Conflict, Danger, and Uncertainty

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.

The Blue Fairy Advises

The Blue Fairy Advises

“’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?

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8 Responses to “Conflict, Danger, and Uncertainty”

  1. henrietta abeyta Says:

    I’m not always searching for satisfactory dear Jane I more often search for which character had real courage. It’s probably the extra practice on reading that helps me judge the friendship parts of various stories, as well as Grandma’s social worker lessons.

    I’ve loved them since my childhood it isn’t only that the real attitude of wolves is clear enough to me, to help me avoid depression, the ones like Blind Seer help me imagine moments of peace and caution being shown at the same time.

    I agree with you about the danger cars can be Jane not only because there’ve been more vehicle crashes but my Epilepsy makes me too scared to drive. And we’re family that gets lost easily on the road.

  2. Heteromeles Says:

    Isn’t that the challenge with formula or formula music or formula anything? The advantage is that it’s a familiar form, which induces people to give it a chance in the first place. The disadvantage is that you’ve got to make it “come alive” in a way that’s interestingly new, without messing with the formula too much.

    It’s much harder than it looks. Then again, most things are.

    • Jane Lindskold Says:

      All too true… What worries me is the number of new writers I meet who think the formula is what they should learn.

      That’s why the introductory essay to my book on writing (Wanderings on Writing) is titled “No Golden Key.”

      Following someone else’s formula is like training wheels on a bike. Helpful while you’re learning, but eventually you need to take them off.

  3. henrietta abeyta Says:

    I usually don’t feel challenged, it’s ways to improve I look for a lot and I have sincere flexibility. it’s not my strength question it’s how the world will react to me and what would be wise to resist during each new journey.

  4. henrietta abeyta Says:

    I Jasmine Olson with Autism Epilepsy and another disability however it’s no joke at all that quizzes have called the ALPHA OR NICE THINGS LIKE THE DRAGON OF SPIRIT.

  5. Paul Dellinger Says:

    More than any element, I like a protagonist with enough character (be in courage, perseverance or whatever) to have me pull for him or her. This can be done even when the protagonist is narrating (Dick Francis was particularly good at that; his character would often be unaware of his virtues but others would see them and make them known to the reader, if not always to the narrator).

    • henrietta abeyta Says:

      Well I could say I see self-satisfaction is momentary need especially when you really want to make the right decision without doubt.

      A fiction alpha in Avi’s book Old wolf, a lucky weak runt bat who lived on(Shade) in the Silverwing series, and an outcast owl in the 8th Ga- Hoole book Nyroc who changes his name to Coryn. They’re the three who helped me picture what real self-satisfaction feels like when you have it within you.

      cheating, violations, and forgetting yourself, no none of these three things do your best to live your own life like you and Jane Lindskold say.

      Acceptance and self-satisfaction found while never denying your conscience and trusting your instincts without any rebellion too.

      these are two wise ways to save yourself

  6. henrietta abeyta Says:

    Paul Dellinger Sir besides Jane Lindskold’s answers I indeed appreciate the soft answers you’ve put after my quite unique comments. Thank you it’s a pleasure that Jane’s not the only one who easily discovers my main points quickly. Especially with how often I include my personal wolf imagination facts it surprises me how polite your responses are.

    Worth Gratitude Full Paul. Sincerely.

    Jasmine Olson just showing she finds Paul Dellinger a friendly writer.

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