Conflict

  • Posted on: 4 January 2016
  • By: Govert

Everyone producing text can learn a thing or two from the craft of creative writing. Apart from the academic content that should simply be in place, your paper is likely a better paper if it has a bit more of John Steinbeck, Donna Tartt or Stephen King in it.

At the obvious level, this means that a text is just more pleasant to read if the aesthetic aspect - what makes a beautiful text - is taken care of. Avoid repetitions, try to bring some variety in your vocabulary and length and structure of sentences, and offer sufficient 'signposts' in the text for the reader to navigate. It isn't necessarily about becoming the new Goethe or Dante and writing entire chapters in the meter of sonnets, but it is at least about not abhorring your reader by blatant flaws.

At the slightly more sophisticated level, it is about the principle of 'show, don't tell'. On the internet, you can find numerous examples of the difference. The bottom line, if you ask this not-a-fiction-writer, is this: take the step into the perspective of a character, and their senses if they are somehow human. In literary writing, the difference would be between 'I went running, but I hated that it had started raining', and 'From the day I started wearing glasses, I have gradually developed a strong aversion to rain, especially when running. Drops on my glasses distort and block my view, making my head feel like sawdust-stuffed balloon. It bluntly cuts off the mind from the feet, one moving lightly and the other becoming ever heavier. Not being able to see properly like this is the most dehumanizing thing that happens to me on an average day.' The second has a perspective; the first doesn't. (I don't have great literary aspirations with this example, and you may think it is a bit over the top - and it is. But it is the true story of how I used to hate rain, specifically when running. It took me years to find out that this is how the miserable feeling comes about. Now tell me: to the first version, you could reply: 'Come on, are you made out of sugar? Don't be a crybaby and get over it.' But to the second?)

In treating your empirical material, a difference between telling and showing could be as follows. A not-so-powerful account could be: 'Security scanners at airports pose considerable privacy threats, since they reveal properties of the passenger's body that are not considered the authorities' business.' Compare this to the following: 'When passengers enter the security scanner at the airport, a quick scan is made. Electromagnetic waves of a harmless kind are sent to the body, and the machine interprets whether anything illegal is worn under the clothes. A picture is displayed of an abstract body, with highlighted zones on suspect body parts. This seems like a non-invasive procedure. But the point is, the scanner also gives an alarm in many cases that are not illegal: whenever people wear medical devices, when their bodies otherwise fail to 'comply' with how the machine is programmed to see a normal body, or when they are simply a bit more sweaty than others. These private issues are made visible by the machine.' Of course, this second account is simply much more elaborate. But the detail added serves an important purpose: it helps understanding what the privacy violation consists of (the private body becomes public), how it subtly enforces that people undergo this (because the system pretends to be non-invasive), and how the working in practice deviates from the actual security goal (which makes the privacy encroachment more severe, as it does not add anything to security). And lastly, the detail helps showing (not telling...) the tension that appears here: a system that is at once privacy friendly (only shows an abstract picture) and a privacy encroachment (renders 'abnormalities' of bodies visible; of course what is defined as 'abnormal' is a key problem here, but I will not discuss that now).

This brings us to the most important thing we can learn from the Grishams and Murakamis of this world: authors engaged in creative writing know so well that the first thing that makes a good story is conflict. 'Romeo loves Juliet and Juliet loves Romeo' is not a story. 'Romeo and Juliet are in love, but their love is forbidden because of the feud between their families', that is a story. Closely related to the need for conflict, especially in academic writing, is the need for ambiguity, or contestation: reasons why things aren't simply and self-evidently one way or another. Reasons why it matters to read and write about them, and not inviting the 'so what' question afterward.

The example of airport scanners already contained such an ambiguity: the bloody things are at once privacy-friendly and privacy-encroaching. In a more general sense, you could think of this as your narrative or argument having multiple possible endings. Here is a big difference between a novel and a paper: a novel first fully unfolds the conflict and its resolution towards the end, whereas in academic writing you are supposed to already 'spoil' it and present your most important conclusions in the beginning. (It is even often a formal requirement for papers that the conclusion contains nothing new but only revisits what you have already explained!) However, fortunately, this need not be at all levels of analysis. In the case of airport scanners, the conclusion that they pose privacy threats can be put upfront, without giving away the exact mechanisms through which this encroachment takes shape, and by which mechanisms the privacy-friendliness of the scanner is supposed to be granted but which in the end fails... There are many ways in which this could unfold. It may not make it into a Grisham thriller, it should provide just enough of a cliffhanger to keep the reader fascinated to the end.

Academic versions of conflict are manifold. The conflict can be conceptual: how can what is 'good' under a certain perspective be 'evil' under another perspective? The conflict can be between different levels of analysis: how can a capitalist system produce at once affluence at the level of society, and poverty at the level of (some) individuals? It can be between different schools of thought: is democracy about collectively producing knowledge, or about collectively taking a decision? It can be between frames of justification: should decisions always be taken democratically, or are some decisions better left to experts? And these are only a few of the vast number of possibilities.

What matters is that you manage to keep the suspense to the end, in the sense that the alternative conclusions remain somehow relevant. This means that you must take an effort to keep the alternative conclusions alive, rather than doing away with them too easily - the pitfall of setting up a straw man as your antiposition. Just like Romeo and Juliet cannot simply do away with their families (because their social future and ultimately their entire fate depends on those very families; the families have power, and thus remain relevant and consequential until the end!), the story about the airport scanners needs to be spiced, until the end, with smaller and larger details about how they are privacy-friendly - even if this privacy-friendliness is in the end outweighed by the privacy problems.

Even if you don't manage to write your argument or analysis as a literary story, it will probably help to think of it in these terms. Why should my reader care to keep on reading until the end? Partly, this has of course to do with simply having an original message, rather than worn-out platitudes. You cannot build a story on those (you can only tell that Romeo and Juliet are in love). But even in finding an original message, searching for the conflict-driven story behind it is the first step to making that message worth reading.

References and further reading

I have personally learned a lot from Stephen King's On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. Also, the 8 rules of creative writing by Kurt Vonnegut are a classic and reproduced countlessly everywhere on the net. Especially the 5th one, to start as close to the end as possible, relates closely to the building of tension and keeping open multiple ends. The simple idea that conflict involves having multiple endings was surgically installed in my brain by Mike Sowden. The example of body scanners is taken from my own research, which I conducted together with Irma van der Ploeg.