My daughter plays in the Vancouver Youth Symphony Orchestra and during her rehearsals I usually pass the time at a cafe, downing cappuccinos and writing. I was there last Saturday, sipping my coffee drink and munching on my gluten-free, low-carb snack bar (holy crap I sound like a Yuppie) thinking about how to add more pain and conflict to a character’s life.
No, I’m not a sadist, I just saw that the short story I was working on wasn’t as compelling as it could be. The general rule in fiction is that every story must have at least one character and that character must be in conflict. Or to put it another way, storytelling describes what someone wants and how they get it (or don’t). The more obstacles and conflicts, the more squeaky bum angst, the more compelling the reading.
But as I sat there in my very distressed Windsor bow back chair, I wondered why all fiction demands conflict. Why couldn’t fiction just be a bunch of things that happen? Are real human lives full of conflict and drama? Well, yes. And no. It occurred to me that what stories need is not conflict per se, but rather a sense of progression, of overcoming some obstacle to reach a new goal. It’s that sense of progress that makes us turn the page, and gives the story a point.
John Gardner liked to use the term “profluence”. It’s a writing-geek word that refers a story’s flow. When a story has profluence, readers feel that the narrative is leading somewhere, and so they keep turning the pages. The feeling of achieving something is deeply satisfying.
Conversely, when a story doesn’t have profluence, when one scene doesn’t seem to connect to the next, when events feel random and the character just a bystander, readers are likely to close the book and say something nasty on Twitter.
All fine and well. So my story needed more profluence. But as I sat on that hard wooden chair, now succumbing to gluteal myalgia, I began to ponder whether profluence, so critical in fiction, isn’t also critical in life? I mean, we all have desires – it’s part of the human condition – but aren’t we happiest when we’re clear about our desires and are taking action to realize them? In fiction, a reader must understand what a character wants, either in the moment or in life. But how often do I really know what I want from life?