Last week, I read (and enjoyed) Shannon Hale’s “Ever After High” short story collection, Once Upon a Time. Hidden within the first story was the following writerly statement.
“’And a story is always filled with conflict, danger, and uncertainty!’ The fairy spoke the disagreeable words the way some might say ‘cupcakes, swing sets, and balloon animals!’”
The speaker of these words was the Blue Fairy. (Yes, the same one as in Pinocchio.) As a character in a story, especially in a world where stories are the same as reality, I suppose she’d know.
Sadly, though, this is the sort of thing new writers hear all the time. Worse, they think they understand. They believe that if they follow this formula, they will have written a successful story. Although there are elements of truth in what the Blue Fairy says, this is really a very reductive way of looking at a story. I’ve already written a fairly long discussion of conflict here and here, so I won’t go into that element in any detail except to remind that there’s a lot more to conflict than mere confrontation.
How about danger? Well, what is danger? Danger is usually defined as a situation that puts someone in jeopardy. Danger differs from conflict in that a character can be in danger without being in conflict. A lost person is in all sorts of danger – of accident, of injury, as well as the sorts of danger that may also involve conflict.
Anyone driving a car is experiencing potential danger. Don’t believe me? The very design of the vehicle sends you the message that a car is a danger zone. Bumpers. Seat belts. Air bags. Special seats for kids. If you think too hard about it, it’s enough to keep you from ever taking the car out of the garage.
However, there are many excellent stories that do not have an iota of physical danger. Psychological and emotional danger, yes. But, as these often fall under the umbrella of “conflict,” insisting that a story must have danger is stretching matters.
Uncertainty, the third element in the Blue Fairy’s triad, is particularly interesting because in any story there are two types of uncertainty at work: uncertainty for the character, and uncertainty for the reader.
Uncertainty for characters is easy enough to write. After all, most of the time, the characters don’t know they are the protagonists in a book. Therefore, they don’t have an automatic expectation that everything will work out “happily ever after.”
One of the clever things about the “Ever After High” series is that it violates this basic tenant. The characters not only know they are characters in various stories, they often know precisely which story to which they belong. The conflict comes from the fact that while some of those characters want to be part of their story, others most definitively do not.
However, in most stories, the characters don’t know that they belong to a story, so whether it’s a “Will Jenny win the love of her man?” story or “Will Joe get to play in the Big Game?” story or “Will the Evil Overlord be defeated?” story, there’s a lot of uncertainty for the characters.
In contrast, the reader has very few doubts. If you’re reading a romance novel you know that if Jenny doesn’t get John’s love, she’ll get someone even better. If you’re reading a boy’s adventure story, if Joe doesn’t get to play in the Big Game, it will be because he learns a “Valuable Life Lesson” about friendship and teamwork. And Evil Overlords seem to exist for the purpose of being defeated, or at least converted, by the forces of Good.
In my opinion, stories built around conflict, danger, and uncertainty work for the majority of readers precisely because the reader expects a satisfactory resolution, no matter how much conflict and danger there is for the characters along the way. In other words, when most people talk about “uncertainty” in a story, they’re talking about uncertainty for the characters, not for the readers.
When I was in college, there was one Fantasy series everyone was talking about. It was dark. It was edgy. It was dystopian and featured an anti-hero. (No. I’m not talking about Game of Thrones. I’m not that young.)
I’m not going to name the series, because discussing this series is not the point. The point is this… This series debuted at a time period when the trilogy dominated in Fantasy. Readers were indoctrinated to expect that Book One would present a problem. Book Two would provide complications and details. Book Three would provide a satisfactory resolution.
Except this didn’t happen. Book Three provided an ending, but not one that satisfied most readers. When the writer presented a fourth book, many of those who decided to read it did so specifically because they thought they would receive the satisfactory resolution that they had not received from the first trilogy.
When this book showed that this was not going to be the case, readership for subsequent books dropped precipitously.
Is there anything wrong with readers expecting that uncertainty will be in the details, not in the resolution? Absolutely not. Does that mean that every story needs to end with “And they lived happily ever after?” Again. Absolutely not.
However, is a story always filled with conflict, danger, and uncertainty? Maybe so. However, the trick to writing a good story is not in filling in the blanks so you’re sure you’ve included each one of these. It’s in making them appropriate to the story.
A conflict between friends can be heart-wrenching or a formulaic yawn. A battle or car chase can be edge-of-the-seat exciting or a bit of filler to skip. A character who doesn’t know who to trust can be someone you worry about, or someone who makes you want to throw the book away because you’re tired of them being so clueless.
What do you think?