Osprey Archer writes in reference to Susan Coolidge's Clover, You know what is wrong with modern-day books? Not enough picnics. It’s like at some point someone said “You know, people find it really boring when the characters have a good time,” and therefore good times were banished from books FOREVERMORE, even though really picnics and tea parties and canoe excursions is often exactly what I want.

I also enjoy many old and old-fashioned books like Clover for that exact reason: they have picnics. Picnics, and rambles in the woods, and decorating one's house, and long conversations that are not arguments, and other scenes which are not based on interpersonal conflict. These books generally also have interpersonal conflict. But they have long stretches without it.

Osprey Archer's point about picnics struck me because I had recently had a long discussion over email with Sholio regarding romance novels. We were giving someone notes on their romance novel, and we'd both thought that the balance of interpersonal conflict to the couple having fun together and enjoying each other's company needed to be shifted away from the former and toward the latter.

I realized that this is a thing that writers are often taught not to do. Everything in the story must advance the plot or it should be cut! Every scene must contain conflict! You can't just have characters hanging out together and that's the entire purpose of the scene!

But in a lot of romance, the engine that drives the story isn't conflict, it's relationship development. And conflict (including internal conflict) is not the only way to make that happen. Play is another one: the couple engages in some form of fun shared activity together, character is developed and bonding occurs through that, and the relationship is moved forward. That can also happen based on increased knowledge (getting to know you conversations, or meeting other important people in your loved one's life).

If you're not used to reading romance or have only experienced the high-conflict, slap-kiss type, this can feel very counter-intuitive as a writer and weird as a reader. It feels like you or the writer is doing it wrong. They're not. They're just doing it differently.

The "secret garden" genre, which is a personal favorite of mine, is even less conflict-based than romance. That's the one where a sad, lonely, troubled, or unfulfilled person discovers a garden or some other private space, renovates and spends time in it, and finds their psyche blossoming along with their garden. This genre can have external conflict, and often includes some element of "can I keep this space?" But it's not the primary driver. Neither is internal conflict: the character is typically not conflicted at all about their desire to explore their garden and nourish themselves. The driver of this genre is emotional healing, environmental exploration, and character development.

Conflict is not the only way to build a story. Some stories are primarily driven by other factors, and that's okay. Even in a conflict-driven story, you don't necessarily need it in every scene. (If your book feels exhausting, maybe you need a break from all that conflict; if you want the conflict to count, giving it a rest rather than belaboring it may help.)

I wish more writers felt free to write picnics.
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recessional: a small grass plant pushes up between cracks of parched ground (Default)

From: [personal profile] recessional

I HATE the unexamined insistance that all story is conflict. Hate hate hate hate.

....which one might think a little odd from a writer whose original stuff, at least, tends to be endless huge war and upheaval but meh. ;)
kore: (Default)

From: [personal profile] kore

IT'S SO STUPID. And a lot of the time comes from male writers/teachers, surprise surprise.
laurashapiro: a woman sits at a kitchen table reading a book, cup of tea in hand. Table has a sliced apple and teapot. A cat looks on. (Default)

From: [personal profile] laurashapiro

Thank you for this post! Puts me in mind of this LeGuin quote:

The trouble is that we have a bad habit, encouraged by pedants and sophisticates, of considering happiness as something rather stupid. Only pain is intellectual, only evil interesting. This is the treason of the artist; a refusal to admit the banality of evil and the terrible boredom of pain.

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vass: Jon Stewart reading a dictionary (books)

From: [personal profile] vass

Yes! I don't have anything useful to say right now, but I appreciate this post and this sort of book.
asakiyume: (Em reading)

From: [personal profile] asakiyume

long conversations that are not arguments, and other scenes which are not based on interpersonal conflict.

It turns out that every story I like, in any genre, has exactly this: people having conversations that are not fights. Not only this, but definitely this.

I enjoy both your and [personal profile] osprey_archer's romances because you both DO include the lovers getting to know each other and enjoy each other's company. It's fun and relaxing--but also engaging--to read. Key point: engagement doesn't have to be gained by inducing anxiety. I feel like this is a truth that people sometimes forget.

