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September 8, 2020

Does Every Story Need Conflict?

Apple on books with text: Deepen Your Craft with Resident Writing Coach Jami Gold (at Writers Helping Writers)

It’s time for another one of my guest posts over at Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi’s Writers Helping Writers site. As one of their Resident Writing Coaches, I’ve previously shared:

With this turn for another coaching article at WHW, I’m exploring whether every story needs conflict. We often assume the answer is yes, but what if our story idea features low — or even no — conflict? Is our story doomed? Let’s take a look…

Conflict: The Usual Advice

When I ask the question “Does every story need conflict?” the usual assumption is probably yes. We might even throw a “duh” into our answer for good measure. *smile*

In fact, we often study how adding conflict will help our story’s pacing or tension or character arc. We layer internal and external conflict to round out our story and character. Or we experiment with tweaking the stakes of our story’s conflict to increase the consequences of failure.

Without conflict, our character’s success wouldn’t be in question. Without the threat of failure, our characters wouldn’t have strong motivations to avoid the negative consequences. And readers wouldn’t have the same compulsion to turn the page and discover “What happens next?”

Conflict: The Usual Approach

In novels and movies, especially in genre stories, we’re used to the idea of needing conflict—and lots of it—in our stories. The reason is that most storytelling we’re used to focuses on character goals and story problems.

Is our story doomed if the idea doesn't lend itself to include conflict? Click To Tweet

With a story problem, characters have goals to overcome the problem and “win.” They win the love interest, they beat the villain, they earn the promotion, etc.

That story structure requires conflict because without it, the story would be over—with the character succeeding in their goal—before it even got started. Conflict is what gives the story its shape between the beginning and the ending.

We use conflict, such as obstacles and setbacks, to reveal our characters: their priorities, fears, growth, etc. Their successes and failures reflect on them and make readers invested in the story.

But that’s not the only way to tell stories. In fact, some stories contain no conflict at all.

Wait…Stories without Conflict?

Obviously, using conflict to reveal character is not the only way to learn about someone, fictional or not. And not every story centers on characters anyway, as some focus more on themes, morals, journeys, etc.

In fact, if we stop and think about other types or mediums of storytelling, everything from comics to video games, we might realize that the types of stories that readers find enjoyable is far broader than we often see in our fiction-writing genres.

For an example of the diversity in storytelling that we might forget exists, here’s a no-conflict story based on the kishōtenketsu structure:

Example of kishōtenketsu in a 4-panel comic. 1: Introduction - character chooses drink from vending machine. 2: Development - character acquires drink. 3: Twist: - second character hanging around. 4: Reconciliation - first character delivers drink to second character.
Kishōtenketsu narrative, from Still Eating Oranges

So not every story fits with the usual advice about conflict. But there’s a risk, especially with audiences who expect the usual dramatic narrative structure for our stories.

How do the exceptions get away with a different approach? And how can we know if our story might fit with those exceptions (or if we’re just falling for wishful thinking because coming up with conflict is hard)?

Writers Helping Writers: Resident Writing Coach Program

No Story Conflict? Explore Your Options

Other than simply trying to add more conflict, what are our options when our story doesn’t lend itself to the usual conflict advice? Come join me at WHW above, where I’m sharing:

  • how the well-known dramatic-arc structure doesn’t work for every story
  • 6 examples of story structures with a different approach to conflict
  • what makes a story a story (hint: it’s not conflict)
  • how stories can incorporate change outside the story itself
  • a closer look at the kishōtenketsu story structure
  • how alternate story structures won’t automatically “fix” our low/no conflict stories

Can you think of stories with low or no conflict? How did the story keep the audience invested? Do you struggle with adding conflict to any of your stories? Do you think they might fit in an alternate structure (and if so, why)? Do you have any insights or questions about using alternate approaches to conflict in our stories? (My WHW posts are limited in word count, but I’m happy to go deeper here if anyone wants more info. *smile*)

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Star Ostgard
Star Ostgard

I can see where this would work for short – possibly VERY short stories – but a novel-length book? The cartoon, without conflict, is to me “Okay, she got the guy a drink.”. So? Then I read the WHW post, and it made more sense. It’s not a lack of conflict – it’s just recognizing that conflict doesn’t have to be blatant. It’s simply change. Kinda like “acts” in story structure. We may think we’re writing 3-act or 5-act – in reality, we could have 10 acts or 20 acts. It really just means there’s a “change” that the character(s) can’t retreat from.

I don’t know. I seriously think too many (new) writers get bogged down with all the technical stuff. Relax and just tell me a story. 😉

Clare O'Beara
Clare O'Beara

We can write YA books in which there is no real conflict, but the theme is coming of age. My two latest books are about young teens coming of age during the coronavirus lockdown.

Dawn

“The Slow Regard of Silent Things” by Patrick Rothfuss didn’t have conflict. I purchased it because I was desperate for the sequel to “The Wise Man’s Fear”. I was disappointed. It contributed nothing to the series and was about the wanderings and ramblings of a strange girl who lived in the nooks and crannies of a university. However, it was interestingly written. The girl’s oddities were intriguing. I wouldn’t go so far as to recommend it. But I wouldn’t say it was terrible either.

Sieran Lane

Hey Jami, Wow this was fascinating! I went to Google some examples of the above alternative story structures. Some narrative structures were harder to find examples for (esp. the Robleto), or maybe my Googling skills just aren’t the best. It strikes me that even some Western stories use some of these alternative narrative structures. The Rashomon TV Tropes page you linked us to, has a load of examples from different sources, including novels written by Western authors. Huit Femmes (a French movie) sounds like a Rashomon narrative too, where eight women tell their version of what happened, what they believed or claimed to have happened, and how the man might have died (or been killed). There are some skirmishes, arguments, and other interesting interactions between the women, but the main intrigue of the movie is how we are told eight different versions of what happened, and we try to figure out who was lying or concealing something. Or you could say that everyone was lying to some extent, based on their personal motives. Omg I love fanfic fluff! I’ve been reading a fluffy fanfic lately on Nora Sakavic’s All for the Game trilogy (the first book is called The Foxhole Court). Each chapter is like an episode, though the episodes are all connected. The chapters are mini stories on things that happen while the friends are out at their summer vacation together. The fanfic ships my OTP, Neil and Andrew, so in each chapter, we see fluff happening. We see…  — Read More »

Fran Hunne

“no-conflict story based on the kishōtenketsu structure:”
Is it a story? Or just a scene? And
Is there a suspense arc? Or is it rather boring?

That is why a story indeed needs a conflict.

Conflict here could be:
Person one does not like Person two, but Person two needs help. An internal conflict – be helpful or be true to your own likes.
Or Person one is thirsty, too, but still decides to help Person two. Then we question WHY – which leads the story on.

Just this – is not a story.

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[…] our way to the end of a manuscript can be fraught. Jami Gold ponders: does every story need conflict?; Hank Phillippi Ryan says if you need a good idea, make a list; Laurence McNaughton shares the 3 […]

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