My fiction writing students and I often argue around the matter of what makes for a story. The debate usually begins when I encounter either one of two stances on the issue: 1) sometimes nothing happens in a story, there is no particular conflict, and the characters never change, or 2) everyday life is boring, so stories must have some kind of twist or something sensational to make them interesting. (Sigh.) I encounter these stances more than I care to think about. What I feel so many of my student writers don’t at first get is that the human experience is
about conflict–and so any story that hopes to relate to the human experience must, too, have conflict. Now, don’t get me wrong. I love a wonderfully subtle story in the tradition of Nabokov or Chekhov where life is not methodically presented along a clear, linear plot line only to be neatly resolved in the end. I love a story where more is implied than outright said. There is a beauty to this. But even the subtlest of all stories has conflict. I think the debate I find myself having with my students stems from a common misunderstanding of the nature of conflict–both internal and external. It doesn’t need to involve laser blasters, car chases, or zombies who want to eat brains, for god’s sake. The seed of all conflict comes from striving and falling back again. It can be as simple as that. It is the stuff of life.
Nothing happens in the world? Are you out of your fucking mind?
–Robert McKee from Adaptation
Anyway, when my students hold tightly to their notions that real life is either too boring to write about or that stories about life do not necessitate conflict, crisis, and change (presumably because that’s not the stuff of life), I am tempted to show them this clip from the brilliant Spike Jonze film Adaptation. Of course, the screen-writing guru Robert McKee (a real guy) is being parodied here and throughout the film as much as Kauffman, himself, is, but just the same, in this clip, he speaks a basic storytelling (and life) truth. Check it out.
I just wonder what my dean might say if I took the same tone with my students that McKee takes with Kauffman. Perhaps I’ll give it a try one day soon in the spirit of better fiction. It couldn’t hurt.