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October 1, 2020

Storytelling Conflict: A Broader View

Question mark on window blinds with text: How Can We Take a Different Approach to Conflict?

In my last post here as well as in my latest guest post for Writers Helping Writers, we talked about whether every story needs conflict. As I shared in those posts, the assumptions we make about conflict don’t apply to every story, especially if we’re looking at other story structures from our usual, such as those outside Western storytelling.

Some commenters disagreed with my insights into how stories with different structures might take a different approach to conflict (and that’s okay!). Many of us struggle to understand how stories without “normal” conflict wouldn’t be boring. *smile*

None of what I talked about is meant to say that our default storytelling is “wrong.” Obviously, our usual approach works for most stories!

But it doesn’t work for every story, and in fact, our assumptions about low-or-no conflict stories can also hold us back as storytellers with standard conflict-filled stories too. So I want to dig deeper into the idea of taking “a different approach to conflict” and how it might help us with any type of story.

The Narrow View of Conflict Is Limiting

I (and my guest posters) have written before that our understanding of conflict can be too narrow, such as how we might not grasp the definition of antagonist beyond just “villain.” When we first start writing, we might even assume that conflict means characters are engaging in fisticuffs or shouting matches.

Or we might assume that the answer to any slower-paced section of our story is to throw in more, more, and more of the usual conflict. “Oh, this section feels boring. Let’s add another obstacle.”

However, in writing, the term conflict can be thought of more broadly. And the better we understand the meaning of conflict in storytelling, the better we’ll be at engaging readers in our story.

What Does Conflict Mean with Storytelling?

As I mentioned last time, the storytelling we’re used to focuses on story problems and character goals. That storytelling approach requires conflict because without it, the story would be over—with the character succeeding in their goal—before it even got started.

Does every story need the usual type of conflict? Or can we take a different approach? Click To Tweet

So on the simplest level, conflict is what prevents characters from reaching their goals right away. Something—such as obstacles and setbacks—makes our characters have to work for what they want, which also gives the story its shape between the beginning and the ending.

At the same time, we use conflict to reveal our characters: their priorities, fears, growth, personality, etc. Their successes and failures reflect on them and make readers invested in the story.

However, as I brought up in my most recent post, that’s not the only way to tell stories. And more importantly, the usual type of conflict isn’t the only way to keep readers invested in the story.

The Important Role of Readers

When we try to imagine stories without conflict, chances are that unless we’re experienced with other story structures and approaches, we’ll assume any story without conflict would be boring for readers. Even if the characters don’t achieve their goals on page one, without conflict, the steps can feel like they’re just busywork hoops that characters need to go through.

For example, we might imagine a character having to talk to person A to get permission to do thing B, which they then need to turn in to get approval for thing C, and so on until they reach their goal Z. Without conflict, those are just steps to cross off on a checklist, so it’s just a matter of time until the character succeeds. Sounds boring, right?

Without the story ending in question or doubt, what’s going to make readers keep turning pages?

That’s a great question—and understanding the answer will help us see conflict with a broader perspective. A well-written story will evoke several types of questions in readers beyond just “Will the characters succeed?” such as:

  • How will they succeed?
  • What choices will they make to reach that point?
  • How will they change during the journey?

In fact, that bold question above gives us a better—or perhaps, more precise—definition for storytelling conflict from the perspective of readers:

Storytelling Conflict:
Story elements that leave the story’s resolution in doubt for readers.

Character Conflict vs. Reader Conflict

In other words, the true purpose of conflict isn’t simply to make our stories longer or less boring. Like with virtually every aspect of writing, the true purpose of conflict within storytelling is to create an effect on readers.

What does story conflict mean to readers? Can the answer help us keep readers engaged? Click To Tweet

With that understanding, we can see that conflict doesn’t have to be limited to conflict between characters, or between characters and their environment, or even internal conflict, as characters debate with themselves. Instead, conflict can also be thought of as story elements that interact with readers—rather than just with characters.

It’s that idea of conflict existing between the story and the reader that helps make sense of other story structures, such as the kishōtenketsu I mentioned last time. Sure, there might not be much (if any) conflict between the characters, or between the characters and their goals, but there can be conflict between what readers think and what the story presents.

The questions, the doubts, the uncertainties in readers of the meaning of the story can be what keeps them turning pages. Readers don’t know where the story’s heading, so the resolution is in doubt. Therefore, conflict does exist…just not where we might expect.

Focus on Story Tension

Personally, I like the term tension better than conflict when it comes to this perspective of storytelling. Tension is easier to view more broadly than a word that might call fist fights and arguing to mind.

Story tension is when:

  • a gap exists between what characters want and what they have (i.e., obstacles to achieving their goals),
  • the reader finds the story questions interesting enough to want to get to the answer, or
  • the reader is worried (or curious, anxious, etc.) about the outcome of the story.

See how those options fit neatly with our broader definition of conflict above? The unknowns create tension in the reader that they’ll want to resolve, which they can do by reading the rest of our story to learn the answers.

Story tension can be about character-style conflict, but it also includes the effect of story elements on the reader. All of those bullet items above create a desire in the reader to keep reading, whether there’s explicit conflict involving the characters or not.

