often than we realize, but I'll try and stop it when I can.

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