Let me kick things off with blasphemy: Conflict is not the engine of story.
Allow me to explain.
The longer I teach, the more writing texts I seem to read, if only to find out if someone else has a clearer, simpler, or more insightful way of presenting the material. (To my chagrin, that’s often case. Fortunately, I’m not too so old a dog that I’ve forsaken new tricks.)
In some of my recent reading, though, I’ve detected a bit of an uproar over the supposed centrality of conflict in our stories.
Ursula Le Guin, for example, in Steering the Craft, takes serious issue with the “gladiatorial view of fiction” that the seemingly obsessive focus on conflict has nurtured. She considers this a kind of tunnel vision that minimizes depth and complexity, “just the stuff that makes a work of fiction memorable.”
Le Guin herself noted that though Romeo and Juliet revels in conflict, that isn’t what makes it tragic. “Conflict is [just] one kind of behavior. There are others, equally important in any human life, such as relating, finding, losing, bearing, discovering, parting, changing.”
Though Romeo and Juliet revels in conflict, that isn’t what makes it tragic.
Debra Spark, in Curious Attractions: Essays on Writing, chimes in by noting that the centrality of conflict has been with us since Aristotle—the terms protagonist and antagonist both derive from the Greek word for conflict, agon, which the Greeks considered a fundamental aspect of existence—“but it doesn’t account for the emotional power of fiction as much as its forward motion.”
Spark adds that even Janet Burroway, who in her widely read and hugely influential Writing Fiction stated baldly “a story is a war,” nonetheless qualified this statement in later editions, noting that it’s a story’s “pattern of connection and disconnection between characters” that provides “the main source of its emotional effect.”
Rosalie Morales Kearns, in her essay, “Was it Good For You? A Feminist Reflection on the Pleasure of Plot,” revealed that Burroway in the third edition of Writing Fiction actually identified birth as an alternative metaphor to battle for story structure, and that though birth also suggests struggle, “There is no enemy.” Rather the story’s forward movement resembles a “struggle toward light”—understanding, experience, wisdom.
But if conflict doesn’t drive the story, what does?
As noted above, Debra Spark remarked that conflict, despite its limitations in providing emotional power, does largely account for a story’s forward motion.
I respectfully disagree.