No, it’s not a magical fairyland. No pixie whispers into my brain what I should write next, what stories I ought to tell. Actually, I don’t think that very many stories could come from a magical fairyland, if such a place existed. It would be too nice in such a magical place, and stories, at their heart, require a digression from the pleasant or the normal. Otherwise, there would be nothing worth reading, much less writing. Which is not to say that there couldn’t be a magical fairyland in which things don’t go beautifully, but let’s leave that possibility be for the purposes of this discussion.
Conflict doesn’t have to be world-shattering, galaxy-altering, stupendously high stakes kind of conflict. Yes, in a lot of speculative fiction the conflicts are largely external, and can involve some kind of absolute bad guy who must be defeated or else the entire world will be plunged into tyrannical darkness and chaos forever, but there are plenty of other conflicts that can make a good story. Internal conflicts of a character trying to come to terms with themselves are not uncommon, especially in coming of age stories, and there’s nothing to say that a romance plot couldn’t be transplanted to a genre fiction work. Even the most happily ever after, personally dramatic, sticky romance plot, though, has at its heart an element of conflict.
My relationship with English classes back in school was always, well, complicated, mostly because I took issue with the tendency of my teachers to assign meaning to every single word that I was pretty sure wasn’t there (I certainly don’t have some deep, hidden meaning in every sentence I write). One valuable insight that I heard in that forum, however, was that stories arise out of a disturbance from equilibrium (yes, I have modified it to sound more like something an engineer would say). The original statement was regarding poetry, but I think it applies even better to stories. Essentially, there is a story to tell when the trajectory of life is disturbed from equilibrium.
Oftentimes, I’ll come up with some fascinating idea for a story, but I won’t have the disturbance needed to make it into something worth reading. This is especially true of my science fiction efforts, since I’ll come up with elaborate technologies and fascinating dynamics of an interstellar civilization, and then not have a good motivation for my characters to do, well, anything. There’s not disturbance, nothing that will shake them from going about their daily routine and push them into doing something story-worthy (we’ll talk more about some of my other struggles with science fiction in a future post).
While useful as a plotting tool, this idea of a disturbance from equilibrium is also a more visceral concept. I can academically sit down a plan out a complex plotline that is technically robust, but it won’t be compelling at that point, even if I have all my characters having appropriate disturbances. The story in that form will feel cold and lifeless, lacking in the messiness that characterizes reality and makes a story feel real (this goes back a bit to our plausible impossibility discussion). It’s one of the reasons that I don’t do a formal outline for a story until after I’ve established who the characters are and why they’re doing what they’re doing, and why they’re going to have to start doing something different.
In order for that part of come through, it requires me to experience some kind of disturbance from equilibrium. We’re all of us living through stories, very real stories, and the disturbances that we experience can be translated onto the page. Not directly – I don’t sit down and say “I’m going to write this story because it is reflective of something that I just experienced, as a metaphor for my life” – but reflecting on the disturbances that we experience in reality can prompt us to better comprehend the disturbances that occur in our imagination and that make for good substance for writing.
If this all sounds a little “out there,” especially for an engineer, you would be quite correct. And yet, it is the best way I have to describe where the stories seem to come from, these disturbances from equilibrium. I can force myself to sit down and write a story, but it will never be quite as good as when I need to sit down and tell a story, when I’ve gotten so far into my character’s head that I feel the disturbances they do and comprehend their situation as well as if I were living it for them. That’s how a really compelling story comes to be.
Story-telling probably developed as a way to warn others, especially the next generation, of which plants were poisonous, that the saber-toothed tigers were dangerous, and that you should sit o a glacier for too long without a mammoth skin. These were very physical manifestations of the disturbances from equilibrium that our distant ancestors may have experienced. Perhaps, in our modern story-telling, we are not really so far removed from that tradition of story-telling as it might initially appear.