The geometry – and light – of story.

An interesting discussion cropped up on Reddit the other day, in which fellow fantasy author Michael J. Sullivan was wrestling with the writer’s creed that a good story is composed of three elements: character, setting, and plot. In his musings, Michael (I think correctly) observes that these components are not entirely independent of one another. Characters are strongly interfused with the actions they take in the plot and are often shaped by the setting. In some cases – think HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey – characters can even be inextricable from their settings. Clearly, the notion that these story components are mutually independent is flawed. But then Michael goes on to ask the follow up question “And what about conflict? Where does that fit?”

I drafted a brief response in the Reddit thread, and then went back in later to expand upon my comments, but something happened and my follow-up never seems to have been posted. Since the tide has gone out on that conversation now, I thought I would take my cue and work that follow-up comment into an actual blog posting.

My first instinct is that much of Michael’s exploration of the topic stumbles over an issue of semantics. I think he construes the maxim of the three components a tad too narrowly. We modern authors live in an age of scientific wizardry, and many of us (especially in genre fiction?) are of a strongly analytical mindset, informed by knowledge of such things as 3 dimensional vector space, RGB color spaces, the periodic table of chemical elements, and so on. Such concepts are known to be decomposable into some fixed number of component parts, each of which is totally independent of the other. There is no blue in red, there is no oxygen in chromium, and there is no X-ness to the Y value of a 3 dimensional vector.

So when a scientifically sensitive author reads that, “Story is composed of 3 primary elements,” he can perhaps be forgiven for taking the notion of “element” too strictly. We have to remember that most writers – and perhaps more importantly, writing theorists – come from a much less mathematically rigorous background. In all likelihood, the original proponent of this character-setting-plot maxim was more English professor than physicist – someone for whom the word “component,” or “element” had a much more fluid meaning. And it seems equally probable that the vast majority of creative writing students and practitioners  – those most likely to hear such rubriks, to ingest them, and then to repeat them to others – are also of a predominantly artistic bent and are unlikely to quibble over the terminology.

Perhaps another way to convey the intent of the maxim without stumbling over this point would be to say that, “Good stories can be examined through 3 lenses: character, setting and plot.” Phrased this way, there is no expectation of independence. Stories contain all 3 attributes, all jumbled together in a tangled mess. Each lens is then simply a way to see the mess with a particular one of those bits emphasized. The other elements are not eliminated; they are not orthogonal or irrelevent in the context of the target element; they are simply pushed to the background within that lens. Seems like a pretty tidy solution to the conundrum, right?

But having set that tempest aside, I am more interested in Michael’s companion issue: whither conflict? As Michael (and others) point out, character is dependent on conflict – aspects of personality are revealed through reaction to conflict. Plot is also dependent, in that it is a pirouetting dance of conflicts and resolutions. So how can you extricate conflict from these elements? Is conflict in fact a fourth element? Were that so, it would seem to debunk the original maxim, and who are we to repudiate such golden wisdom passed down to us from more famous, more successful, and wiser writers than ourselves? In our humility, we’d like to preserve the notion that stories are built from those 3 building blocks.

And then it hit me. If character, setting and plot are the stuff of story, then maybe by extension, conflict isn’t another stuff  – it is an attribute that allows us to see that stuff. Conflict isn’t the material – it’s the light source. Whoa. I need to ponder that for a bit …

Yeah, I think I like this. If we take conflict as that stuff that bounces around, painting in the edges of the substantive bits, conveying their shape, their size, their very mass to us, then maybe we can recharacterize this whole framework in a more cohesive manner, like so:

  1. Character is illuminated by the choices made by story agents in response to conflict
  2. Plot is the series of events that provide opportunities for the story agents to come into conflict
  3. Setting is the context – the environment, the rules, the assumptions, etc. – that defines the scope of action and the possible responses to the conflict

Like Michael, I find the original statement unhelpful because it tells me very little about how to write a good story. Maybe I’m being naive, but my writing no longer suffers from a lack of characters, or setting or plot. So if I’ve already grown past the constructive advice of the original maxim – and admittedly, that’s a big “if” – then the maxim is worth little to me now. But in my new form, I find this way of thinking about things extremely instructive. It offers suggestions for what I should actually be doing. Got a character who’s not particularly well revealed? Give him some tough conflicts to react to. Not sure if you’re setting is doing all it can to serve your story? Examine how it facilitates or constrains the kinds of conflict your story can explore, and the kinds of resolutions available for your characters. Think your plot is lagging? Look for opportunities to bring more or different characters into conflict.

Not a panacea, to be sure, but a damned sight more illuminating than “Thou shalt focus on setting, plot and characters.”

But maybe it’s just me. I can’t deny that I am strongly in that “science sensitive” category. Maybe for my more arts-trained comrades this “conflict = light” thing is just a pile of techno-hooey. So what say you, fellow writers? Thumbs up? Or thumbs down?

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About the author

Jefferson Smith is a Canadian fantasy author, as well as the founder, chief editor and resident proctologist of ImmerseOrDie. With a PhD in Computer Science and Creativity Systems compounded by a life spent exploring most art forms for fun and profit, he is underqualified in just about everything. That's why he writes.