Questions & Uncertainties Are Conflict

Those of us who have faced real-world situations with questions and uncertainties know how much those unknowns can feel like conflict—even though it’s not what we usually think of with the word. Our bodies often have similar visceral reactions when faced with interpersonal conflict as when faced with the dread and stress of the unknown.

For example, I (unintentionally) went incommunicado with this blog for the past few weeks again because I was dealing with more health issue uncertainties. Not even counting the doctor appointments, tests, or pain and swelling keeping me off my computer, the stress of the unknown was making it hard for me to finish this post, despite coming up with the topic idea weeks ago.

(This past spring, I fell down the stairs, injuring my tailbone, and all those nerves in my spine got really unhappy, including the damaged nerves in my feet. The procedure I went through in June to deaden those nerves so I could walk without pain again didn’t take.)

After an MRI to check for other problems in my feet that might be contributing to the pain, my doctor’s answer was: “Well, the good news is there’s nothing specifically wrong. The bad news is that we don’t know what’s causing all these problems.”

That kind of uncertain answer was (and is) stressful. It feels like conflict. My doctor and I can’t fix the unknown. Many of us might wish for a diagnosis, even a bad one, if it would just allow us to fix the issue.

Using Uncertainty in Our Storytelling

The same power of the unknown to evoke emotions can work with readers and our storytelling. In fact, readers might even stick with an only-marginally interesting story just to get their questions answered. *grin*

How can adding uncertainty and doubt in our story help keep readers turning pages? Click To Tweet

Again, none of this says that our standard conflict-filled stories are “less than,” and in fact, I’ve written plenty of posts about the normal perspective on conflict. And of course, there’s a risk to not delivering the kind of story readers want or expect (or in a slower-paced story without the usual conflict driving the narrative forward).

But more importantly, the broader view helps us understand how the usual approach to conflict—with its focus on conflict between characters, characters and the environment, or internally—ignores the power we have as storytellers: There are other ways to engage readers and keep them turning pages beyond just normal conflict.

For example, in a standard conflict-filled story, any time there’s lull in the conflict, we might be tempted to throw in more conflict with another setback or something to keep things “not boring.” However, by keeping in mind the true purpose of conflict, we know we can keep readers’ interest by introducing a new story question, uncertainty, or other technique to increase readers’ curiosity, worry, dread, etc.

Even in a normal story, a lull in the usual conflict can be a great time to focus on creating other types of tension within readers. Make them wonder: What’s finally going to force the character to grow? How will the story reconcile these different priorities or threats? And so on.

Uncertainty from readers’ perspective—from questions about how a story will resolve to wondering how a character will react—creates a mystery. And readers can solve that mystery only by reading our story. *smile*

Do you find it hard to think of how to keep readers’ interest without the usual conflict? Does this post help explain what “a different approach to conflict” means? Does it give you a deeper understanding of how to balance our various tools for engaging readers beyond just adding more of the usual type of conflict? Do you have any questions about conflict? Do you have any insights to add to the conversation?

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Anne R. Allen

Congrats on making the Writer’s Digest Best 101 Websites, Jami! You deserve it!

Clare O'Beara
Clare O'Beara

Great news, thanks for sharing!

Sieran Lane

Hey Jami, Ahhh sorry to hear about your experiences. 🙁 Yeah, I can relate to that. Having a bad diagnosis can feel better than having no diagnosis at all—you could at least know how to solve the problem if you know what the problem is in the first place. D: Yes, I like the idea of making the reader curious or worried about the outcome to maintain their interest. I usually think about making the reader worried or anxious, but hey, sometimes the reader is just curious or even looking forward to a particular outcome. Even if we know what the outcome will be, we might feel excited about it anyway. As an example, I’ve been reading tons of fanfic lately, because I’m so addicted to this (canon) couple from this trilogy, which is All for the Games by Nora Sakavic. The couple is Andrew and Neil. Even though I know that these two will be together, since they are a canon ship and are in the description of the fanfic, I still feel the chills and thrills as I look forward to them becoming a couple. (The fanfic author is writing an alternative universe version of the story, so while there are many parallels with the canon books, there are also many differences.) And even when Neil and Andrew are “together,” you can see that they’re still denying a lot of stuff, and they keep avoiding the topic of what they are to each other. So, though the reader…  — Read More »

Clare O'Beara
Clare O'Beara

Thanks Jami! Sorry to hear you have not been well – to a serious degree if it kept you away from the computer.
I agree with your reasoning, and sometimes I have indeed been reading a book and wondering how the story was going to tie up the plot lines and deal with the characters. That can keep me reading even if I am not otherwise much invested in the story.

Mike Tuggle

Congratulations on your recognition by Writer’s Digest. You earned it.

You’re right about the value of redefining conflict and tension. In the last story I sold to Mystery Weekly Magazine, the protag encounters the most cooperative persons of interest a medical examiner could dream of. Problem is, the evidence they provide only complicates the case. The main conflict is the challenge to make sense of conflicting clues.

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[…] magic, Zaivy Luke-Aleman discusses travel in stories as a worldbuilding device, Jami Gold takes a broad view of story conflict, and Janice Hardy explains what makes a good beginning to your novel and why so many writers get […]

Vivienne

This is a great take on conflict. I love your idea of ‘tension ‘ instead of ‘ conflict’. It broadens the idea.
Sorry to hear you’ve been unwell. I hope you are now well on the mend. And congratulations on your award.

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