As a reader of Angela and Becca’s blog, chances are you’ve seen some of their many posts about the role of conflict in our story. In fact, as 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?
Maybe we just need to expand our idea of what constitutes a story…
Different Narrative Story Structures
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
A Different Way of Defining Stories
If we’re stuck in a Western-culture perspective of storytelling, we might assume no-conflict stories would be boring. Or we might not consider them stories at all. But let’s take a step back to understand what makes a story a story.
As I’ve often talked about on my blog, all types of stories are built on change. Most Western-style storytelling is based on a conflict-style of change, which involves the protagonist overcoming or learning from external or internal conflict (or failing to overcome or learn).
However, that’s not the only kind of change that can apply to storytelling. Many of the examples listed above instead focus on change in the reader rather than in the character.
For example, Rashomon-style stories present the same events as perceived by different characters to the audience, and it might be up to the reader to decide where the truth lies. In fanfic “fluff” stories, readers simply expand their imagination of what beloved characters might say, do, think, behave, or react in different situations.
In kishōtenketsu, the third act typically includes an unexpected “twist” unrelated to the previous acts (often seeming like an outright non sequitur) until all aspects of the story are brought together and reconciled in the fourth act’s ending. In other words, the twist can be more about changing readers’ perspective than the typical “plot twist.” (Check out the first comic at this link for a simplistic example.)
No Conflict? We Still Need a Story
All that said, this knowledge of alternatives to the usual conflict-focused story doesn’t give us an excuse to release boring dreck to readers. We still need to make sure our story is a story, especially as there’s a risk to relying on alternative story structures, as our Western audience is probably expecting a typical narrative. Being too stuck or lazy or whatever to think of how to add conflict is different from purposefully creating a story where conflict is unnecessary and beyond the point.
So if we’re going to claim our story fits one of these other narrative structures, we need to learn the rules and expectations of that structure just as much as we now study conflict, goals, stakes, etc. Claiming our story “fits” an alternative structure doesn’t automatically make it true.
In addition, we need to make sure we know how the idea of change applies to our story. Whether found in the character, the story world, or readers’ perspective or experience, the sense of change creates the sense of a story. No matter the style of change or how much conflict our story does—or doesn’t—have, the change is a type of enlightenment.
Readers want to discover the unknown, from “what happens next?” to “how does this apply to me?” or “how do these story ideas relate to each other?” A reader’s desire to get answers can create another form of tension and conflict, even in non-Western-style stories that are often thought of as conflict-less. And that emotional investment from readers will help ensure our story—no matter the form it takes—is satisfying to readers. *smile*
Do you have any questions or insights about no/low-conflict stories or alternative narrative story structures?
Jami Gold put her talent for making up stuff to good use, such as by winning the 2015 National Readers’ Choice Award in Paranormal Romance for her novel Ironclad Devotion.
To help others reach their creative potential, she’s developed a massive collection of resources for writers. Explore her site to find worksheets—including the popular Romance Beat Sheet with 80,000+ downloads—workshops, and over 1000 posts on her blog about the craft, business, and life of writing. Her site has been named one of the 101 Best Websites for Writers by Writer’s Digest. Find out more about our RWC team here and connect with Jami below.