Stories Aren’t All Conflict

arm wrestle

It’s common to hear conflict emphasised as a core element in engaging stories. It’s hard to argue that it isn’t important, but the way it’s focused on sometimes doesn’t sit right with me.

There can be a tendency to treat action and drama as the key ways to be engaging, an insistence on getting right into an in media res fight or argument that misses how gripping and immersive other ways of starting a story can be, a rush for speed when taking some time to let it all stew isn’t always wrong.

How about a really good character intro, creepy implications that suggest more to come, an inviting bizarre new world? None of that needs immediate conflict.

Here’s a different perspective, from Ursula Le Guin in Steering the Craft.

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, such as 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.

Of course, this might not be helpful to writers who go too far into a sedate stroll around their world. A renewed eye on conflict is a good counter to interminable exposition and small talk. But Le Guin is right to challenge a single-minded focus on conflict.

3 thoughts on “Stories Aren’t All Conflict

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