This summer I finally read Steering the Craft, a book on writing by one of my very favorite writers, Ursula K. Le Guin. Le Guin’s writing speaks to me because, with wisdom and beauty, it brings to the table of genre fiction so much human activity that is left behind in standard heroic fantasy. People in Le Guin’s novels farm and fish and trade, they exist in worlds of deeply felt gender, class, and cultural norms. Her books are still transgressive in the genre due to writing about societies of people whose skin is a color other than white. I’m still not as well read in contemporary adult speculative fiction as I’d like to be, having gotten started somewhat late, but it’s been a struggle to find books set in imagined worlds that are as thoughtful and challenging as hers are.

While Le Guin has influenced the kind of settings and characters I write about, I had never considered the matter of plot. That is, I had taken it for granted that fantasy novels can pretty much only have one kind of plot – highly structured, full of conflict, mystery, and danger, involving high stakes, and usually featuring a young character coming into his or her own. This kind of plot has certainly been wildly successful in the ever-burgeoning young adult fantasy genre, of which I am a big fan. It’s the kind of story I’ve always been taught to write, epitomized in the famous writing advice, “Get your protagonist up a tree. Throw rocks at him. Then get him down.”

So Le Guin totally BLEW MY MIND with the following seditious advice about writing plots:

“I define plot as a form of story which uses action as its mode usually in the form of conflict, and which closely and intricately connects one act to another, usually through a causal chain, ending in a climax[. . .] It provides an armature for narrative that beginning writers may find invaluable.

“But most serious modern fictions can’t be reduced to a plot, or retold without fatal loss except in their own words. The story is not in the plot but in the telling. It is the telling that moves.

“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.”

Le Guin goes on to acknowledge that stories do need to be about something, they need a shape, a direction, and a satisfactory ending. But do they really need to have a traditional, high concept Hero’s Journey powered by conflict? I honestly had never questioned it, particular in the fantasy genre, where there is seemingly no room for anything else, due to the inherent drama of the fantastic.

But I’ve taken it to heart. As I’ve developed as a writer I’ve found that, in my struggle to build better and more satisfying plots, that my characters usually suffer as a result, especially my protagonists. Of course, it is perfectly possible to write novels with great protagonists and conflict-heavy stories, but I wasn’t managing it. My protagonists had motivations, but they never acquired the kind of complex inner lives that I’d always wanted to capture as a beginning writer. There just isn’t space in the narrative. Indeed, it’s usually my antagonists and supporting characters that are more compelling, since their quirks and motivations are driving the plot (chasing the protagonist up the tree, throwing rocks at him. Notice how passive the protagonist is in that model? I’ve just discovered that the advice comes from a screenwriter, and it might be more appropriate in that context.)

So – I’m quitting cold turkey. My next novel is not going to have a conflict-heavy plot. I’ve just started writing it, and while we’re still in the honeymoon period, it’s feeling wonderful. My great struggle was figuring out how to write a fantasy novel without an adventure. I’m not sure of how to tell a novel-shaped thing with fantasy elements that isn’t driven by magical mayhem. I’m finding, though, that once I’ve found a character whose story I really want to tell, I can let her go and she’ll tell the story for me, sans death and kidnappings. It’s also doing wonders for my narrative voice, which was getting lost behind bland protagonists and dense action.

My character isn’t very young or at all important, and her competences are run-of-the-mill (she’s moderately intelligent, has had a wide range of life experiences, and can run a household and perform minor magics). Even before I had my plot revelation, it was important to me that I figure out how to write fantasies that weren’t about traditional heroes. I adore coming of age novels and admire unusual competence in characters, but surely other people deserve to have their stories told as well? Besides, writing about these characters makes it easy to become hopelessly derivative, as Our Young Hero becomes just another Harry Potter and Our Competent Hero becomes another Indiana Jones.

So this novel, should it get off the ground, mostly won’t be fast-paced. There will be no magical artifacts or epic battles, and relatively few madcap adventures. Maybe it will render me a hopelessly uncommercial writer. Maybe it just won’t work. And certainly I’m not swearing off adventure and mayhem; it’s much too fun to write and delights me when other storytellers do it well.

But for a while, I am going to hunker down and listen carefully to what this imaginary woman needs to tell me. I think it will turn out that listening is as important as telling in this business of being a writer.

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