What’s the conflict, where’s the conflict? These questions often arise in creative writing, and sometimes I find them tiresome. Perhaps it’s because they can sound a bit nagging or whiny, and I am an irritable and impatient type who runs to resentment easily.
But really it’s because conflict is not always the obvious or the primary driver of stories for me. Certain types of story do not rely on conflict, even if it’s somewhere in the story.
Many films and plays are all about conflict. Perhaps it’s in the nature of the experience, something to do with the way audiences engage with a performance or a spectacle on screen or stage; their expressive nature so often draws us with some sort of verbal or physical sparring, some visible tension or conflict, particularly in their most popular forms: battling wits between the leads in a Shakespearean comedy or a rom com; a murder mystery or a courtroom drama; the inner turmoil of a guts-spilling Tennessee Williams monologue or a ballad in a musical; a car chase or the combat between fighter aircraft in outer space; even an ecological threat, whether it’s the ancient tale of Noah’s ark or a cli-fi disaster movie.
Such vividly portrayed antagonisms – interpersonal, internal, societal, or environmental – connect with audience powerfully and immediately. It’s not surprising that many of the theories of narrative structure that have grown out of writing for cinema and theatre put conflict at the heart of stories too.
By contrast, it occurs to me that novels are usually consumed in private and as individual reading (or listening) experiences, and as such can invite a more reflective approach in their subject matter. Reading by its nature tends to be a more meditative and less public act.
I am not saying that novels lack conflict, of course. Many novels are entirely based in conflict, and even if you are writing a less conflict-oriented story it really does help to grasp the fundamentals of narrative structure that are based in tracing the turning points, and complications, and climaxes that are often focused around a central conflict. They’re particularly useful when planning and shaping a story, though I always stress that this is stuff you know deeply and practise lightly. It can help to analyse the structure of novels that inspire you.
Any theory can, though, start to feel formulaic, or even constraining. And it’s particularly this emphasis on conflict that I often find myself resisting. Stories predicated on conflict favour, it could be argued, quite a … violent? and phallocratic? way of looking at/presenting the world. Even some of the guidebooks about this way of telling a story can get awfully mansplainy 🙀🙀🙀
Instead, I often think about the idea of CHANGE, prompted by something Ursula Le Guin says in her wonderful book Steering the Craft. Regulars at my classes might be able to recite this by heart now, as I read it out every time:
Conflict is one kind of behavior. There are others, equally important in any human life, such as relating, finding, losing, bearing, discovering, parting, changing. Change is the universal aspect of all these sources of story. Story is something moving, something happening, something or somebody changing.
So: what’s changing? What’s being found, lost, borne, discovered in our stories?
I’m currently reading the recently published Science of Storytelling by Will Storr. A lot of great stuff here, and I’m only a few chapters in. Something that’s registered so far is its reference to the ‘psychology of curiosity’:
Information gaps create gnawing levels of curiosity in the readers of Agatha Christie and the viewers of Prime Suspect, stories in which they’re (1) posed a puzzle; (2) exposed to a sequence of events with an anticipated but unknown resolution; (3) surprised by red herrings; and (4) tantalised by the fact that someone knows whodunnit, and how, but we don’t.
So: I’m also thinking about ways in which curiosity might be used to guide the telling of stories.
And then imagine my surprise the other day when I was prepping for Saturday’s masterclass on revising and self-editing that I discover there is a whole other narrative structure I had never heard of: the Japanese four-act structure called kishōtenketsu. Where have I been, hiding under a neocolonialist mansplained rock of three-act structure?!
Kishōtenketsu a way of looking at form that is found in examples from classical Chinese poetry as well as manga comics. Its four acts (or frames in comics) use:
- Development, or expansion
- Twist, or complication
- Resolution, or conclusion
It’s discussed in more detailed in links below, but the idea of the twist really catches my attention here.
I do think the form of kishōtenketsu needs adapting, mind. Just as we don’t need to rely on three or five acts, we don’t have to be limited to four. But thinking about the ingredients of four-act structure, particularly how we look for twists, frees up how we consider the potential of the fluid forms of prose fiction: from flash fiction by Lydia Davis to the 10,000 words of Brokeback Mountain to the 300,000 words of The Goldfinch, which is a novel that uses many shifts and twists to keep the pages turning.
So: instead of the turning points of the conflict-focused three-act structure (triggering moment, rising action, climax, resolution), these other ideas lead me to thinking of different shaping principles: twists, information gaps, surprises, unexpected changes, the spark that’s created by a reversal of fortune (or a turn in a sonnet), juxtapositions, the jump cut, frames, contrasts, dislocation, alignments, questions that prick my curiosity, expanding horizons, cause and effect. There are many subtle energies and forms that are not so emphatically about conflict but are about other ways of relating and integrating experience. Cause and effect (consequence) is particularly important: something happens (a twist), how do characters react?
Here are a few examples from my own (emerging) thinking.
