Jake’s Last Mission, conflict, a defense of Kristark’s Coronation as a story, probably other stuff too because I’m writing this right before bed so my inner editor is already asleep

Posted by Shannon Haddock on September 12, 2014 in Jake's Last Mission, Kristark's Coronation, Rants |
Ursula K. Le Guin

Ursula K. Le Guin (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

First, I apologize in advance for, even for me, an unusual amount of rambly-ness in this post.  And typos.  And homonym errors.  If I had any sense, I’d probably wait until tomorrow . . . err, later today, I guess . . . to write this.  If I had any sense, however, I’d have gone into a much more lucrative career than writing space opera, so . . .

Second, this isn’t complaining about my reviews.  My reviewers are entitled to their opinions.  They just gave me something concrete to point at while I make a point about something that’s been bothering me for quite a long time.

Now, on to my actual post:

Ursula K. LeGuin said:

Modernist manuals of writing often conflate story with conflict. This reductionism reflects a culture that inflates aggression and competition while cultivating ignorance of other behavioral options. No narrative of any complexity can be built on or reduced to a single element. Conflict is one kind of behavior. There are others, equally important in any human life, such as relating, finding, losing, bearing, discovering, parting, changing.

Change is the universal aspect of all these sources of story. Story is something moving, something happening, something or somebody changing.

I just discovered this quote a few days ago, but it’s something I’ve thought of before.  Years ago, in fact, I argued this very point on a rpg forum when I was told, pretty much, by some people that my games couldn’t possibly be fun because conflict wasn’t the driving force.  And it wasn’t even a “rpgs are about killin’ things and gettin’ mad loot” or whatever thing.  Apparently if there’s a love story in your game or story, the drama and change that comes just from being in a relationship isn’t enough, you have to bring in soap opera elements like love triangles and kidnappings and such, for example.  Change wasn’t enough; there had to be conflict, according to these people.

I’d almost forgotten about that discussion until recently when Jake’s Last Mission started getting review after review (and a couple of private messages) that mentioned the lack of real conflict and tension and all that other sort of thing.  Here’s the deal, guys:  It’s not that kind of story.  I’m sorry.  I can see how the blurb might make you think that.  I suck at writing blurbs.  If I could tell a story in that few words, I would.  But my attempts at drabbles and flash fiction tend to suck. Brevity and conciseness aren’t my strong suits.  But, anyway, what the story is really about is right there in the title:  “Jake’s” the first word for a reason.  It’s about his last mission, yes, but ultimately, it’s about him.  It’s about a man who’s served his adopted planet for forty years and is about to retire and the last thing he gets involved with before he does.  It’s not about the events of the mission.  See up there?  “Change is the universal aspect of all these sources of story.”  Jake’s changing from commander to civilian; Kristark is changing from decorated captain (very, very loose translation of hulvim) t0 emperor.

By this same definition, “Kristark’s Coronation”, the short story included with Jake’s Last Mission, is a story.  It’s the final step in his change from his old life to his new.  Something happens, ergo, it’s a story.  Maybe not an exciting story, but a story nonetheless.

I was starting to wonder if maybe I’d been wrong to call “Kristark’s Coronation” a story instead of a vignette or something when I went looking for reviews of a book I was interested in and noticed that almost all the “bad” reviews criticized it’s lack of a central conflict . . . even though I’m only 11% in and am pretty sure there is one, it’s just “the human heart in conflict with itself” is apparently really hard for lots of people to spot when it’s happening, unless the author is burying us in so much angst that I, at least, want to shoot the character because then they might stop fucking whining.  No, I’m not a nice person, nor a patient one.  Anyway, this book, The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss, apparently doesn’t have a central conflict that some readers can spot, ergo, it’s not a story.  So, I got to thinking about some of my favorite books.  You have to really, really stretch things to find a conflict in These Happy Golden Years.  Little Women is a bit easier, but the second part, Good Wives is pretty much just “And then this is the rest of what happened to the March girls.”  Cheaper By The Dozen is mostly just a series of anecdotes, which I guess makes it not a story since there’s no conflict, yet as it tells events in a roughly chronological order, and is, really, about growing up in that family, it’s a story.  Growing up is some of that “change” stuff again.  Slice-of-life stories are still stories.

So, “Kristark’s Coronation” is a story; the short stories on the main page of the website are stories, and I’ll get back to editing to them so they aren’t quite so embarrassing to actually link to.  I’ll, maybe, even get back to writing Lyn and Rusark’s love story.  It doesn’t have any conflict, except a bit of internal stuff on Rusark’s part, but it’s still a story.

Really, when I was a kid I had a book that was about a girl breaking her arm and going to the hospital.  There was no conflict.  She broke her arm and had to stay in the hospital overnight.  She got a tour of the hospital.  She went home the next day.  I’m pretty sure that’s all that happened.  It was a story.  It told events that happened.  No one would’ve told six-year-old me that it wasn’t a story, yet if I write something that’s a more grown-up version of that, it’s not a story?  How does this make any sense at all?

And, yeah, this did get pretty damned rambly.  Oh well.  I made my point.

And I understand there’s a whole series of space opera novels, The Golden Age of the Solar Clipper, or something similar, that’s nothing but pure slice-of-life, yet still loved by most people who read them.  They’re outselling my stuff, so clearly there’s an audience for books with no conflict.

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