Is Conflict the Only Way to Tell a Story?




Of all Joan Didion’s brilliant lines, one has been co-opted to open hundreds of essays by lesser writers—and here we go again:

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”

We do tell ourselves stories in order to live. And we live in conflict.

Stories only work when there is conflict—that is the common wisdom. I grew up not knowing this, or I would never have chosen to write. Only later, too late, was the truism hammered into my head, an experience as unpleasant as that cliché suggests. Conflict averse, I ducked and wriggled, but the blows cracked into my skull, relentless enough to satisfy even an American audience.

When I tried to rebound, a friend in theater threw example after example at me. I tried to widen the definition of conflict. An internal struggle? A question that intrigues you? He just shook his head. Not enough. Too abstract. Too bloodless, too passive, too gentle.

Fine, then. I set all dreams of fiction aside and focused on journalism, where at least I did not have to create the conflicts. They were lined up and waiting. Years later, when I tried my hand at a murder mystery, the how-to books informed me that a single murder, however tragic or gory, was not enough. I needed a secondary conflict, something else gone wrong to heighten the tension. When murder is not enough tension, a society is too far gone, I muttered. Then I read on and learned that the murder and the other problem were not enough, either. As the book progressed, life had to become increasingly miserable for my hero, whose struggle had to be, by the three-quarters mark, as desperate as someone drowning in quicksand.

I gave up on mysteries. I liked my characters too much to do that to them. Perhaps something softer, more lyrical, like nature writing? “I’m a lot more likely to read an essay that begins ‘I hate nature’ than one that begins ‘I love nature,’” writes Jonathan Franzen, noting that to compete in today’s visual world, nature writing must be dynamic, and “fierce attitudes are pleasurable.” My muscles clench; I know what is coming. “A good way to achieve a sense of purpose, strong movement from point A toward point B, is by having an argument to make,” he continues. If you have no argument, find some high-stakes human drama: “A wild animal simply doesn’t have the particularity of self, defined by its history and its wishes for the future, on which good storytelling depends.”

I would argue with that. Which would play right into Franzen’s hands, my exasperated retorts providing the dynamism he insists is necessary. He could be my villain, and I could trounce him.

But why is that more fun than a paean to a snow leopard?

Everybody has their own “story,” these days, and it usually recounts suffering, some sort of odds-stacked inequity and, if they have been through therapy, their triumph over those odds. Instead of providing facts about their product or service, corporations tell stories (often fictive) to, er, “beat out” their competitors. But stories, as Jonathan Gottschall points out, always leave stuff out. They select, amplify, omit, and force events into that classic Western arc of beginning, rising action, climax, denouement. Life is never that neat.

Nor is it always ridden with conflict. Nor is conflict the only way to make people curious, breathless for what comes next. There is also what Annie Ernaux calls “the pure immanence of a moment.” In her memoirs, she shies away from anything “gripping,” trying to climb inside the past rather than turn it into a story.

Ernaux is rare, in the Western canon. But much of Asian fiction grew out of an emphasis on lyricism, not conflict. Its elements are not suspense and clash but pattern, repetition, and rhythm. We write about a problem or disruption, the conflict it creates, and the struggle to resolve that conflict. They often use a structure, kishōtenketsu, which comprises an introduction, development, twist, and reconciliation. Ah, you say, that twist and reconciliation sound a lot like conflict and resolution. But here are the differences. First, the entire development is of character. Unlike an American murder mystery, in which the dead body must show up in the first chapter, no big changes occur until part three. Then you have the twist, which is a new and perhaps surprising element but need not be confrontational. And the reconciliation simply draws a conclusion from the contrast between that twist and what came before it. “The resulting plot—and it is a plot—contains no conflict,” notes a post on the multimedia collaborative site Still Eating Oranges. “No problem impedes the protagonist; nothing is pitted against anything else.” Yet there is movement, and the integration of the twist allows “a satisfactory ending without the need for a quasi-gladiatorial victory.” No single element has to dominate; no hero has to win by vanquishing someone else. “The events of the first, second, and third acts need not harm one another. They can stand separately…. Although the fourth act unifies the work, by no means must it do violence to the first three acts; rather, it is free merely to draw a conclusion from their juxtaposition…. Kishōtenketsu has been shown to generate plot without conflict, which reveals as insular nonsense the West’s belief that they are inseparable.”

Other cultures have their own conflict-free stories. In Nicaragua, the Robleto tradition ties a character’s many journeys together. Even here, there are daisy-chain plots that follow an object or idea—often a violin or a balloon, it seems—through time or from place to place. Stories that offer multiple perspectives on a single event. Stories intended only to expand the reader’s imagination.

Yet you cannot open an American book about writing without finding assertions like these: “Let’s be honest—literature would be a little boring without conflict.” “These struggles are necessary to keep us engaged, entertained, and turning pages.” “Conflict provides crucial tension in any story and is used to drive the narrative forward.” “Antagonism has to increase with time, or you’ll lose the reader’s interest.”

What has our hyperemphasis on conflict (in literature, in sports and games, in agonistic forms of education, in the competition of capitalism) done to us? Western psychology spends far more time on interpersonal conflict than on interpersonal harmony. A friend once begged me to recommend a novel about a happy marriage; she could not find one. A Pew Research Center 2021 study shows that people in the United States see stronger societal conflict than people in other advanced economies. Are we more attuned to it, maybe even comfortable with it, or are we just more prone to clash? A big, heterogeneous country filled with competing interests in an economic system based on competition for increasingly scarce resources…. We created a confrontational culture when newcomers clashed with those already settled, and we have grown into an even more confrontational culture, one whose citizens see (and engage in) more racial, religious, ethnic, political, and urban-rural conflict than people in comparable nations. In other advanced economies, wide majorities say that diversity strengthens their nation, even when they acknowledge not always living up to the ideal. Here? We have resigned ourselves to (and some of us have welcomed) conflict instead of social unity.

I have always been conflict averse. My mother said when I got mad I went and crawled into my crib and fell asleep. A psychotherapist would have a field day. Still, the question tugs at me. Why is avoiding conflict always presented as a bad thing? What is so wrong with peaceful coexistence—and a little less drama?


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.