One of the big rules we always hear about writing is that there must be conflict! Without conflict you have no tension, no stakes, and the story doesn’t go anywhere. Some say “without conflict you have no story” at all! Therefore we should always be on the look-out for the conflict in a scene and use it to make our stories more intense, emotional, and keep the boring-police away!
But, I have an admission. I’ve always had a problem with the idea that story revolves around conflict. I get nervous about how it limits what our stories can be about.
Don’t misread that comment. Conflict can be an important and useful storytelling tool, and there’s nothing wrong with using it. But… do we sometimes create conflict simply because we think we are supposed to? Are our lives defined by our conflicts? Is it all Man vs. Man, Man vs. Environment, Man vs. God, Good vs. Evil? Is it always about desire and obstacles and the conflicts that stand in our character’s way?
Is there not room for more?
This emphasis on conflict has always made me think of the fabulous quote in Diane Lefer’s essay, Breaking the Rules of Story Structure, where she says:
“The traditional story revolves around conflict – a requirement Ursula K. Le Guin disparages as the ‘gladatorial view of fiction.’ When we’re taught to focus our stories on a central struggle, we seem to choose by default to base all our plots on the clash of opposing forces. We limit our vision to a single aspect of existence and overlook much of the richness and complexity of our lives, just the stuff that makes a work of fiction memorable” (63).
Janet Burroway adds to this discussion noting that “seeing the world in terms of conflict and crisis, of enemies and warring factions, not only constricts the possibilities of literature… [it] also promulgates an aggressive and antagonistic view of our own lives” (Writing Fiction, 255).
These quotes have always resonated with me. I find I’m not an action-and-conflict writer. But at the same time, I didn’t have any other guidepost to lead me. So, if it’s possible for stories to revolve around something other than conflict, what would that “something else” be?
In Writing Fiction, Burroway goes on to discuss a narrative engine built on the human need for connection, rather than the clash of opposing forces. She says:
“A narrative is also driven by a pattern of connection and disconnection between characters that is the main source of its emotional effect. Over the course of a story, and within the smaller scale of a scene, characters make and break emotional bonds of trust, love, understanding, or compassion with one another. A connection may be as obvious as a kiss or as subtle as a glimpse; a connection may be broken with an action as obvious as a slap or as subtle as an arched eyebrow” (255).
This is an idea I can get behind!
A pattern of connection and disconnection is a narrative guideline that feels rooted in truth, human desire, and hope. It’s a guideline that – if you need it to – can lead to conflict, should that be where you want your story to go. For me, the need for connection, and the movement between connecting and disconnecting, exists in a deeper space than conflict alone. Good vs. Evil sits on the surface. Connection and disconnection is the pulse beneath the skin that motivates our characters. Can good or evil exist without it? This question excites me! The possibility of small actions energizing a story excites me!
I believe in the little moments.
I believe in the impact of an arched eyebrows and a subtle glimpse, may they have the power to grip our readers with as much intensity as a fight to the death.