Last week I bemoaned the emphasis on dystopias and post-apocalypse societies in SF as “easy” ways of introducing conflict in stories while novels based in utopian civilisations such as Banks’ Culture require a more imaginative plot. I was being provocative as of course there are many excellent stories set in dystopic societies from 1984 onwards. What I was thinking about was the need for conflict to make a story interesting. This week I am spending quite a bit of time reading to my 3-year-old grandson (and hence not writing much myself) which has caused me to think further about tension in stories.
I must admit to a growing admiration for Julia Donaldson. First of all the language in all her books is a delight to read aloud – the rhythms and rhymes with their selection of appropriate vocabulary (not always the simplest or most common words) creates wonderful word pictures, but the stories are also exciting because of the conflict or tension she evokes. Gentle they may be as they are aimed at young children but the plots of the Gruffalo (and G’s child), Stickman, Superworm and Room on the Broom, place their characters in sticky (no pun intended) situations resolved by cleverness or team work. For example, Superworm is rescued from the wicked wizard lizard by the combined action of all the insects and amphibians he helped, while Mouse uses guile to avoid being gobbled up by various creatures including the Gruffalo. These are all much more satisfactory stories than traditional tales that often require a deus ex machina to resolve the plot. Even on (many) repeated readings Donaldson’s work gives pleasure to the older reader as well as the young listener. Which is more than I can say for Dr Seuss and “Green Eggs and Ham”.
It is a pity that so much modern SF, particularly films, think that resolving a conflict can only be done by lots of flashes and bangs and violence instead of using intelligence. My main dissatisfaction with The Hobbit films is their use of destruction to solve problems rather than Bilbo’s cleverness as happens in the book. Now I must admit that in my fantasy series, Evil Above the Stars, September destroys the forces arrayed against her using miraculous powers but they are controlled by the qualities she finds within herself. Transsexual detective, Jasmine Frame too, while facing violent antagonists, relies on her powers of deduction more than her physical prowess, although I have to admit that she has to be rescued on more than one occasion by her buddy, DS Tom Shepherd. Of course how much tension there is in my stories is up to my readers to report.
Painted Ladies: a Jasmine Frame Story is available in paperback and as an e-book from all booksellers.
Evil Above the Stars: volume 1 Seventh Child and volume 2 Power of Seven will be published by Elsewhen Press in e-book in Jan. 2015 and in paperback in March 2015.