Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Ask most authors for their advice on storytelling and, sooner or later, they’re likely to get to the subject of conflict. To many writers, conflict is the basic unit of story – the thing that turns a series of events into an actual narrative – often more important than setting, characters, and even narrative cohesion. After all, you can lose all of those features and still write something that grips the reader.
Because of this, it stands to reason that conflict may well be the single most important aspect of storytelling, but does that make it essential? Can you write stories – even great stories – without including conflict? That’s the question we’ll be exploring today.
Do you need conflict?
When it comes to those making the argument that story can exist without conflict, few are more notable than Ursula K. Le Guin – winner of the Hugo Award, Nebula Award, Locus Award, and World Fantasy Award; author of The Earthsea Cycle, The Left Hand of Darkness, and The Word for World Is Forest; and the subject of our article 3 Ways Ursula K. Le Guin Can Help You Improve Your Writing.
Le Guin is a successful storyteller, a superlative writer, and even a scholar of the craft, so if she says that you don’t need conflict to tell a good story… well, you kind of have to take her at her word.
Modernist manuals of writing often conflate story with conflict. This reductionism reflects a culture that inflates aggression and competition while cultivating ignorance of other behavioral options. No narrative of any complexity can be built on or reduced to a single element. Conflict is one kind of behavior. There are others, equally important in any human life: relating, finding, losing, bearing, discovering, parting, changing.
Change is the universal aspect of all these sources of story. Story is something moving, something happening, something or somebody changing.
– Ursula K. Le Guin, Steering the Craft: A Twenty-first Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story
So, there you have it; stories don’t need conflict, and it’s just one option among a series of other human experiences for driving a compelling narrative. We dealt with that question pretty quickly.
Is ‘conflict’ always external?
Of course, if that was the end of it, we’d have just written another article about how smart Le Guin is, so what’s wrong with her summary of the issue?
Not much. Le Guin is right, both in terms of the myriad drives we can draw on for art and in terms of how choosing the most aggressive option both expresses and contributes to a mindset that too readily embraces the worst parts of the human condition.
The thing is, when I talk about ‘conflict’ as an editor, I don’t use it in the same way as Le Guin. Instead, I understand ‘conflict’ to mean not just external conflict between people, but also internal conflict within a character. I consider it to mean a conflict within the reader or even just the struggle of moving from one state to another. In short, when I use the word ‘conflict’ as an editor, I’m using the word ‘but.’
The value of ‘but’
An old rule of storytelling is that ‘A happened then B happened’ isn’t a story, whereas ‘A happened but then B happened’ is. In the second version, the two events are contrary – they rub up against each other, and there’s the implication that B might change the effects of A or work to an alternative goal.
In this way, ‘conflict’ isn’t necessarily about two people fighting, it’s about not following a straight line from beginning to end. If the story ends as it began – if nothing impedes the expected progress or changes the context – then you tend to end up with a tale so prosaic that it’s hard to really call it a story.
This is true even in stories where the goal expressed at the beginning is accomplished by the end; it’s the challenges along the way that make the journey noteworthy. If Red Riding Hood isn’t confronted by the Wolf, there’s no real narrative to her story. In fact, as a mental exercise, take a moment to try removing the Wolf from the narrative while still telling a compelling story.
I’m guessing that while many of you managed to make the story compelling again, you did so by introducing some other form of conflict; some event that acts contrary to the protagonist’s goal. Maybe Red Riding Hood got lost, or now she’s selfish and doesn’t want to make the journey, or when she gets to the cottage Granny has collapsed – anything that adds a wrinkle to the unimpeded delivery of baked goods.
And that’s not to say that conflict has to even impede the journey of the story. Imagine a story that describes a couple breaking up when they both know the relationship has runs its course.
Both characters intend to break up, and we don’t need to add an obstacle to make that interesting. Such an obstacle could be that one of them doesn’t want to split – that would certainly add more intense conflict – but the more realistic conflict here is in the complexity of emotion; in depicting two people who are scared to make the decision they think is necessary, who are worried about hurting each other, who want to be understood. The drama comes from them being conflicted in both their feelings and their actions, even if they never so much as argue with each other.
