What is a story? Some might say a story is an arrangement of plot, setting, character and the main subject of this article, the rise and fall of conflict. Veronica Roth once said, “If there is no conflict, there are no stories worth telling – or reading.” To understand why this is true or to discover why it is false, we must answer the first question. What is a story?
Human beings have been telling stories for as long as they could speak, whether true or false, fact or fiction, our ability to tell the stories of our past have shaped our histories, defined our education, formulated our religions and entertained our lives. But throughout all these stories, Roth and numerous others make the same claim: every story revolves around conflict. Many people will argue further that every story that could be told already has been. The ideas within stories, the tropes, have all been done at one time or another. Nothing that could be said has been left unsaid. The human experience is limited therefore the human story is too. Originality is dead.
Many who adhere to the prior claim also often assert that any and every story can be broken down into its simplest parts, the atoms of plot, which can be written in a simple formula of X verses Y. X is usually a human being or some other anthropomorphic entity that has been interpreted by the human mind and Y can be any number of things separating the entity from the ultimate boon, their goal. From Man verses Man, to Creator verse Creation, from Man verses Nature, to Man verses Self, all stories fall in line with some kind of conflict at its centre, or so it seems. This returns us to the simple question of a story’s definition. If you’ve paid close attention, you’ll notice I’ve already said what it truly is. A story is nothing more than an experience. While I agree conflict creates interest, a story does not need to have a conflict in order to be worthy of being heard. While it may be true that all conflicts are merely a confrontation between an X and a Y, the sum of all experience is not.
The simplest way to explain is by sharing a story that is nothing more than an experience.
One day, many years ago, I was practising my Chinese lesson aloud. I repeated the word “su” over and over again, trying to memorise it alongside its written character. My beautiful cat, a perfect little calico named Sassy, came running down the hall with a skip in her step. Her nickname was Susu. She assumed I was calling her name, asking for her to come to me. It was the most precious thing in the world to have her stop everything she was doing to run from the other end of the house just to see me. I nearly cried at how sweet she was to me. She meowed with her high pitched little voice and I cuddled her on my chest as she rubbed her cheeks on my chin. It was a moment I’ll never forget.
What is the conflict within this story? If you can’t guess, that’s because there isn’t one. It’s merely a retelling of an experience that is important to me. The story is short and simple, yet heartwarming. It holds depth and value to me. It is a depiction of the love and humanity that animals can share with us. That’s what makes it a story that is both sweet and interesting to me and others. It’s the connection I create with others when I tell them this simple yet meaningful story that makes it intriguing to those who hear it. Stories are merely experiences, be them fictional experiences created in the mind, or non-fictional experiences had by the body, they contain the heart and soul of the people who share them. When these experiences ring true and demonstrate a unity between the reader’s knowledge of the world and the author’s interpretation of it, any experience can be made into an interesting story worthy of being shared.
I dare you to venture back into to the early years of your life and recall the stories you were told. Which memory is stronger, the memory of the story, or the very fact that someone dear to you shared it with you. Stories create connections between those who hear them, a connection between author and audience, and a connection among the audience itself. A story with a meaningful conflict will surely sell well and would surely be successful, but that does not mean a story without conflict won’t be worthy enough to be told, especially those stories that contain a message that is meaningful to the author and helpful to the reader.
As for originality, I say each experience, be it fictional or true, is uniquely perceived and uniquely retold. Yes, you can boil down stories into X’s and Y’s, but if you boil them down, what you are left with is not the story that was told, but a mere shadow of the experience itself. Furthermore, it is my belief that human experiences adapt and change with time. Though the bare-bones of the human experience have been heavily similar throughout human history, it’s not impossible for new experiences to emerge. Our oldest ancestors, single celled organisms, could never have experienced consciousness or colour, laughter or joy, fear or hatred, but we do. What lies at the edge of human experience? Something more, something glorious, something worth writing about, and while we won’t be the ones to feel it, maybe our descendants will.
In the end, it is the expression of experience that creates a story and luckily for us, experience is not limited to conflict alone.