Being a Better Writer: Why Stories Need Conflict

Hello readers! Before we dive into today’s (somewhat delayed) Being a Better Writer post, I have an urgent PSA for all of you residing in the United States.

Go VOTE. Election day is November 3rd, 2020—which should be a national holiday, and the fact that it isn’t tells us a lot about what the government thinks about our involvement in matters. Look up all your candidates. Study them. Learn about them. Don’t just watch their ads and a three second clip of the “News” and decide you’re good. Do some digging. Read about tbe results of their policies and approached. If you’re religious, pray for some guidance. Whatever means available to you, make use of them to learn about the candidates running for all the various positions you’ll be voting on, and then go out and vote.

Yes, I know this year has made it a mess. Voter suppression has been pretty flagrant and open, as has complete ignorance of the current pandemic sweeping the nation. Keep that in mind when you vote too, or rather when you’re looking at candidates. If you’re in one of those counties where for “safety reasons” five polling places were reduced to one, consider who made that decision, how safe it really is, and whether or not you want someone with the governmental mindset of UNSEC in office again.

All right. PSA over. But it was an important one. And it’s probably going to be scrutinized by the ad-checkers, or even demonized by a few people who take issue with it.

Whatever. Go. Vote. Don’t let anyone stop you. Unless, you know, you’re not registered, in which case you should regretfully acknowledge that you didn’t prep for this one. But on the bright side, you’ll most likely have four years to correct that mistake.

Now, with that PSA said, let’s move onto today’s BaBW post! Which is an interesting one! Today’s topic was posed by a reader after they encountered a post on a writing forum where the OP (original poster, for those of you not familiar with internet parlance) argued that stories did not need conflict to be stories, and in fact (IIRC) that whole genres such as ‘slice of life’ shouldn’t have them. The reader posted here asking if that was or wasn’t possible (suspecting, again if I recall correctly, that it wasn’t) and asking me to do a bit on it.

Well, reader, here you are! And let me clear this up immediately, and with a declarative statement:

A story without a conflict is not a story, but merely a series of words laying out a disconnected summary, lacking events.

Whew. Kind of a mouthful, wasn’t that? Okay, so let’s break that down for a moment and make it a bit more digestible to those of you that are staring at it in a bit of confusion.

The first bit is pretty straightforward. “A story without conflict is not a story.” Declarative. To the point. If you don’t have “conflict,” you do not have what we would call a story.

The second part, however, tells you what you have instead. ‘A mere series of words laying out a disconnected summary, lacking events.’ A good comparison here would be a short bit of flash fiction compared to a grocery list. Not a special grocery list, but one utterly devoid of meaning. Words and items that could be rearranged in any order and still convey no purpose.

Meaning. Events. Purpose. If you’re following along you’ll see that there’s a trend here, one that is only brought about by conflict, and indeed serve as a reason why any story, to be a story, must have conflict.

Because without conflict, a story has no meaning. It becomes, in essence, meaningless words, with no form or function. No inertia. No drive. No path.

It becomes nothing more than empty words. There’s no narrative.

For that matter, actually doing such is phenomenally hard. Creating a story without conflict? For starters, it wouldn’t be a story, but actually putting together a bunch of words with no conflict whatsoever? HAH! Good. Luck.

Now, this all came from a writing forum post where someone held that they could write genres such as slice-of-life without any “conflict” and concluded that stories therefor didn’t need conflict to be stories, but I think the real problem there is that the writer of this post did not understand what “conflict” is. And in not understanding that, they made an erroneous judgement about whether or not a story needed it.

See, “conflict” can be something big and titanic, such as “heroes vs the forces of evil.” But it can also be something fundamental, such as “man vs nature” (one of the ‘types of conflict’ you might recall learning about in high school literature class).

And here’s the thing about those “fundamental” conflicts: Despite many of them being taught using extremely in-your-face examples (such as “man VS nature” being codified by Jack London and man attempting to survive a deadly blizzard) they can be far more straightforward than that, and more subtle.

For example, a slice-of-life story that sees a woman rushing to meet someone at a restaurant for dinner and trying to beat the rain because she forgot her umbrella and doesn’t want her nice dress to get wet? That’s conflict. That’s man vs nature. More specifically, it’s a woman racing nature.

Sure, it’s not big. Nor is it flamboyant. But it is a conflict. It’s a event. An opposition. Something to push against. And because of that push, there is something for the reader to “brace” against and enjoy as they read.

What I just said above there, about being “braced” against something? That is, in essence, what conflict brings to the story. Conflict is a force that the story and the reader needs to have in order for any sort of “journey” to take place. It might be small, or minute, but it is an opposing force of some kind.

