Is conflict necessary? Veronica Roth, author of Divergent, once said, “If there’s no conflict, there are no stories worth telling – or reading.” She was referring to writing a utopia, which she defined as “a world without conflict, in which everything is perfect.” She claimed that the setting itself, if it is indeed perfect, inherently creates uninteresting stories. There has never been an example of a utopia in our history, and that may be why stories set in them feel unnatural or dull. Stories have always emulated history. After all, history is a story, just one that we happen to be living in. This makes a great deal of sense seeing as the very word “story” originates from the word “history.” And why shouldn’t it? In many ways, they follow the same rules, rules like time, setting, and causality. But they also follow the same structure when it comes to conflict.
The philosopher Hegel put forth the idea that history can be seen in terms of opposing viewpoints coming into conflict, and that the world changes when their tension reaches its resolution. He called this a dialectic process, and you see this pattern again and again. The industrial revolution is what many people think of first, but it can just as easily be applicable to the civil war, which resulted in emancipation; or even the struggle between the Tokugawa shogunate and western pressures which began and then ended Japan’s 220 years of isolation from the rest of the world.
The key point here is that conflict causes change. The same is the case with stories we make up. Cinderella wanted to go to the ball; her stepmother did not let her, and in resolving that issue, the fairy godmother initiated a chain reaction that ends with Cinderella becoming a princess. This basic formula repeats over and over again through folklore and myth, and since fiction writing owes much of its DNA to those stories, that relationship between conflict and change crops up there too.
Whether it is the physical struggle between Captain Ahab and the whale that drives the momentum of Moby Dick or the argumentative conflict between Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy that moves the plot of Pride & Prejudice, stories are built on some form of conflict. The typical structure is that the character was one way at the beginning of the story, a conflict occurs, and the character ends up in a different place at the end.
The counterpoint is, of course, that all this is an oversimplification. What about surrealistic fiction or other stories where things happen or change with no conflict or anything triggering the events? True, but those are often because the authors of those are intentionally exploring the subconscious, or more precisely some sort of internal struggle. In the book Metamorphosis by Frank Kafka, the protagonist wakes up in the form of a giant bug with little explanation. No explicit conflict caused the change to occur, but that does not matter. Him being a bug is the conflict. His internal struggle with this change is the central conflict, and in the end causes further change in his life. A conflict within a single character is still conflict, and perhaps a far more important one. A drug user struggles with his addicted self, and by the end is clean. A starstruck youth struggles with his own fear and nervousness to ask a girl out, and now they are married with four kids. The internal struggle often means more, because that is a conflict that we can all understand.
Change, whether it be internal or external, makes a story worthwhile. You will notice that there are lessons baked into the internal conflict examples above. “One can overcome their own base hunger” and “One can overcome their fear.” Most conflicts are never that straightforward and many take different lessons from the same events, but it is through state of affairs changing, that we as readers learn something new.
Let us imagine a theoretical story where a joyful man goes to the movies with his cheerful wife. They both love the movie, have exactly the same opinions about it and go home. The end. The story lacks a point because hearing about them going to the movie changed nothing about the character’s situation. We find value in a story when we “take something out of it,” as in we learn from the change we find in the characters, setting, or state of affairs. “Why did we spend all this time about this story if it did not mean anything?” the audience would wonder.
That story lacked change in part because it lacked internal or external conflict. What if the man gets home from a terrible day at work and feels like he needs to exert himself more at home to fix the issues of earlier? His wife says he needs a break and convinces him, with much protest, to go to the movies with her. They both enjoy the movie and the man comes home happier and willing to look at the work he has to do with fresh eyes. All I did was add a minor conflict, and suddenly it feels like there is a point. The conflict caused me to write a change. The man was upset, now he is optimistic, and that is something that the audience can draw from. Maybe they see it as saying that “taking breaks helps improve work” or that “spending time with family is important to live a fulfilled life.” The actual message changes depending on the mind that processes the story. The point is the conflict indirectly made the story matter to that mind. The conflict meant something.
History comes from the Greek word “historia” which originally meant inquiry, as in actively trying to learn. So, it is the same with fictional stories. We read them to enrich our lives. Even if the only reason we invest in a story is as an idle distraction, we still want something (i.e. the distraction) out of a story. Meaning arises through witnessing the change in a story, and change emerges from conflict. So, it stands to reason, “if there’s no conflict, there are no stories worth telling – or reading.”