What makes a story worth your while? Ask ten different people and you’ll likely get ten different answers, because the criteria itself is so entirely subjective. Everyone has their own likes and dislikes, their own experiences, and their own opinion on everything – including other people’s opinions. Not only will each person have their own opinion on what makes a story worthwhile, but their own opinion on what you meant when you asked them the question. With such a diverse expanse of possibilities, ‘What makes a story worth your while?’ may seem a rather futile question. However, there will always be a single thread that runs through each of their answers, no matter how abstractly conveyed: conflict. To understand why, we not only have to delve into the nature of conflict itself, but to comprehend why people share stories in the first place.
Stories are written, told, read, watched, and listened to, for a variety of reasons, the most common of which are to make points and be taught lessons. Teaching lessons and divulging observations about life and people is, or was, vital to the survival of the human race. It’s why fables, some of the oldest stories we have, exist. They serve to teach a lesson, often moral, so that the people hearing them don’t make the same mistakes, or at least can’t say that they weren’t warned. Though, in the 21st century, we have generally moved on from authoring this succinct genre of fiction, the idea of constructing a story to make a point or expose an observation is rife throughout fiction – even if the point is that there is no point (as is increasingly popular in postmodern literature.) To pick up and read a book that had no point to it whatsoever would feel odd, and you’d most likely feel somewhat cheated on account of the time that has been undeniably stolen from your life. Even if the plot or narrative aren’t forcing any ideas down your throat, you picked up said book for a reason. So, for there to be no point makes no logical sense. After all, it’s when we’re entertained that we are the most susceptible to learning new things. Which brings us onto the second reason: entertainment.
Entertainment can be sought after for a number of reasons; to fill time, to try and improve your mood, to escape – I could go on. But entertainment, while often interpreted as bringing on positive emotions, doesn’t necessarily mean that. People who watch horror movies in order to get scared are just as entertained as those who watch romantic comedies in order to feel all warm and fuzzy inside, or anyone who watches medical dramas for the high stakes and heightened tension. The definition of ‘entertained’ simply depends on the genre of the story. ‘Being entertained’ therefore includes all manner of emotions, ranging from traditionally positive to traditionally negative, and any amount of grey in between. But because of the nature of most stories, people can experience these emotions without any of the conventional consequences, in a safe, fictional environment. They get the thrill of a car chase without the broken bones from the crash, the relief of two lovers being re-united after a quarrel without having to hurt their partner, or the overwhelming sadness of a bittersweet ending to a war story without having to really watch someone sacrifice their life. In short, entertainment is a safe haven for catharsis.
This brings us to the last reason: to be creative. Imagination and creativity are, perhaps, the two most evident characteristics that separate us from any other species on Earth. We create things for a purpose as much as creating them just for the sake of it. It’s because of this creativity that we write fictional stories in the first place. Without it, we wouldn’t be able to write, or we would only be able to write from our own personal experiences, which (for the most part) would be pretty boring. Needless to say, J. K. Rowling never went to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry; J. R. R. Tolkien never traversed Middle Earth to rid the world of an evil necromancer; George R. R. Martin never rode a dragon, or stopped the hordes of White Walkers from decimating the Seven Kingdoms. It’s only because of this creativity that people can write the stories which allow people to experience life as more than it is without any of the actual dangers it entails.
To summarise, meaning, entertainment, and creativity are what drive stories. But what gives a story meaning? I’ll give you a hint: this is where conflict comes in.
Utter the word ‘conflict’ and the first thing that pops into your head is likely a war-torn landscape of some kind, or maybe a heated argument between spouses. Whichever came to you first, the point is that both are intense scenarios, physically and emotionally. It’s not surprising since, in most cases, the word ‘conflict’ isn’t bandied about on a whim. It has serious connotations. But conflict can also be far less extreme. As long as there is a disagreement of interests, emotions, ideas, it really doesn’t matter – conflict is conflict. It can be as devastating as a bloody revolution or as juvenile as two children arguing about toys at school. But conflict doesn’t even have to be between multiple people. Individuals feel conflicted within themselves on a daily basis.
But the best part about conflict is that it’s universal; no one has existed that hasn’t experienced it on some level or another. It’s a daily struggle that resonates with people’s existences – their souls, if you will. And while conflict doesn’t have to bring misery, it often does; and misery loves company. Not in a cynical way – quite the opposite, in fact; because as diverse and alien as other people can sometimes seem, it’s the one thing that ties us all together. We’ve all gone though hardships and struggled. We’ve all occasionally won, but more often, we’ve lost. We’ve all made hard choices, and sometimes lived to regret them. For the most part, these conflicts may never be as dramatic and world-changing as those in sensational books or television, but that doesn’t lessen the impact. It merely makes the fictional conflict more empathetic.
It’s because of its universal nature that conflict is so compelling. It’s something that everyone can relate to, therefore it’s the perfect tool to effectively deliver a point. Take the synopsis of‘Remember the Titans’, for instance. The local school board of a town in Virginia is made to integrate an all-black school with an all-white school during 1971, forcing the football team to work together despite their differences. Given the year and the state that the story takes place in, you know right off the bat that there’s going to be a staggering amount of conflict with heavily racist overtones. Does that stop people from watching the film? Of course not. If anything, it encourages them to, because they know that the conflict has to be overcome. If they do, you’ll feel pride and relief that they were able to move on from their old, racist ways and grow as people. If they don’t, it will be a bitter reminder of how the world used to be and why it can never go back, both stories serving a dignified purpose. And, in this case, the fact that it’s a dramatised true story gives weight to the conflict. But what if there had never been any conflict? Remove the racism from the story and what do you have? A regular high school football team playing football. The conflict gives the story meaning. This is just one example, but the same theory applies to a lot, if not most, stories: remove the conflict and you remove the point of the story.
Through entertainment, we can easily learn lessons and truths, and experience a wide range of emotions without being at any risk ourselves. Conflict is one of the most effective ways of delivering all of these because it is both compelling and universal. Some might be concerned that the inclusion of conflict in entertainment condones and perpetuates it in real life. But simply including something in a story doesn’t mean you condone it. However, if you leave it out conflict (a fact of human nature), it makes for a rather boring and seemingly naive experience. Other than that, ignoring said fact, however unpleasant, doesn’t make it go away. It’s far better to learn from the mistakes by including them and their consequences in stories. Fictional conflicts, or real, dramatised ones, allow people to rationalise and respond to the ones they experience themselves on a day-to-day basis, by allowing them to experience the conflict on a small, personal scale. This includes all of the emotions and decisions that come with it, no matter how big or small, how extraordinary or mundane. To put it simply, what is a story without conflict?