Conflict or No Conflict? That is the Question!

By James A. Winter. James is a scientist and aspiring writer living in Maidstone, UK. Please read his article and leave thoughts and comments below.

“If there’s no conflict, there are no stories worth telling – or reading.” – Veronica Roth.

An interesting statement, and one that could be interpreted in many ways.  At first glance, it suggests that a story must contain conflict of some form to be worthwhile telling, as though stories without some kind of conflict are simply not entertaining enough.  Or perhaps it means that people need to experience conflict in order to have the ability to write a good story; that people need to have this kind of experience in their lives, to provide them with the necessary knowledge and perspective needed to write a tale that will be relatable to others.

In fact, Veronica Roth is referring only to the potential for utopian societies. She is suggesting that if a utopia existed, where everything was perfect, then everything would be boring.  She is suggesting that no-one would want to hear a story about how everything anyone ever tired, worked out perfectly.  In this sense I agree with her assessment, it would be a rather boring story, but only if any story were so simple.  As it happens, I disagree with her statement entirely, because no story is ever that plain and simple.

The fact is, there can never be a utopia, so in actuality the statement is completely moot.  There is no such thing as perfect in life, and most certainly not with people involved.  Take for example the fictional world of Star Trek, where the people of the Federation work to better themselves and society, and where money doesn’t exist so neither does greed.  Great idea!  So, what happens?

Well in the show, everyone is content doing whatever they want with their lives.  However, I imagine the truth would be darker.  I think that many people will simply become lazy and just waste their lives away if given the opportunity.  If you don’t need to try, why would anyone?  A depressing point of view perhaps, but one I believe from my own experiences.  People need motivation, very few people are capable of self-motivation.  You may think you are one of these few, but really consider things for a moment and I think you will find that there is always something motivating you, and often it’s out of necessity to survive rather than self-fulfilment.  I also imagine there would be some people who would seek to better themselves, who would go in search for more knowledge and experience, attempting to fill their lives with meaning.  In the show, these people join Star Fleet, but as these stories demonstrate, when you go exploring you may find conflict elsewhere instead.

So perhaps in a way Veronica is right?  Even in a supposedly perfect world, people will seek conflict, or at least the author will provide some to create drama.  I cannot deny that conflict in a story breeds drama, which in turn allows characters to be opened up, forced into showing a range of emotions only a conflict could provoke.  Likewise, some aspects of human nature can only be described in regards to conflict, and many, many stories will provide support to this argument.  Just look at the highest grossing film of all time, Avengers Endgame.  Can you get more conflict than that?  Even second place, Avatar, is a tale of conflict.  So, clearly conflict in a story makes a story worth telling and is what people want to hear.  But does that really mean no story without conflict is worth telling?

There is a deeper reason I disagree with Veronica’s assessment, beyond the irrelevant point of an impossible utopian reality.  It seems to me, the idea of conflict being necessary or inevitable in no way relates to story-telling at all.  Stories can be told without conflict, and they will still be worth reading.  It is not easy to tell a story without conflict; I know as I have tried my hand at writing stories as well, most of which do involve some conflict.  But I have also read several stories that contained no conflict whatsoever, and they were just as enjoyable as any story I have read before.

To give the benefit of doubt, perhaps Veronica didn’t mean conflict in the strictest of terms.  After all, not all conflict is as clear and direct as war for instance.  When people think of conflict, the first interpretation is usually that of fighting or battle.  Good versus Evil is the most common example, although any dispute between two individuals, even if just a mother and daughter arguing, would count as conflict.  On a subtler level, we can each hold conflict within ourselves, when we have conflicting instincts on how to behave for example.  The age-old story of “I like this person, should I ask them on a date or not?” is a perfect example of such self-conflict, where one’s self-doubt and desire are at odds.  The head and the heart, the most relatable story to ever exist, and always will exist in my opinion.  Even if by some miracle a Utopia did come into being, people would still be people and therefore would still suffer from this internal conflict at the very least, and in all likelihood they would suffer from many conflicts of their own making.  It is human nature after all, emotions control even the coolest and calmest of us at times.

But as I said, conflict is not required for a story.  Take Andy Weir’s “The Egg” for instance.  A brilliant piece of writing, in which a man who has just died talks to God, who just happens to be you, the reader and narrator.  A strange but clever story I thought, and the entire short story is without any conflict of any kind.  There is a brief mention of conflicts in history, but they are not substantially relevant to the narrative of the story.  This single story, containing no conflict, has been translated into over 30 languages, so clearly it is a story worth telling, despite the lack of conflict.  This is of course just one example, but one example is more than enough to refute such an encompassing claim about the necessity of conflict.  Wouldn’t you agree?

In truth, a story is only limited by the imagination of the writer, utopian fantasy or not.  If someone really wants to write a story without any conflict, they can succeed.  If a story has good characters, engaging plot lines, interesting perspectives, entertaining moments, and overall will stimulate the imagination; then it is a story worth writing, worth reading, and worth telling to others.  Even more important perhaps, especially with younger audiences, are stories that teach wisdom, respect, kindness, morality, or some combination of these vital lessons.  There is no doubt in my mind that a story such as this would be worth telling, and telling more than once.

So please remember, that with the infinite possibilities that stories can contain, there are never any restrictions at all.  Conflict isn’t necessary for a story, nor does it validate a story.  In fact, there is no such thing as a vital element to a story.  Throughout history the art of story telling has evolved from word of mouth, to the written word, to acting and dancing and now we have movies and podcasts, and more!  Throughout all the existence of mankind, the rules of telling a story are always changing, becoming something new with each story-teller that challenges the established structure.  For story-telling is in fact an art, and art knows no bounds.

8 comments on “Conflict or No Conflict? That is the Question!

  1. Ida on

    I’d like to refer you to a TV series: The Orville. they have visualised a world where everything is paid for, there’s no monetary system at place and the only thing human kind is focused on is self-accompolishment. I think it answers most of the questions asked here as it is a visualisation of how life could have been without a challenge, if it is conflict you’re looking for, there will be a lot of other challenges, such as self dignity.

    • James on

      I’ve seen the Orville actually, it’s a good show. A parody of star trek with a more accurate portrayal of humanity and it’s flaws. There is a lot of conflict in the show however between races and individuals, despite the society they live in.


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