No Story Conflict? Explore Your Options

From Writers Helping Writers:

[A]s a Resident Writing Coach here, I’ve previously talked about how to make our story’s conflict stronger.

The most common advice is to add more conflict to our stories, to add more external or internal obstacles that force our characters to struggle while attempting to make progress on their goals. After all, without conflict, our characters would reach their goals immediately: The characters want X and then they get it. In other words, we’ve learned that conflict is what turns a goal into a story.

But what if that’s not the kind of story we’re trying to tell? What if adding conflict doesn’t feel right for our story? Are we stuck?

. . . .

If we grew up in Western culture, chances are that we learned from our time in elementary school that stories are about solving a story problem. In turn, a story problem implies goals, stakes, and conflict, as the characters try to solve the problem.

However, that dramatic-arc narrative style doesn’t apply to every story, especially those in non-Western cultures. More importantly for today’s topic, stories with different narrative structures often don’t rely on conflict the way we’ve learned. This lack of conflict doesn’t mean they don’t “count” as stories, but it does make them different – and that means we can learn from them.

Narrative Structures with No/Low Conflict

Examples of narrative structures that take a different approach to conflict (often ignoring it completely) include:

  • Kishōtenketsu: 4-act story structure found in Chinese, Korean, and Japanese storytelling, from centuries-old stories to modern manga and Nintendo video games
  • Robleto: style of traditional Nicaraguan storytelling, which includes a “line of repetition” tying a character’s many journeys within the story together
  • Daisy-Chain Plot: story follows single object or idea with no central character
  • Fanfiction “Fluff”: zero-conflict/angst stories focusing on character interactions
  • Oral Storytelling: often emphases a moral message and not conflict
  • Rashomon-Style Plot: repeating events from different perspectives

Link to the rest at Writers Helping Writers

8 thoughts on “No Story Conflict? Explore Your Options”

  1. In the early days of SF, travelogue stories were a dominant format. It still surfaces from time to time. Some of the all-time best stories basically take us on a tour of a strange new world or civilization.
    And then there’s mysteries and survival narratives.
    Comedies of manners.

    All within the confines of western fiction.
    It’s all about “spy vs spy”.

  2. Ah, Kishōtenketsu! I wrote up a little explainer about it for a writing group. I like that structure for slice-of-life stories, and also horror. Especially horror, because kishōtenketsu nicely sidesteps the “just-world fallacy” you may get in some horror stories. The just-world fallacy would have the reader blame the character for some stupid thing they do. “I would never do that [stupid thing], and I have no sympathy for a character experiencing their just deserts.”

    But kishōtenketsu horror has a person doing regular things in their life, when suddenly! Zombies, aliens, or hurricanes show up, and the characters have to react. But as other sources point out, we do use that story structure in the West, usually in urban legends such as “the Vanishing Hitchhiker”:

    ~Intro: A young man is driving home in the rain late one night.

    ~Development: He stops for a young, beautiful woman who is motioning for a ride, and offers to take her home.

    ~Twist: When he arrives at the woman’s house he discovers that the woman has disappeared from his car.

    ~Conclusion: He knocks on the door of the woman’s house and is informed by an older gentleman that the woman was his daughter … who died four years ago on this very night. She’s still trying to get home.

    The Intro, Development, Twist, and Conclusion are the four acts of the kishōtenketsu structure. This lends itself to a slice-of-life story which isn’t an aimless, disconnected series of events. Think of the “Tales of Ba Sing Se” episode in Avatar: The Last Airbender:

    ~Intro: General Iroh goes about his business in Ba Sing Se.

    ~Development: Someone tries to mug him.

    ~Twist: Iroh critiques the mugger’s incompetent fighting stance, then has a heart-to-heart wherein he convinces the guy to straighten up and fly right.

    ~Conclusion: Iroh holds a private memorial service for his son, and wishes he could have helped his son as he helped the mugger.

    You still have to tell a story, obviously, so the no-conflict stories aren’t an excuse for not having a plot. I’ve been collecting examples of different story structures, so this post happened at the right time. Neat.

  3. Jamie, your comment here is more useful than anything in the OP. I read that and found absolutely nothing in it. Jargon tossed around with no examples or explanations, just ‘try this’.

    • Too many writing articles talk about writing as if it was something new and people haven’t been doing it for centuries or as if the past didn’t matter.

      A long time ago I saw Dennis O’Neil answering a comment asking about the best way to learn writing. His answer? Read. Read some more. Keep reading. Evej after writing.

      Read what came before. Preferable the known good but even bad stories can teach.
      Get in the right mindset and you can learn from movies, TV, comics, and of course books of every genre. Read Grisham and Heyer, MacLean and Heinlein, Mitchener and Chandler, Dickens and Tolkien.

      Learning from those that did it instead of the ones that talk about it can be very productive.

    • Thanks! When I first heard about that structure I spent a while diving into rabbit holes to learn about it. It’s definitely one of the structures I want to try out one day.

  4. Things got odd around here the past week so I missed this post. Blizzard in September. Yikes!

    Watch the classic movie:

    Good Morning, Miss Dove
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W4WLhQo5umQ

    It’s the classic “flashback” structure with little conflict. The story is set in the “present” with the key events illuminated with brief flashbacks.

    – Notice, each flashback begins with the sound of a bell. Miss Dove starts each class by hitting a bell, basically saying, “Pay attention.”

    You could not take all of the flashbacks and move them to the front, they would make no sense. Each time I watch the movie the impact of the story grows.

    – King’s Lisey’s Story follows the same structure, but instead of one flashback for each event, each is a cascade of related events flashing back illuminating the present.

    I think of it as a Kaleidoscope story with elements reflected in the mirrors.

    I remember watching the movie after school on “Dialing for Dollars”, the local TV station showed films each day. I stumbled across the movie on YouTube a year ago, and remembered it as if I had watched it yesterday. There were only a couple of scenes that were new to me. They had edited out the socially questionable stuff “not appropriate” for daytime TV for the era.

    wiki – Dialing for Dollars

    BTW, thanks for the Kishōtenketsu discussion.

  5. Miss Dove! I saw part of that movie. I always wanted to see it from the beginning, but I couldn’t remember the title. Thank you for that bit of serendipity!

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