For a moment let me diverge and use an analogy. How does a human being take steps forward? Well, because the force of gravity is pushing each of us down, we’re able to push against it and create friction with whatever part of our body we’re pushing with, and thereby move forward.

Similarly, while lacking one of those forces, astronauts in orbit experiencing weightlessness will use the force of friction (or leverage, depending) to move around despite the lack of gravity. Even if there’s nothing around to touch, astronauts can expel air from their lungs to slowly “jet” themselves around their station.

But if the can’t do even that? Then they don’t move. If you’re thinking that this sounds like Newton’s Third Law (summed up nicely by “for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction”) then you’re correct.

At which point some of you might be saying “But hold up, this is writing, not physics. What does Newton’s Third Law have to do with what makes a story a story?” To which I reply “Everything.”

See, the same principle applies. In order for a character to have any action, there must be reaction. For a story to impact a reader, there must be impact in the story.

Or in other words, there must be some force moving against another force—friction—contained in the pages of the story, no matter how small. Friction, you see, is a form of conflict, two bodies moving against one another.

I see the lightbulb has just lit for some of you. Yes, friction, the very thing needed to move forward, is brought about by a conflict of fundamental forces. If a story has friction, AKA conflict, it can move forward an exert a force on its audience. If it does not, then it does not “move.” Nothing can happen. It ceases to be a story.

Jumping back slightly, I believe where the forum poster went wrong is that they didn’t see “using one’s breath in zero g to move around” as a form of conflict. But it is. It’s Newton’s Third Law in action on a very small scale … and it still causes movement. Likewise, even if your story has a very “small” scale of conflict—IE someone just trying to make it through their week as various forces—however benign—move in ways that provide opposition for them, for example, that’s still conflict!

Conflict can be incredibly minute. It can be a character’s frustrations at the mail always being placed in the wrong box, or their daily efforts to make the bus before it pulls away (always fighting the clock, and always late).

Or it can be titanic, such as a couples struggles to conceive a child and the pressures that struggle puts on the rest of their lives.

The conflict can be in the forefront of the reader’s attention, such as a woman working up the courage to tell off their arrogant, unskilled boss. Or it can be a background element that makes up the setting.

For an example of the latter, I want to discuss for a moment an excellent collection of “fanfics” (very loosely) I once read called Lost Cities. At first, Lost Cities might seem like a perfect “story” without conflict, as each entry is just a long, descriptive piece of “scenery gorn” (it’s a real term!). But the thing is, as each piece flows along, describing to the reader the crumbled towers of these once mighty cities and civilization, it doles out tiny pieces of the conflicts that brought them to ruin. In explaining how, slowly and piece by piece (even though some may be missing) these cities became the evocatively described ruins of each short, the reader is guided through the conflicts that tore down the towers and bridges.

It’s not in the forefront. No piece starts out to my memory with “this empire was toppled by an army invading in _____.” But slowly, over paragraphs about waves slowly grinding down foundations (tiny conflict in and of itself), we learn about large conflicts that are just out of sight of the audience.

But they were still there, and the reader still learns about them. Big conflicts, but quiet. In the background. But still conflicts that unfold before the reader’s eyes and pull them forward.

So you don’t dive down a rabbit hole looking for it, here’s a link to Lost Cities. As I said, it is technically fanfiction, but pretty loose. The author easily could have released it on their own with very minor changes, and those curious among you won’t need any knowledge of the source material to enjoy the shorts.

All right, so what does this mean for you, the writer? What’s the conclusion to draw from this?

Well, the most important thing you should take away is that yes, all stories have conflict. No conflict means no story. But behind that is the equally important lesson that conflict is any kind of friction or force. This is why slice-of-life stories, fiction that follows a character through what is an ordinary day, can still be an engaging work of fiction: Because there will be conflict in there. There will be friction! It can be any of the classic archetypes of conflict, but it will be there, even if small.

And you shouldn’t worry about this. Embrace it. Conflict—small, large, foreground, background—is what allows a story to move, both in its own setting and in effect on the reader.

Know the archetypes of conflict, yes. But realize that they can be large or small, a foot pushing against a mountainside or an expelled breath in zero-g. Whichever one you decide is right for your story will still be a conflict, and that will drive your story and make it, in fact, a story.

So, recap: All stories have conflict, big or small, foreground or background, inferred or directly stated. Every story, from the largest, grandest Epic to the shortest, simplest flash fiction, has it. Conflict is friction, a force that moves the story forward. And your story, if it is a story, will have it and make use of it. The how is up to you, but when it comes to writing fiction, this is one element you cannot do without.

Good luck. Now get writing.

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