It feels like you or the writer is doing it wrong. They're not. They're just doing it differently.

Yeah. It's good to try to be open to an enjoyable reading experience even if it's not the one you're expecting. If you find yourself saying "I don't know what that was that I just read, but I enjoyed it"--well that's fine!

Writers should feel free to experiment that way too, but I know it can be hard if you're not sure how it'll be received. It would help if somehow the people who like to write things that weren't conflict based (or at least not solely conflict based) could hook up with the readers who like to read that sort of thing.

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gwyn: (edna)

From: [personal profile] gwyn

Yes, this, 1000% agreement. About 80% of what I work on now as a copyeditor is romance, and it always starts out with the protagonists disliking each other--which is something I hate about every single reboot of a beloved TV franchise, because the characters must always hate each other so they can have conflictsomethingsomething and depend on each other in the big third act so they can become friends--and then there must be this continuing escalating problem till it's resolved with happy ending.

I just did some edits for a popular writer and it turns out she likes my edits a lot so now I will probably work on her books a lot, and the conflicts in her stories felt so pastede on and I just kept wishing that instead of the mandatory mind-blowing perfect sex we get to show they're in a developing relationship, how 'bout just…they hang out? Even the hanging out at the beach scene turned out to be fraught and I just…why.

Make picnics, not strife.
Edited Date: 2018-03-16 07:21 pm (UTC)

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watersword: Keira Knightley, in Pride and Prejudice (2007), turning her head away from the viewer, the word "elizabeth" written near (Default)

From: [personal profile] watersword

This post feels like a great opportunity for those of us who love this kind of thing to share recs.

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sausage party

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oursin: George Beresford photograph of Marie of Roumania, overwritten 'And I AM Marie of Roumania' (Marie of Roumania)

From: [personal profile] oursin

Oh yes! yes! - every so often I will be reading a romance, and I will sigh a bit because Everything Has To Be Dreadful until Everything Comes Right at the end, rather than just ordinary discontent and mild misery alleviated by picnics or whatever - it's a narrative pattern I first bounced off at a very young age with the kind of girls' school story that has all sorts of Awful happen to Our Heroine - Father loses his money so she may have to leave the school, she's accused of cheating, her friends scorn her, her enemies mock at her, and she does not have the inner resources of Sara Crewe, no sirree - until she is Vindicated about two pages from the end, either Father gets his money back or she wins the scholarship, her friends come back with cries of remorse, her enemies come to a bad end (quite possibly it was they who cheated and they who are expelled), etc etc.

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ellen_fremedon: overlapping pages from Beowulf manuscript, one with a large rubric, on a maroon ground (Default)

From: [personal profile] ellen_fremedon

I don't read much romance, but thinking about the books that I have reread multiple copies of to pieces, one thing they all share is lots of picnics taking place while huge elements of plot or conflict hang in abeyance--Peter and Harriet go punting, or the Ingalls family recite poetry and learn how to make a lamp, or Sam cooks rabbit stew in Ithilien.

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ranalore: (pure evil)

From: [personal profile] ranalore

I feel like entire genres of fanfic are precisely about injecting picnics and rambles in the wood and decorating one's house (curtainfic) into sources where the lack of those elements is keenly felt. I also feel like reading this post and realizing this has maybe given me some more insight into why writing romance is proving to be so tough for me. I keep thinking I need to do the "every scene must ratchet up the tension" thing that's been hammered into my head for pro work, yet my romance-relevant writing experience has all been fannish, where I have specialized a lot in no-interpersonal conflict, let's have some quiet moments amidst the storm. So aligning my split writer personality has been tough, but maybe I just need to send everybody on a picnic, as it were. Or to sip a shared mojito in a hammock on the beach, which is admittedly more my style.

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nenya_kanadka: cartoon teddy squees with joy (@ squeh!)