Now imagine a story about a rock being slowly eroded over the years. Here, we’re definitely not seeing an external conflict. The rock isn’t fighting against its erosion – it’s not even a sentient being, it’s just a geographical feature being worn down. But humans can grow attached to pretty much anything, and so the conflict in this story is the vague angst of change; the resistance we feel to change, even change that isn’t inherently bad, and how that connects to our understanding of our own finite mortality. Here, the conflict is in the reader. The events of the story occur uninterrupted, no-one is trying to stop them or even being hurt by their occurrence, but something deep within the reader doesn’t want what’s happening to continue. As with the couple in the first story, who are sad to part even though it’s for the best, this emotional resistance could even exist within a larger sense that the change in question is for the greater good, but even here, there’s conflict.
Significant change requires conflict
So, is Le Guin is wrong in her assertion? Not really, but she definitely uses ‘conflict’ in a different sense than most writers intend it. When she describes ‘relating, finding, losing, bearing, discovering, parting, changing,’ it’s hard not to think that conflict exists within all of them. ‘Losing’ and ‘parting’ can exist without conflict, but isn’t it conflict that makes them matter? It’s only when one doesn’t want to lose something that its loss becomes significant. Even parting, as with our couple above, gains narrative worth from those parts of us that don’t want to part (even if there’s more of us that does.) You could even apply the same logic to ‘finding’ – doesn’t this discovery become significant only if it adds something new to your life, and isn’t the new overwhelming the old just another form of conflict?
It’s in ‘bearing’ and ‘relating’ that conflict feels least present, but it’s there if you look for it. Again, we can do all kinds of things that technically fulfill these requirements, but narrative worth comes from finding some significance in them, and that significance emerges from change. Bearing something becomes narratively interesting when it alters who you are or how you understand the world, even in small ways, and the same for relating. If relating to something or someone doesn’t change how you’re feeling – doesn’t even reaffirm a part of you that was struggling – then it’s almost certainly not strong enough to support a narrative.
Change involves moving from one state to another and, at least in narrative terms, that means conflict. It might not mean a huge, bombastic war of emotions, but it at least means that B came in and acted upon A counter to A’s inherent nature. A hero strikes down a villain, events change a personality, a single act changes an emotional state, but they all come down to a force acting counter to a situation. As Le Guin says, ‘Change is the universal aspect of all these sources of story. Story is something moving, something happening, something or somebody changing,’ and while significant change can certainly happen without fighting, it can’t really occur without at least some degree or type of conflict.
The lens of conflict
We’re throwing out Le Guin’s opinion, then? Well, while it’s certainly possible for an author of her stature to be just plain wrong about something, that’s not the case here. First, she’s clearly using her own definition of ‘conflict’ that’s more literal than is intended by most authors when they discuss it in a narrative sense. Where ‘conflict’ means ‘direct opposition’ or ‘fighting,’ she’s entirely right, and if you’re a budding author then it’s worth looking into how to create both conflict and change in your writing without necessarily needing an antagonist to oppose.
But beyond even that, Le Guin makes a deeply valuable point, which is that the language of conflict and disharmony can be more influential than we intend – even when it’s not used literally, it can still encourage a particular perspective that, as Le Guin writes, ‘inflates aggression and competition while cultivating ignorance of other behavioral options.’
The story of the eroding stone, written to invite regret on the reader’s part even as the stone knows nothing and the erosion causes no larger harm, does involve a form of conflict. Indeed, for that story to work as described, the reader has to be invited to regret what’s happening and want it to stop. Without the reader responding to the author’s efforts to invite that emotional conflict, you don’t have a story – it’s the kind of thing that would be offensively pointless to anyone who didn’t engage with it on that level.
But is conflict the most useful lens through which to view this story? While it’s an essential aspect of what the narrative is doing in order to tell a story, isn’t Le Guin right that this artistic endeavor is more about the act of relating? Isn’t the writer going to have an easier time writing something great if that’s the approach they take?
Art is made of exceptions, so there are ways of telling stories without conflict, but they’re novelties scattered around the greater machinery of making humans care about change. While it’s fair to say that significant change is inextricable from some form of conflict, it’s also true that – as Le Guin suggests – conflict isn’t the only lens through which to view and write change. By widening the way we consider and discuss narrative, we can tap into wider human experiences and bring more variety and understanding to our craft.
What’s your response to Ursula K. Le Guin’s thoughts on conflict in narrative? Let me know in the comments, and check out How Conflict Will Transform Your Limp Story Into A Page-turner for more on using conflict to enliven your writing and 6 Secrets To Writing A Thrilling Argument for a way that (contrary to the conclusion of this article) thinking about arguments as fights can help you write them in a far more compelling way.