What Are Conflicts and Stories

By James Lim Zhong Zhi, from Singapore. Please read his article and leave thoughts and comments down below.

The word ‘conflict’ often carries with it a negative connotation. In the modern lexicon, the word ‘conflict’ is synonymous with confrontation and violence, often involving some amounts of physical or vocal altercations between the two parties involved. I would argue, however, that conflict carries a second, more nuanced, meaning. The Latin word conflictus, meaning ‘contest’, is the root word for ‘conflict’. The more linguistically accurate interpretation of ‘conflict’ should be that of a challenge, or the act of overcoming an obstacle that lies in the way of achieving a goal.

A story is an account of a fictional or historical event, presented in a variety of mediums, from prose to oratory. Stories can also be presented as a screenplay for movies and television series, with the advent of the television and the internet. For such an account to be deemed to be ‘worth reading, or telling’, it has to offer something for the audiences of the medium that is either equivalent or in excess of the time spent in consuming the medium. Such an exchange can be quantified in terms of experience and information that the audience gains.

A story must also be distinguished from other accounts of knowledge, primarily in the way the knowledge is recounted to the audience. A story adopts a style of presentation that focuses on experience as the main way of transmitting information. Academic, instructional writing, such as instructional manuals and recipes, tend to present information in straightforward prose, giving the information as it is. Hence, a story is defined by the experience that could be conveyed to the audience.

This distinguishment was only made clear in the modern era, with the separation between literature and the sciences. When perusing through older works of literature, we can often note historical accounts that make use of literary devices to transmit information. The analysis of such a text needs to be differentiated based on the context in which we are understanding such information. They serve dual capacity as both a story and an informative text. When looking at it as a story, we should consider how well it conveys the experience described to us, rather than its informative properties.

This separation is important, as there could exist informative text that has experience but is still of vital importance to us. Reading Grigori Perelman’s proof of the Poincare Conjecture, one of the most significant proofs in mathematics in recent decades, is important to further our understanding of reality, but the proof itself does not contain any particular story or conflict. Veronica Roth’s quote, if we assume informative text to also be a form of a story, seems to be false in this situation. Only by clarifying this distinction can we look at her quote in its proper context, rather than conflating two separate prose structures into a single entity.

Having clarified the key terms involved in her quote, we can then proceed to examine the veracity of the quote in various situations. First and foremost, recognise that every situation in our human experience involves some form of conflict. Conflict, adopting the second, more nuanced definition of conflict, can refer to conflicts with nature, or conflicts with ideas, where the obstacle or challenge posed does not come from another human being, but whatever that is preventing a human being from achieving his goal. What defines a conflict, therefore, are the individuals engaged in the conflict, hence wholly dependant on the viewpoint of individuals in the conflict. Given that humans are the only conscious beings, without the existence of humans, there is nothing inherent in a natural disaster that would mark it as a conflict. A hurricane would just be a hurricane, an earthquake just an earthquake. The human experience is the de-facto criteria for defining conflicts, hence linking conflicts inextricably to the human experience.

Second, conflict is universal even within the human experience. Given conflicts exist every time an obstacle is presented before a goal, conflicts occur in almost every area of human existence. To exist without conflict would require omnipotence, thereby guaranteeing no possible obstacle to our existence. Conflicts can even exist non-materially, in the confines of our mind, where self-contradictory components of ourselves can co-exist in tension. The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde explores this conflict in detail, exploring the possibility where one could be both good and shockingly evil. In general, a conflict exists in imperfections, be it imperfections of self, or imperfections in the external realm. Only a being perfect in thought and being can claim to be conflict-free.

A story, consequently, as an account of human experience bearing information, has to contain conflict as an essential ingredient to the story. A hypothetical story without conflict would simply be an informative text, with the experience stripped out by the lack of conflict. For example, George Orwell’s 1984, without the conflict between the actions of Winston Smith and the society that surrounds him, would simply read as an informative account of a dystopian world existing in Orwell’s imagination. We would be missing the essential ingredient of the entire story – the inner struggle of Winston with his society. It would be an interesting setting, the same way a tourist brochure informs us about an interesting tourist destination, but it would not be a story.

Stories serve a primary purpose – transmitting experiences on how to overcome conflicts. Every story, be it a bibliography to a young-adult novel, contains the same elements of conflict-experience. Joseph Campbell, in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, suggests the model of a monomyth, detailing out how similar structures of conflict-experience appear in disparate religious mythologies, from the earliest tale of Enuma Elishto the stories of Gautama Buddha. Stories, during the earliest epochs of human history, played an important role in codifying key lessons for the societies they are in, with their influence still prevalent in our societies even now. The Torah, for example, was the ethical precursor to the Judeo-Christian morality that underpins most of our modern humanitarian law. The story of Moses, where he receives the Ten Commandments, on Mount Sinai, was crucial to guiding the behaviour of humanity for centuries, especially in the way conflict was resolved in societies.

Even seemingly benign fantastical stories, such as the Harry Potterseries by J.K Rowling, contain guidance on how conflicts should be resolved. For children who read and aspire to become characters in these books, the way the characters resolve conflicts become the way they resolve conflicts. The archetypal themes presented in the novels, from the importance of courage in the face of evil to the value of friendship, become ingrained as ways for them to behave in the face of conflict. The stories become role models for behaviour, helping us navigate the conflicts they would eventually face.

Stories serve a role that cannot be replaced by any informative text – the immediacy of the experience. While it could fully be possible to codify a set of laws on how to navigate conflicts in our lives, to set down a set of ethical rules we must obey, without stories such legislation and rules becomes devoid of meaning. The experience of conflicts is just as important as the solution to these conflicts. While we may be told to not commit murder, the story of Raskolnikov as he undergoes a psychological schism after committing murder in Crime and Punishmentbrings us through the experience of murder. Unlike the direct representation of information we find in the informative text, stories attempt to let us live through the information vivaciously, so that we may truly experience the information.

Veronica Roth’s quote, therefore, tells us something important about the purpose of stories. For a story to be worth telling, the story has to offer certain elements of conflict that resonate with the reader. Aristotle’s Poeticshighlights the catharsis that could arise from such a resonance when the audience experiences conflicts within a good story. The reader, having undergone the experience of conflict in the story, has the opportunity to begin a reflection on his own experiences. To Kill a Mockingbirdby Harper Lee, for example, portrays the racial injustices in America in vivid detail, drawing descriptions of racial biases in the judicial system, prompting the reader to reflect on his own experience of such biases that he may hold. The Stranger, by Albert Camus, shows the absurdity of Meursault’s actions, while simultaneously drawing us into the mind of Meursault, allowing us to think, even empathise with a character that may be inconceivable to us in our ordinary lives.

Stories create the bedrock for our society, informing us about the experience of conflict in our lives. They serve as guides on how to behave in the face of conflicts, guiding us on the ways we are to react and overcome them. Let us appreciate each story, to experience the mind of the author, so we could find the worthiness within.

One comment on “What Are Conflicts and Stories

  1. Syamil Faisal on

    Hey James, thank you for sharing this brain beverage.

    Conflict is the backbone of a story, and our minds are operated in a story-structure.

    The take-away?
    If you want to communicate ideas to people effectively, weave in stories with anecdotes.

    If you wanna make to story sticks in people’s brain, sprinkle some conflict magic.


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