From: [personal profile] nenya_kanadka

Omg, yes. (Like someone said about reboots: I think this is why I disliked a lot of the first Star Trek movie with Pine, Saldana, et al. But the most recent one was much better!)

I'm thinking now how this applies to something I'm writing right now which is set in the aftermath of a high-conflict story. It's meant to be about healing but I've also been worried that it will seem like a letdown for readers if it's wall to wall fluff. (It won't be, my MC has enough internal angst to power several small stars by now, lol.) So maybe this will help me lean into the comfort and gentleness between my characters. ❤ Thank you for that.

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From: [personal profile] helen_keeble

My absolute favorite military SF writer, Dan Abnett, puts TONS of picnics in his books. Well, they're set in the grim darkness of only war that is Warhammer 40k setting, so "a picnic" becomes "a brief moment of shared companionship over a cup of coffee in a foxhole", but it's still a break from the pew-pew blasty Soace Marine battles. And I think it's the reason he's absolutely the number one writer in that setting, both in terms of fan popularity and profits.

One of my favourite of his books is 80% set on a troop carrier spaceship doing the tedious but necessary business of transporting the space army from one place to another. It's mainly domestic scenes about relationships during wartime, and features the glorious hilarity of sexless transhuman super soldier Space Marines givimg life coaching and relationship advice to common enlisted soldiers. And this is all in Warhammer 40k, the SF setting that only exists to sell macho power fantasies to teenage boys. GLORIOUS.

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dragovianknight: closeup of a green dragon (Default)

From: [personal profile] dragovianknight

This...might honestly be the first time I've seen someone suggest that there are alternate ways to build a story than around conflict.

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loligo: Scully with blue glasses (Default)

From: [personal profile] loligo

The "secret garden" genre, which is a personal favorite of mine, is even less conflict-based than romance.

Speaking of this genre, Mandy by Julie Andrews is one of those kids' books that I'm afraid to reread, because I don't want to spoil the memories. I just have this suspicion that it might not have aged as well as Secret Garden or Little Princess (and even *those* I haven't reread since grad school…)
thawrecka: (Down With Love)

From: [personal profile] thawrecka

This reminds me of why I find 90% of fiction exhausting these days. People constantly arguing about nothing! Never doing anything pleasant! That's alright in a thriller where the point is everyone is a glorious arsehole doing the sorts of things you'd never actually want to do but enjoy living through, but if you're just reading a mainstream adult contemporary about relationships and nobody's ever pleasant to each other it becomes kind of a drag.

I remember reading a writing guide that suggested that every conversation must have obvious conflict like arguing with each other, and gave an example the author wrote of a parent arguing and obstructing the detective who was supposed to find their child and I just thought... all this scene convinces me is that either the parent is an idiot or they don't actually want their child found. Either way, I wouldn't want to read 90,000 words of someone that exhausting. Sometimes it's nice to have picnics or their equivalents, discovery, people trying their best, etc.
tibicina: Text 'If all the world's a stage', stool, bare stage, purple wash. (stage)

From: [personal profile] tibicina

Gah. Seriously. I never want to read that book.

Actually, this is reminding me of part of why I actively love Madame Secretary - there is plenty of conflict. People have differences of opinion, different priorities, believe that different solutions to the problem will work best, but a) people who are shown to argue, just to argue or obstruct are shown as villains, and b) reasonable conflict resolution is shown regularly. It features a husband and wife who do not always agree, but clearly love each other and actually discuss things and work out their differences and occasionally have fun together. It's so refreshing. It's like someone finally went 'Hey, what if we wrote a functional relationship as the center of this because there are enough external problems for them to deal with?' Ethics! They have actual discussions about ethics!

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owlectomy: A squashed panda sewing a squashed panda (Default)

From: [personal profile] owlectomy

One beleaguered unpublished novel kept coming back for more revisions because it needed more conflict, higher stakes, etc. And it's possible that really wasn't working in the book, no matter how much I revised it, or that my editor was not quite managing to put her finger on what the problem was, or - who knows.

