A conflicted post

So I was on this online forum about genre fiction, and someone complained that there are no peaceful fairy tales. They’re all violent. Jack doesn’t play pattycake with the giant. Hansel and Gretel don’t have tea and crumpets with the witch. It’s always nasty stuff happening.

I pointed out this is because every story needs a conflict, or there’s no plot. Also, peace is boring. To which another responded: yes, but it doesn’t have to be particularly violent conflict.

I don’t entirely disagree. But there’s a lot to unpack there, and it’s been a while since I last blogged, so here we go.

First, can a story about peace be interesting? If by peace you mean an absence of war, well… a story about the absence of something is a story about nothing. How can a story about nothing be interesting?

Plenty of awful things can happen without war. Plenty of violent things can happen without war. Muggings, rapes, murders. All the intimate, personal types of violence. Retail violence. By the way, I’m not aware of any fairy tales about war. But they’re pretty much all violent.

Now conflict can happen without war. Conflict can even happen without violence. There’s the “man against nature” plot where the hero is struggling for survival against impersonal elements. That doesn’t work in fairy tales, though. It’s too abstract for children. Children can understand certain types of violence instinctively: the evil step-parent, the child-eating wolf, the dangerous crazy person (witch.) These don’t need much explaining. But trying not to freeze to death in the Arctic? There were adult humans who failed to figure that out. They just froze to death, or ate each other and then starved. Would you even know how to write such a survival story? Try doing the research. Then try explaining it all to a small child.

Franklin’s Doomed Arctic Expedition Ended in Gruesome Cannibalism | Smart News | Smi

There are no fairy tales about the absence of war. There are no fairy tales about war. How can you write a story about something not happening? Actually, it can be done, but you have to be really clever. There’s a famous story about a dog that didn’t bark. The only thing that makes that detail remotely interesting is that it omitted to bark in circumstances when one would expect it to bark, circumstances which happen to be in connection with… you guessed it… apparent violence.

The Adventure of Silver Blaze – Wikipedia

And here’s how you might maybe write a story about the absence of war. First, make a situation where you would expect a war to break out. It doesn’t, and an intrepid sleuth sets out to discover why it didn’t. The reason why not turns out to be interesting. For instance… I got nothing. In fact, I’m not sure any sleuth would bother to investigate it. It’s the sort of mystery people usually don’t care about.

There’s a writing challenge for you: the war that did not break out. And make it simple enough that a rugrat can understand it. And then try to make it interesting.

By the way, do you know how wars get prevented? There’s a problem you run into when you try to research something like this. There are all sorts of theories out there, but it’s hard to find any real-life stories which clearly link cause and effect. When something big happens, people notice and ask why and write down all the circumstances for posterity. When something big doesn’t happen, the people around at the time tend not to notice the non-occurrence. History is a collection of things that happened, not things that didn’t happen.

Scrounge long enough and you can find a real life story about a war that almost happened. I managed to come up with one:

Cuban Missile Crisis – Wikipedia

Maybe all that doesn’t matter. After all, we’re talking about writing fairy tales. Choose any theory you like, never mind whether it works in real life or not. For our purpose, that doesn’t matter. Here’s a sample:

Five Ways to Stop War

You know what? These are all kind of vague and abstract, like the campaign website of a mediocre candidate, or a damage control memo drafted by lawyers. I wouldn’t know how to flesh any of these out into a concrete narrative with characters, scenes and dialogue and all that. I just can’t visualize the whirled peas. Maybe that’s just me. Feel free to give it a try yourselves. Bonus points if toddlers listen with rapt attention.

Or, how about an easier challenge? Write about how everyday retail violence gets prevented. Sometimes friends step in to separate the combatants. (Or in all-too-rare instances strangers, of the particular sort known as police.) That’s a compelling scene right there, but no reader would consider that a proper story by itself, because we all know it only delays the inevitable. Even most children know this. Actually resolving conflict without violence is tricky. I’ve seen it done, but the details would go right over the heads of a kindergarten class. That’s why there are no fairy tales about successful peace negotiations between enemies.

There’s plenty of violence in the absence of war, both in real life and in fairy tales. It’s all retail violence, one-on-one. And it may be that I’m missing the point. The guy who brought this up didn’t give many details, but he seemed irked at the violence of fairy tales, and wanted some non-violent fairy tales (which he seemed to conflate with non-war fairy tales.) This isn’t an unusual attitude:

Why Are Fairy Tales So Violent? | The Monday Heretic

The original fairy tales were basically horror stories. Parents way back then had no problem with this. But parents these days get upset. And so we have the Disney versions, which are thoroughly scrubbed of… no, they’re not. All Disney does is dial it down a notch or two. We get to see Gaston lose his grip and fall, we don’t see him go splat. If violence in kiddy stories is bad, why not just get rid of it entirely?

Because then you’ve got nothing. No story. Just an uninteresting series of non-events to bore and irritate the tots to distraction. You have to have a conflict. And it has to be a conflict that unsophisticated minds can grasp. That boils down to violence or the threat of violence. Disneyfication is a compromise between modern parents’ sensibilities and the realities of child psychology. It splits the difference between the priorities of parents and the priorities of children.

There is nothing pathological about the violence in the original Grimm stories. It was perfectly natural. It was what the kids wanted, what they have always wanted. And back then, the parents were more accepting of this, so no need to water it down. It’s Disneyfication that is the aberration.

“Hold on there! What about Aesop’s fables? They’re not so violent!” Right. Show me a five year old who’s really into Aesop’s fables and we’ll talk. They’re for purposes of indoctrination, not entertainment. At least they’re short.

Here’s the bottom line. If you can write tales for small children about violence not happening, and the kids like your stories, you will likely be hailed as a genius by grateful parents everywhere. But you’d better have a good plan B.

Writing is hard. Or maybe learning to write is hard. As I’m currently enmeshed in the wannabe stage, I can’t say which – but it’s definitely one or the other. Why make it harder by attempting something that may not even be possible? I won’t tell you to take the easy way out like everyone else. But do be understanding of those who do take that road.