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Bewildering Stories

Challenge 740 Response
Bewildering Stories discusses...

Defining “Conflict”

with L. L. Richardson

Conflict and Resolution” appears in issue 739.

You know a problem really isn’t one when it can be resolved with terminology.

[L. L.] I enjoyed reading your comments on essential story elements. I think I can clarify my thoughts on “conflict.” I use this word in its broadest meaning. Depending on the story, other similar words might better apply. Conflict of nations, clash of cultures, incongruence of ideas, mismatched emotions.

In the story “A Reason to Worry,” there is societal conflict between elements which embrace the inclusion of noetic androids verses an element which oppose such, the Gutfeld Resistance, a sort of terrorist organization resorting to physical violence. But there is also Jim’s worry, a sense that he and his android wife are not safe (people are supposed to feel safe), and finally there is the mismatch between Jim’s angst and Monica’s lack of angst (she says calmly that worry is not in her programming).

I think all good stories have some element, though perhaps quite subtle, of conflicting emotion which sets up a kind of uneasiness in the reader, the sort of unease that compels the reader to read the next paragraph, and the next....

After some thought, I am not sure that “resolution” is a useful term because it implies conflicts are resolved, problems solved, wrong made right. A story may end with none of these having taken place. But a story has to give the reader a sense that something, some question, has been answered.

In “A Reason to Worry,” the story leads up to Jim’s question to Monica, whether she was worried. The answer, the resolution, if you will, is no, she’s not programmed to worry. I hope the story’s last line gives readers a smile.

What distinguishes the story from the essay, the report, and the treatise? A story is written first of all to entertain. That is my goal in writing fiction.

[Don W.] Thank you, L. L. Serious readers will, I’m sure, be interested to know what goes on “behind the scenes” in composition, namely the thought that goes into a story. At worst, readers may say, “What was this author thinking?!” At best, as in “A Reason to Worry,” the thought is quite transparent.

The literary meaning of “conflict” is the same as its general meaning: irreconcilable differences. They can be “resolved” more or less well by force, as in legal or economic processes, or by violence.

For example, Molière’s comedies demonstrate markedly that comedy and tragedy differ in degree rather than in kind. Many of his plays are tragedies until a deus ex machina arrives or unfolds in the dénouement to restore equilibrium in the social order.

In “A Reason to Worry,” the Gutfield Resistance has been resorting to violence in an attempt to resolve a conflict between humanity and robots. The conflict extends far beyond the workplace, because “noetics,” which are a kind of super-android, seem to be replacing people in their normal human functions.

However, the noetic-human conflict isn’t resolved; it remains as a “given.” Rather, the center of the story is, as you say, Monica’s nature versus Jim’s. And that, in literary terms, is called a “tension.”

A “tension” is a difference of some kind that may be accommodated by mutual agreement. Monica can’t worry; therefore, Jim will do the worrying for both of them. Thus we see how the tension between them can be resolved.

Meanwhile, the underlying conflict — the “given” in the story — remains. Shall “noetics” ultimately replace human beings entirely? The answer is either yes or no; there are no two ways about it. Since that particular conflict is a much larger question, the resolution — in both literature and society at large — awaits a larger story.

The words “tension” and “conflict” can be over-used or misused. The important thing is to remember how they differ and what consequences they imply. Since a tension can normally be resolved peacefully, it belongs in the realm of comedy. If a conflict cannot be resolved or is not settled by negotiation, the result is, most likely, tragedy.

Is the story “entertaining”? I think so, but that only tells you a little — very little — about me. I think it’s much more interesting — potentially useful — to talk about what all readers have in common, namely the story itself.

Copyright © 2017 by L. L. Richardson
and Bewildering Stories

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