There are certainly conflicts within Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, but much of the page-turning energy arises for me from the twists of its reversals in fortune and sudden shifts in setting. No spoilers, but people who’ve read the book will remember one very explosive moment as well as one very marked move to a (brilliantly realised) fresh location, and then later on there is also a really great twist I really should have seen coming, but didn’t. How characters react to those changes is perhaps more important than defining any particular antagonism; though conflicts are certainly there in The Goldfinch, this is ultimately a book about loss and love and finding your way in the world, and they are what’s most important, particularly in the rising swell of emotion that define the ‘shock and aura’ of its final pages. The resolution of that book isn’t about conflict, or about one person defeating another. It’s about a surprise, and it’s about a character finding something – literally, and also more deeply within, and along the way the reader is rewarded with many moments that are not so much about conflict but about connection and empathy.
Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout. That Olive is quite a combative character! So there are plenty of conflicts here. But consider the juxtapositions, the contrasts, the different frameworks of narrative that overlap and interlock yet too at times go out on their own, with their own surprises.
The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas. It starts with a conflict, and it’s one whose resolution drives the story – but too there is much more going on. Some of the sections of this book that I enjoyed the most involved characters going off into their own storylines, and involved things none of the other characters knew about.
Purity by Jonathan Franzen likewise has plenty of conflicts between its characters, but for me much of its powerful charge arises from changes in POV, shifts in register, and what we gain from surprises and contrasts and misunderstandings and realignments we encounter in the storytelling and characterisation (and we meet some really distinctive characters here). This is more nuanced than what might simply be understood as conflict.
Fingersmith by Sarah Waters. A great leap that happens at a certain point in the story is all about the twist that’s delivered, and it’s certainly a twist that draws on the energy of conflicts between characters caught up in the ‘wretched scheme’ of a dastardly conspiracy that’s the fodder of classic Victorian melodramas. But it’s a radical retelling here, and a significant shift in POV and a serious re-examination of characters delivers much of the reward in the reading too. Fingersmith is all about the twists.
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. It certainly has conflicts, but it’s hard to apply the conventional dramatic arc to this novel, and we derive much of our pleasure from the way in which its Russian Doll form jumps us from one frame of narrative to another.
You Will Be Safe Here by Damian Barr. A novel I very much enjoyed recently, and again one with plenty of conflicts at its core, though Damian has said that ‘conflict is the setting but not the engine’ of his book: ‘I think in some ways time is what drives this book and seeing how different histories and truths compete over time and how the characters change as those forces act on them and they resist/are crushed by them’. Something I particularly admired is the way in which it is constructed, like Cloud Atlas, of self-contained frames of narrative that are not immediately obvious in their connections. Our curiosity is guided as to how these stories are joined together.
Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday. Another book in sections (three of them), and though each has its own conflicts the greater part of the narrative drive here lies in figuring out how these stories are joined together. Connection is a more important shaping principle than conflict, I’d dare to say.
Swan Song by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott. That Truman Capote certainly was a bundle of antagonisms! Social, interpersonal, and especially internal. But much of the pleasure of this magnificent novel is that it’s not laboriously constructed around the central conflict of Truman spilling the tea on his Swans in his final book, but it frees itself in terms of both form and content to explore a whole life and times, digressing into whole separate strands of storyline for secondary characters. It’s a bold, ambitious novel – and its boldness comes from daring to be unconventional.
The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver. Swan Song brought this to mind for me – again, the conflict of real lives reimagined (Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, Leon Trotsky), but again much of the payoff comes from formally playing with the way that stories are told, and leaving gaps in the account – lacunae.
David Copperfield is a coming-of-age story with plenty of twists and turns and reversals of fortune. And coincidences! Imagine having tea at the house of your nemesis and lo and behold your own landlord walks by and a friendship is resumed. We are told to avoid coincidences in our stories, but Dickens gets away with it! Have a go for yourself, even if you really do have to be crafty. But too I have myself experienced remarkable coincidences. I once sat down on a ferry between North and South Island in New Zealand, and was enjoying the view, when I looked across the deck and saw Celia who used to sit in the next office to me when I first started working in publishing in London! Another time, when I lived in the US, I ran into Bernie from the art department (from that same office in London) while hiking the trail to the Delicate Arch in Arches National Park in Utah.
The Friend by Sigrid Nunez is a strange and meditative book about a writer who loses a friend and gains a dog. It does have conflicts, and a plot, and I am sure we can find the conflicts and tensions of three-act structure here if we seek them out. But the emphasis is definitely on the internal musings of how the central character processes change; it’s a nuanced self-exploration, and to my mind lacks an obvious conflict as its central drama.
But how do we shape all of these twists and curiosities and nuances into a coherent form? (Which begs the question, in fact, of how coherent do we need to be?).
In fact, after questioning theories from film, I feel that one of the most flexible ways of thinking about story structure comes from the Pixar Story Spine:
Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___. And ever since that day ___.
Perhaps we can say that twists are what happens at One day ___. And a long novel such as The Goldfinch or David Copperfield has lots of One days? Conventional three-act structure reduces this to a single inciting incident or trigger, but such works amount to a long sequence of causes and effects.