Either way, I probably overcompensated. With the novel I'm now workshopping, my classmates keep saying slow this down, take more time to develop this relationship, let them enjoy each other's company. The scene people liked was the scene where they're just driving through Ontario singing along to Celine Dion.

Lately I'm trying to think less about "conflict" as a thing and more about potential energy and kinetic energy - tension and release, and how extremely quiet stories that lack much external or interpersonal conflict can compel interest through the way that an element builds up and resolves, which is done really masterfully in The Secret Garden, for example - how we hear things foreshadowed, how they come to fruition, opening up other possibilities.
tibicina: Scowling woman with text 'O tempora! O mores!' (O Tempora)

From: [personal profile] tibicina

I am reminded of a friend talking about not liking a lot of TV because he got enough crisis fatigue dealing with the real world, dealing with it in fiction as well seemed like just asking for pain; fiction was supposed to supply a break from the endless crises, not just add more.

From: [personal profile] indywind

That's how I feel.

I do enjoy some conflict or angst, but It's GOT to be pendulated as well as positively resolved.
cyphomandra: fluffy snowy mountains (painting) (snowcone)

From: [personal profile] cyphomandra

Ha. I re-read Clover recently, and it's definitely not lacking in picnics (or detailed scenes of home decor). I like the Katy books better, though, and they do have great similar scenes - the games they play (poem writing, Katy's river game at school etc) always feel very believable and enjoyable.

I recently critiqued a novel that had gone to extremes of picnicking - and it could have worked! It had a well-drawn diverse community and interesting characters - and yet the author had systematically sucked out all tension from the book. Any problem raised was dealt with instantly, all discussions resulted in everyone agreeing, there were no discrepancies of desire; everything was smoothed over. It was easy to read but it was even easier to put down. I do like some grit - I read a comment once and can't remember whose books it was describing, but it was something along the lines of how none of the characters were even allergic to each others cats (oh wait. I bet it's Alison Bechdel talking about how she came up with Sydney in Dykes to Watch Out For)

When it's done well, apparently low-stakes can be even more tense than high ones - the world is unlikely to be destroyed, but it's much more likely a party will go badly or a poorly thought-out comment will ruin a friendship.

(I also like the variant on psyche-rebuilding involving renovating dilapidated houses)
sholio: sun on winter trees (Default)

From: [personal profile] sholio

Yeah, I think the thing about picnic scenes that really work is that there actually IS something going on other than just picnicking. It's furthering the character relationships, it's particularly clever or funny, it's describing something interesting, it's a change of pace and a needed moment of down-time in the characters' otherwise hectic lives; there might be tension under the surface, someone might be keeping a secret or nursing a secret agenda; etc. There are writers who can write books composed entirely of picnic scenes that are so compelling you can't put them down because there are subtle threads of characterization and relationship drawing the characters from one picnic scene to another -- or maybe just because the whole thing is so funny and charming that you can't stop reading.

I'm pretty sure there's an audience for stories that are composed of nothing but nonstop picnicking with absolutely no tension and nothing else going on because I've read fanfic like that -- 200K of picnic scenes with no tension or plot whatsoever. That is really, really not my cup of tea. But I've absolutely loved a lot of books in which very little "happened" (in the sense of overt conflict or things blowing up) and yet there was a sense of forward momentum and an underlying sense that things were changing from scene to scene, it was just subtle.
Edited Date: 2018-03-17 01:06 am (UTC)

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chomiji: A cartoon image of chomiji, who is holding a coffee mug and a book and wearing kitty-cat ears (Default)

From: [personal profile] chomiji

I think this is why I liked the webcomic "The Less Than Epic Adventures of TJ and Amal" so much. A lot of it is just the road trip, and what they see, and their talking at length about music and geeky things. So when the romance starts to heat up and the truth about TJ and where his money comes from comes out, it means so much more, because they've built up all this rapport.

kore: (Default)

From: [personal profile] kore

OMG, I loved that! I remember when a friend first told me about it, or linked me to it, I read like a couple of chapters and then wound up staying ALL NIGHT to finish it, no lie. The pacing was just perfect, altho really 'nothing happens.' I mean it's two guys driving in a car and talking and wandering around occasionally. But it just sucked me in and kept going. That takes an amazing amount of skill on the writer's part.

