Conflict is An Important Element of Any Story
Conflict is one of the elements of fiction which no story can do without. It’s the driving force, the engine, powering and empowering drama. It doesn’t matter which medium is used – the written word, dance, music, film, a computer game, or a stage play – it is conflict which makes a story a story rather than just a series of events. That is the received wisdom. You can find that advice repeated in books, seminars, workshops, schools and many blogs like this one. But it isn’t true.
Really. It’s just not true. I’m not saying this to be controversial. Let me explain what I mean.
Transformation is the Most Important of the Elements of Fiction
When I first started out writing fiction I bought into the idea that conflict is the beating heart of every story. There seemed no reason to disbelieve it. You only have to look at any story you’ve enjoyed and you see it is full of conflict. Conflict is ubiquitous in drama. Conflict is essential, perhaps. But it is not the heart of good fiction and conflict alone doth not a story make.
Before becoming a full-time writer I made my living as an oral storyteller, an actor both on stage and the small screen, and as a puppeteer. I was immersed in story. I didn’t write stories but I presented stories in a variety of ways for a living. If you had asked me then, before I’d begun writing, what the heart of any story was I would not have answered conflict. I would have said transformation.
Of all the elements of fiction, transformation is it’s heart.
Conflict Alone is Not Enough
Somehow in transitioning from oral and dramatic storytelling to writing fiction I didn’t carry that deep knowledge over. It seemed, despite having told stories for decades, that this whole writing fiction thing was something different, something new. I considered myself a complete beginner and I sought the wisdom of those more experienced to guide me. And I learned that conflict was the heart of any good story.
Dozens of stories down the line, many of them sold and published, I realize that’s not true.
Think about it. Conflict alone is no more interesting than no conflict at all. In fact, taking on this traditional advice about conflict, many new writers produce the dullest of work that goes nowhere and leaves the reader unsatisfied.
How can that be?
Conflict Can Be Dull and Uninteresting
Well let’s make up an example. Let’s say I want to write a story about the relationship between a conservative, traditionalist father and his wayward, left-leaning, freethinking son. I might think, “Aha! There we have two clear opposing forces which are yet tied together by biological and emotional bonds. Lots of opportunity for conflict. This will make a great story.” So then I write the story, making sure that conflict is at the heart of it. And it perhaps pans out something like this:
The father expects his son to do well at school. When the exam results arrive, his son has done badly. The father confronts the son. The son says he doesn’t care about exam results. He has already decided to leave school and make his way as an itinerant artist. Becoming angry, the father demands that his son resit the exams to get better grades. The son refuses, saying he will not be bullied into following his father’s wishes. The father threatens to throw the son out onto the street if he does not comply. The son says that’s fine with him and leaves.
Plenty of conflict there. The father and the son, opposing forces, struggling against one another. Is it an interesting story? Not really. So why, if conflict is the most important of the elements of fiction, is this such a two-dimensional story? I’ll tell you. Because there is no transformation. The father is the same at the beginning of the story as he is at the end. The son likewise. The conflict is just a lot of loud noise. It leads nowhere. Nothing changes.
What We Need to Learn and Teach New Writers
And that is my point. I think it’s an important one. And I think we should teach new writers it is transformation which matters in good fiction. It is transformation which makes a story a story rather than just a series of events, or a room full of people shouting at each other.
If the father came to regret his son’s departure and the conflict between them led to him rethinking his worldview and having a change of heart, putting that change into action, then we would be much closer to having written a real story. Likewise if the son’s obstinate fixation with his personal freedom had been challenged by the realization of how much his father was suffering, and altered his view and his behavior, then we might have seeded the beginnings of a story within that narrative. Transformation would have occurred. The father and the son at the end of the story would not be the same as the father and son at the beginning of the story.
A Very Sorry Alchemist
I’m not saying that a story without conflict is possible. Conflict is essential to any good story. But it is not the heart of the story. Conflict alone doth not a story make. It must lead to transformation. Such transformation can be that of a person, of a community, of the political system, or anything else. But there must be change. The more dramatic the change because of conflict, the more powerful the story will be.
It would be a very sorry alchemist who submitted base metals to the mystical furnace only to find base metals at the end of his experiment. In the same way, it is a sorry storyteller puts her characters into the furnace of dramatic conflict only to leave them unchanged at the end. The alchemy of good storytelling produces the gold of transformation.
A Few Words of Practical Advice
At the beginning of this blog post I suggested that if you considered any story you had enjoyed you would find it was full of conflict. And that’s true. But if the story was any good at all I’ll bet my life savings the conflict was there only to push the characters toward change; to bring about a logical but surprising transformation.
So that’s my argument. While conflict is the driver of the change it is the change itself which makes story and leaves the reader satisfied. Change can be positive and lead to a happy ending or it can be negative and lead to tragedy. But the change must be there. So, transformation is the heart of all the elements of fiction. And for those of you new to writing fiction or who haven’t thought about it this way, here’s a practical take-away for you from this:
When you’re creating your premise, ignore the advice to base it around conflict: father versus son; rebels versus the empire; man against nature. Base it on the core transformation: selfishness leads to compassion; fear leads to freedom; arrogance leads to humility. Then embody the first quality, state or principle in a protagonist and fill in the “leads to” part with logical conflicts which will lead to the protagonist undergoing a transformation to embody the end quality, state or principle.
Then you will have a story.
If you’d rather buy them or just prefer a paperback, the first in the series, Beyond the Starline, is here: Amazon UK Amazon US Waterstones Barnes & Noble Smashwords Kobo or ask for it in your library or local independent bookstore and they’ll order it for you.
If you have any questions or comments, I’ll be more than happy to help if I can, or just connect and share experiences, thoughts, feelings and ideas.
Leave a comment and share the post on your social media if you’ve found this interesting. That is absolutely the loveliest way to say thank you to a blogger!
Image credits: all images (apart from the book covers of my novels) are in the Public Domain and were sourced via the Creative Commons. Click on the image to reveal the name of the artist and the work in the address bar.