The Garden of Eden only got interesting when Eve at that apple.
The Awl recently ran an lovely piece interrogating why utopian novels are, by and large, not all that readable. Noah Berlatsky cites a number of reasons in his analysis, but really it comes down to this: narratives need conflict, and utopias, by definition, don’t have substantial enough conflicts to keep us interested as readers. There are no real problems in these worlds; there is nothing to overcome. And, therefore, there is nothing for the reader to root for or relate to. It’s purely aspirational.
Utopias also echo a common weakness in the stories of new writers. Here’s an example from my own writing: I wrote a story1 where the beats were largely as follows:
- boy and best friend go to a bar
- boy watches best friend make his rounds; boy winds up playing bartender
- boy gets hit on and gently passes on another boy
- boy goes home alone, feeling fine with his life choices
Ok, in retrospect, that’s…not actually an interesting story. It’s not even a story. There were some nice moments in it, and some good turns of phrase, but on rereading it a year or so later I kept waiting for something to happen. For anything to happen. Like, why was I writing this night of this kid’s life? It was just a night, any night, a purely unremarkable night. There was no conflict. There was nothing driving the story.
This doesn’t mean that your protagonist has to Go On A Quest for there to be conflict. Conflict can be mined from everyday interactions. Here’s another story of mine2, written around the same time, featuring the same character, which actually does have a conflict and a resolution and this is an actual story:
- girl and boy start hanging out
- girl likes boy, doesn’t know if boy likes her back
- girl kisses this boy. He giggles like a mad man. She is embarrassed.
- boy gets his shit together and writes her a poem because he does actually like her back
- girl and boy are happily for now
See? It’s not a grand, sweeping, world-altering conflict, but it’s a conflict! She is unsure! She took a risk! She doesn’t know what will happen! There is uncertainty! those are all signs of a conflict.
The truth is that if your story doesn’t have a conflict driving its characters forward, no matter how pretty your language is, your reader will probably disengage. A story without a conflict is essentially a story without a plot.
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1This story will probably never see the light of day, and we’re all better for it, trust me.
2While this story is marginally better than The One With No Conflict, you really don’t want to read this one either.