If you’ve read or listened to writers talk about what makes stories hum, you’ll almost always wind up at the same place: Conflict.
Conflict is the heart of great stories. A character wants something and is denied. We spend the next three hundred pages (Or seven books. Whatever.) reading to see if the character can overcome the obstacles and get what they want.
If the story is compelling. If you understand the stakes.
There’s the rub. Conflict is a great place to start, but if it happens in a vacuum — just because the writer says it exists — readers tend to lose interest. For conflict to really resonate, for the stakes to be high enough to keep a reader’s interest, there needs to be context.
Imagine Harry Potter being hunted by Voldemort, but never getting the backstory woven through J.K. Rowling’s series and the implications of what happens if Harry and his friends don’t prevail.
Imagine witnessing the unfolding of A Song of Ice and Fire without the history of Westeros sprinkled in to give you an idea of why these people are at each other’s throats.
Look to History
As I’ve gotten, ahem, more mature, I find I want to know more about why the world is the way it is. The deeper I dig the more I find connections threading things together through space and time.
In history, the causes of the events we learn about, especially wars, are provided in bullet points or attributed to a single event that touches things off — the Boston Tea Party, the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, the invasion of Poland. The reality is the causes of such events such as these are much more complex and years in the making.
The saying “Those who don’t learn from the past are doomed to repeat it” is, like most memorable sayings, overly simplistic. Its point is clear, but it assumes that there aren’t seeds already in place — have always been in place — that cause humanity to experience variations on the same themes over and over. These seeds are sown over the course of decades, centuries and watered with the human weaknesses of greed, power and fear.
The future plays out due to power structures that have existed in some form since someone decided they wanted more — more power, more wealth, more prestige — than someone else, since someone decided they wanted to bend the will of others to their aims.
A few of the best history books I’ve read that provide great context are The Devil’s Chessboard by David Talbot, Johnstown Flood by David McCullough, Out of Sight by Erik Loomis and Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt by Chris Hedges.
Look to Fiction
Conflict in context is the stuff of great, compelling stories. The way the information is layered in can be as different as the stories we tell — from passing mentions, to features in the setting, to conversations, and on and on. What came before can exist on a micro scale made up of personal relationships, individual choices and personal histories or it can be on a macro scale involving generations, far-flung intrigue and the history of nations.
Think of your favorite stories and I bet you’ll find that context. This is the thing that allows us to fall into books and lose ourselves and be in the moment of the story.
Some examples of novels that do this very well (in addition to the aforementioned Harry Potter and A Song of Ice and Fire) include R. Scott Bakker’s Prince of Nothing trilogy and Aspect-Emporer quartet, China Miéville’s Bas-Lag series, Robert Jackson Bennett’s Divine Cities trilogy, Robin Hobb’s Farseer and Tawny Man series, Jeff Vandermeer’s Borne, Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl and The Water Knife, Elizabeth Bear’s Range of Ghosts, and Neal Stephenson’s Anathem.
If you’ve got any recommendations of books that do this well, fire them up in the comments.