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kore: (Default)

From: [personal profile] kore

That is one thing I do like about LOTR, at least the non-battle parts. The pacing, where ACTION ACTION ACTION happens but so does sitting around and having a pipe, or eating, or resting.

Le Guin talks a lot in one of her writing books -- I think the first one? -- about the assumption that all Story is Conflict and Conflict is War and Battle is the Human Metaphor. I think I first saw it in the carrier-bag essay, actually. Her point is that a lot of stories can be 'conflict free' but still gripping, or that conflict can be in a lot of different plots, not just A versus B.
sholio: sun on winter trees (Default)

From: [personal profile] sholio

THE best writing advice I ever read, hands down, was a one-page article in a writing magazine that I read when I was a teenager while standing around in a bookstore waiting for my mom to finish an errand. It was on tragedy and comedy, and basically it said that comedy by itself starts to get tiresome, and so does nonstop tragedy, but if you combine the two, they'll both hit harder than either one alone: the humor will be more of a relief, and the tragedy will hurt a lot more. Basically the tension between contrasts makes both of them stand out against each other.

I firmly believe that this applies not just to comedy vs. tragedy, but also to action vs. pastoral scenes (nonstop action is as boring as nonstop picnicking, but they're two great tastes that taste great together), to mixing up different kinds of characters (in a book where everyone is kind and nice, they all blur together, but boy do you remember the one sarcastic asshole in the village of nice people, or the one kind person in the gang of assassins), to the tension-and-release, trust-and-betray cycle of moving characters from one state of relationship to another (from enemies to friends, from opponents to lovers, etc), and a whole lot more. It's not my only guiding principle for writing, but it was such an eye-opener for me at the age of 15 that I've never forgotten it.

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mount_oregano: Let me see (Default)

From: [personal profile] mount_oregano

A screenwriter once said that what matters is who is talking to whom, not what they're talking about. So you could have a scene where two neighbors were having a pleasant beer and chatting about the news. What we learn is that they're friends, they hang out in the local bar, and they know what's going on. And this might be terribly important because the viewers know about the situation surrounding these two people.
carbonel: (Default)

From: [personal profile] carbonel

As it happens, I am currently reading Rustick Exile, the second volume of the memoirs of Clorinda Cathcart (the Comfortable Courtesan), by L.A. Hall.

In this particular volume, there are a number of picnics (or picniques -- the diarist has a rather idiosyncratic mode of spelling). There was at least on in the first book, IIRC, but picnics and rustication seem to go together.

These books are delightful, and the perfect anodyne after reading the very good but very stressful book of shorter fiction by Mira Grant about the zombie apocalypse.

rymenhild: Manuscript page from British Library MS Harley 913 (Default)

From: [personal profile] rymenhild

I adore this series, and it is all pique-niques, all the time.
graydon: (Default)

From: [personal profile] graydon

There's this widespread belief that legitimate stories are about conquest, and if there isn't any consequent, it's not a story.

This has got to the point where people sincerely believe that if there's not murder, there's no plot. (I get some hurt and baffled reviews on this basis. I was expecting a story! this is pointless!)

The problem with the punting scene as a writerly exemplar is it took Sayers at least four previous books to set it up. And you more or less had to be Sayers to write it even with the depth of setup; the gentle tangled complex feelings of well-disposed humans[1] make perfectly good stories, but they're not easy stories to write. Dread Achilles' intolerance of nuance strips out a lot of narrative possibility and simplifies the choices.

[1] Peter and Harriet are obviously not human and equally obviously not clearly distinct from Tolkien elves. I think this is why Duchess Helen disapproves so much; not only must the Dowager have committed an impropriety, not only are the Rules Not Being Followed, there's this creeping sense of whose story God is really interested in. It must get tough to handle after a while, when someone who is just more vivid than you ever are keeps getting moreso.
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