[Guest Post] Brian Staveley on Fractal Conflict in Storytelling

About the Author

After teaching literature, philosophy, history, and religion for more than a decide, Brian began writing epic fantasy. His first book, The Emperor’s Blades (released by Tor Books in January), is the start of his series, Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne. The first seven chapters can be had for free here. The second book in the trilogy, The Providence of Fire, is due out in January and available for preorder now.

Brian lives on a steep dirt road in the mountains of southern Vermont, where he divides his time between fathering, writing, husbanding, splitting wood, skiing, and adventuring, not necessarily in that order. He can be found on twitter, facebook as brianstaveley, and Google+ as Brian Staveley.

The second book in his Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne series, A Providence of Fire is set to be published in January of 2015!

To learn more about Brian, check out his website.


Nothing Should Ever Be Easy; Fractal Conflict in Storytelling

 by Brian Staveley

I used to do a stupid thing.

Actually, I still do stupid things, but I’ve managed to excise this particular stupid thing from my repertoire of habits. The thing is this: I used to give working titles to chapters of my books (which is not the stupid thing yet) that read like this: Adare Meets a Stranger. Valyn and the Huge Bird. Kaden Gets An Erection.

At first blush, there’s nothing wrong here. It’s ok to talk to strangers, erections are natural, etc. The problem with these titles is that they fail to capture to the meat of the chapter: the conflict. Worse yet, titles like Adare Meets a Stranger make it possible to write, or at least to begin writing, a really shitty chapter in which there isn’t any conflict. Such obvious disasters get edited out later, of course, but it’s a lot of work writing shitty chapters, and if there’s one thing I’m all about, over here in my windowless writing cave, it’s eliminating extra work.

The solution, fortunately, is one of those satisfying fixes that solves the problem without requiring any actual extra work: every working chapter title now involves the word “versus”. That’s it. A noun, versus, then another noun. If a chapter can’t be titled this way, I know that it’s doomed, and refuse to start writing it.

Just look what happens to the titles above:

Adare Versus the Stranger

                    Valyn Versus the Huge Bird

                    Kaden Versus his Erection 

Better. Much better.

These conflicts don’t need to be conflicts between two people, or even between a person and his or her genitalia. We could have:

Lucinda Versus the Echidna

                   Jewel Versus the Kitchen Door

                  Matthew Versus his Insecurities

                  Sandra Bullock Versus Gravity

                 Jessica Versus that Fucking Machine They Now Make You Use at Passport Control

You don’t want to get too vague. Jessica Versus Technology or Jessica Versus the US Government don’t give much focus for a writer embarking on a new chapter. On the other hand, conflicts of that magnitude might be just dandy for a larger act or section of a novel.

Which raises another point: conflict is central at all levels of a work of fiction. A novel is like a fractal with conflict as the governing, recurring structure. We should be able to see the entire scope of the thing through the lens of conflict: These short dwarves here are fighting a war against those slightly taller dwarves over there. The same applies to each individual act: In this bit, the short dwarves are in conflict with the dragon, because they’re trying to steal his stilts. Or to any given chapter: Jobo Versus Jibi, two short dwarves arguing about how best to steal the stilts. And, like a good fractal, it drills deeper still. A paragraph that is simply description is a wasted paragraph. Instead of A Description of the Dragon’s Den, we’re better off with A Description of the Dragon’s Den That Makes Jobo Piss Himself and Want to Quit.

When I taught creative writing, students always wanted to write dialogue like this:

        “What’s up?” Jimmy asked.

         “Nuthin’,” Rebecca replied.

        “Want to go to Starbucks later?”


What’s missing, of course, even in this tiny exchange, is any hint of conflict. Let’s tweak it:

What’s up with your hair?” Jimmy asked.

        “Nothing,” Rebecca snapped. “What’s up with your face?”

        “Want to burn down a Starbucks later?”

        “You dick, you know my dad’s the manager there.”

Now that I’ve started, I actually kind of want to write that story. Teen corporate arson, however, is a little outside my genre, and there’s the conclusion to this epic fantasy trilogy that needs finishing. I title this chapter of my life: Author Versus his Rapidly Diminishing Attention Span. A dispiriting title, yes, but better than Author Versus His Erection.


3 Responses

  • And of course, that fractal conflict structure can go down to the level of the individual character herself.

  • Hm, this is food for thought. When I write, I consider each scene and the purpose of it. That’s similar to the “versus” approach but in a parallel sort of way. I’m revising a MS right now and will keep the fractal conflict idea in mind when I consider the purpose of each scene. Thanks!

  • Kristijan R.

    Thanks for this advice and very colorful examples, Brian.

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