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?
Resident Writing Coach
After muttering writing advice in tongues, Jami decided to put her talent for making up stuff to good use. Fueled by chocolate, she creates writing resources and writes award-winning paranormal romance stories where normal need not apply. Just ask her family—and zombie cat. Find out more about Jami here, hang out with her on social media, or visit her website and Goodreads profile.
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September C. Fawkes says
I’m struggling with coming up with conflict right now for a scene, so this was an interesting read. Thanks, Jami.
Jami Gold says
Thanks for stopping by, September, and good luck with your scene! 🙂
E J Randolph says
BECCA PUGLISI says
This is fascinating, Jami. I didn’t know about most of these other story types, or their different structures. I can see how writers who are stuck or going through an uninspired phase could recharge by looking into different story forms (often from other cultures) and fill their tank with that new knowledge. So cool! Thank you for sharing.
Jami Gold says
I just recently learned about most of them myself, so I saved the knowledge for my RWC post to share with everyone here. Isn’t it interesting stuff? 🙂
Kay DiBianca says
“And that emotional investment from readers will help ensure our story—no matter the form it takes—is satisfying to readers.”
Thank you for this deeper approach to story-telling, Jami. We often equate emotion with conflict, but there are other ways to engage the reader. I like what Angela said about challenging the reader’s worldview through our characters.
Very thought-provoking! I’m definitely bookmarking this one.
Jami Gold says
Glad this post gave you something to think about. 🙂
ANGELA ACKERMAN says
I didn’t know about these plot structures–so interesting, Jami. I think what I see here is the constant presence of conflict, but the emphasis for some of these is internal vs external.
Change by nature means a challenge to the norm – the challenge of ideas, to challenge a worldview, beliefs, etc. (even if the emphasis is on the reader’s change rather than a character’s.). Challenge can lead to transformation (change) or affirmation (reinforcement of current beliefs, so no change). So, perhaps in some cases, while change/conflict is here, the end result is not necessarily set, such as the case of how a reader may or may not change their viewpoint, or what “version” they might believe is the truth.
What do you think – would you agree?
Jami Gold says
Yes, “challenge” is another good way of putting it — as in, the story can challenge what a reader thinks they know or understand. As I mentioned in the post, although these structures might be thought of as “no conflict,” I tend to think it’s more about a different <i>approach</i> to conflict.
I know writers who have struggled with their stories due to a perceived lack of conflict, so I wanted to dig into the options — and also the risks and expectations. I hope authors who think one of these structures might apply to their story idea will now have a direction to investigate. 🙂
ANGELA ACKERMAN says
Thanks, Jami. I agree with you — they do have conflict, it’s just different. This was a timely post because I was just reading someone’s post on twitter about how their stories are more about the changes to readers than conflict.