I am not saying that we should write stories without conflict. We do need – and want – tension in our writing and our reading. Conflicts are fun, whether played out in the bitchy undermining that goes on in the juicy narration of a novel such as Notes on a Scandal by Zoë Heller, or in the more obvious thrills and spills of a battle in a fantasy novel that results in the victorious outcome we desire. The clash of sword and shield provides the basic matter of many tales.
Hold up a minute, though: mentioning battles in fantasy novels makes me think about Game of Thrones, and I am wondering if many of the negative reactions to its tv resolution arose because we have grown used to storytelling that favours outright victors and clear-cut conquests. In Plot Without Conflict, Randy Finch in fact uses kishōtenketsu as a specific way of looking at the story of Game of Thrones. Many characters were most certainly defeated at the end, and many others lost their heads along the way, but the twist at the end saw unlikely characters achieving outcomes that had been speculated upon only in the distant fan-flamed corners of the interwebs. Game of Thrones, it turns out, is not a story with the arc of a conventional hero’s journey.
It’s not really a matter of thinking about plots without conflict. It’s more that conflict doesn’t have to be the primary emphasis, or the HEART of the story. The gender-bias of male-oriented hero narratives – all swords and cock, and not much internal action – is perhaps not the ideal way of thinking about those stories of finding or losing that Ursula Le Guin mentions above.
And perhaps in general we need a less adversarial mode of not only writing, but also looking at the world?
Consider, for example, those essays written in high school or freshman composition classes, where we are tasked on ‘arguing’ for or against a proposition: prove yourself right, which often means proving someone else wrong. (Sound familiar? I wouldn’t know, I’m not reading the news right now.)
Does the conditioning of years after years of writing argumentative essays and creating conflict-driven stories and taking part in debating society result in the squabbling chamber of the Houses of Parliament, and the rise of alt-right and -left trolls, and antagonistic figures such as Donald Trump? Does everything always have to be defined so much by confrontation and conquest? We don’t have to be creationists to think that the Darwinian idea of the survival of the fittest is not necessarily the way we have to structure our societies, sorry, our stories.
Hello, my name is Andrew, and if I win Miss World my wish is for an end to all wars. [Cue: Imagine all the people, Living life in peace …]
Perhaps this is taking things a bit far, though perhaps it is not. The way in which we rely on conflict in our storytelling is worth serious thought. There are alternatives that emphasise and embody other ways of integrating change and complication in the world: inviting curiosity, emphasising connection.
As the man said: Only connect.
Further reading and writing
I’ve added a writing experiment that plays with these ideas as an exercise in drafting and revision: Only Connect.
And further discussion and amplification of ideas can be found in the links below, along with another one on the fragmented novel, a form we discussed in my recent class Density and Speed: Crafting Space and Time in Writing.
* Mythic Scribes – also includes further links to pieces on differences between Japanese and Western styles of arguing/conflict and structure in Japanese horror stories
* Nicole W. Lee, On Kishōtenketsu – includes analysis of Chinese poetry
* Also, let’s not forget a book is not a film. I recently read a very well-reviewed book on novel writing that has a lot of good content, but a large proportion of its examples are taken from film. I mean: its chapter on dialogue quotes at length from four different texts, AND THEY ARE ALL FILMS. Which would be fine if the book was called Writing A Screenplay, but it isn’t. Novels have options beyond direct speech: indirect or reported speech, summary, dialogue tags, and ways of rendering action and gestures too that can only be achieved in prose. Anyone writing a novel needs to understand those ways in which characters’ speech is rendered too. (If you want a really and truly excellent guide to writing dialogue in prose, check out the chapter on characterisation in the new/tenth edition of Writing Fiction by Janet Burroway, finally available in an affordable edition on these shores.)
And again: a book is not a film, or a play for that matter. A film is something intended for consumption within a block of two hours while you sit in a dark room with strangers, or in front of your telly with your loved ones, or on your iPad by yourself. A play is something that is watched in a hushed room or (further back in time) an outdoor amphitheatre, again over the course of a couple of hours (or a bit more maybe). A book however can be picked up and put down over the course of many days, and in any context (in bed, on the train, on the beach); the duration of that reading experience will be several hours even for a fast reader. Theories developed for one medium need serious adaptation for a differently consumed form.
Also, showing-not-telling is something of a Western bias, a colonial relic even. Which is fine, if you want to be a colonial relic, I guess.
Also, however many time people try to explain beats to me I. Just. Don’t. Get. Them. (My beats are Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg and Anne Waldman and Bobbie Louise Hawkins.)
I think the problem I have with beats and some of these other structures is probably that they can feel to me like externally conceived structures imposed upon narrative matter. They are not arising in that intuitive way that I recently heard Anna Burns describe how she wrote Milkman.
And, once again: I do observe that a book is not a film, or a play for that matter. Beats are used in writing for screen and stage, and films and plays are creations that manifest primarily as external expressions of action: performances that rely on spectacle and a choreographed management of time and space.
So: narrative theories based on screen- and scriptwriting have other limits beyond their emphasis on conflict. There are many theories on structure in film, in fact, and I find myself drawn more to the idea of the sequence . But I do note that three- or five-act structures are the ones I come across most in discussions in fiction writing.