I. Asking a question
“What is conflict within a story?”
Conflict calls for a resolution, it asks a question. Whether the answer to the question is satisfying enough in the end, is up to the reader. Apart from a strong theme or inspiring characters, a compelling story is often considered as one that manages to tie everything together. One which untangles pages and pages of a narrative Gordian Knot. The messier the better, as long as the author carves order out of chaos.
Conflict creates tension. Tension can be a lifeline that propels and pulls the reader through a story. It goes hand in hand with the plot and gives purpose and trajectory. Conflict raises stakes, engages and makes the reader care a bit more. The uncertainty of an unanswered question and the inability to grasp the whole picture keep us alert. It’s the primal instinct surging through our veins as we’re crossing over a dark forest. It holds a promise too: we’ll make it safely to the other side, if only we keep reading.
Tension goes both ways. The highs that come with hearing a cracking sound we don’t know the origin of. The lows which soothe the mind with the glimmer of a river. Stories are a lot about reconciling moments of urgency and respite, framing one’s deepest fears and highest hopes in striking scenes.
We fear the battle, the dispute, the point of no return, still, we can’t endlessly fight the hydra. We find peace in the aftermath and quieter scenes, as they bring meaning and closure. These discrepancies are the beats of the story, what makes it life-like, vivid.
Conflict is a driving force. Conflict feeds the thrill, it carries us in the chase towards the truth. Conflict makes for an irresistible page-turner. Even when the writing is lacking, and it has cookie-cutter characters or the blandest setting, conflict teases you with a greater outcome. Conflict is powerful, conflict is effective. It makes for a key element in countless narratives. Does it mean conflict is inescapable?
Variety in storytelling is what makes the loud ones stand out even more.
At first sight, “quiet stories” or contemplative ones can be few and far in between. When we come across one, they’re hardly imposing, less likely to retain the fleeting attention of the mass. Are they less worth telling?
II. Seeking new horizons
In Western literary analysis, the “dramatic structure” or “3-acts-structure”, are predominant. It is also well taught and well-liked by both the writers and the audience. Well executed, this proven formula offers enticing narrative and fulfilling stories.
When we diverge from the Western world, we start to notice other sensibilities, other narratives. It doesn’t mean they don’t exist all around the globe, but they might not be as muted, even celebrated and sought after instead of being left on the sidelines.
In Japan, slices-of-life stories with low to no stakes where the viewer/reader follows the protagonists’ peaceful lives are numerous and popular. The episodic nature and lack of conflict are designed to have a “soothing” effect on the audience. The whole sub-genre of “iyashikei” [癒し系, “healing”] makes for a substantial part of the literature/manga/animation landscape.
“Yonkoma manga” (4コマ漫画, “4-cells manga”) or “yonkoma” for short, are comic strips focusing on humor, satire or social and philosophical comment. “Yonkoma” features kishôtenketsu (起承転結) which refers to the classic development and structure in Chinese, Japanese and Korean narratives used in poetry, fairytales and dissertation. Unlike with the 3-acts-structure, the notion of conflict is here far from necessary or not at the center.
“Yonkoma” and “kishôtenketsu” are not exclusive to Japanese culture. American comic strip Calvin&Hobbes (Bill Watterson) or French bande-dessinée (BD) Rubrique-à-Brac (Gotlib) are both beloved works sharing more similarities with “yonkoma” than Veronica Roth’s Divergent series.
Can we deem with certainty Frederick Burr Opper’s Happy Hooligan political cartoons are less significant than Leon Tolstoi’s colossal novel, War and Peace?
Last but not least, “haiku” is another telling example of a narrative emancipated from conflict. This very short form of Japanese poetry focuses on nature and the passing of seasons. More often than not, they are devoid of conflict and aim to capture the ephemeral.
Poetry, in general, doesn’t have to hold conflict at its core to summon strong images and convey deep messages.
All stories don’t have to be a struggle. Some can be short-lived and as intense, others a slow-burn going on and on, in excruciating ways. The audience seeks an experience first and foremost. All experiences don’t have to be life-changing. They can be life-altering in the smallest ways and are often the ones that will have a lasting impact.
III. Discussing “worth”
Within a few lines, Arthur Rimbaud’s Ma Bohème gives us a glimpse into the life – and psyche – of a young wanderer. Seeing through the character’s eyes and Rimbaud’s rhymes, misery is nothing but sheer wonder and fields of stars. It speaks of freedom and adventure.
More than conflict, what leaves scars and mend wounds, is emotion.
The author has narrative tools and levers to maximize his impression and bring out such emotions. Stories trigger catharsis; some are better at the task than others. Some will need to meet the right reader at the right moment to unfold in full force. The dissonance, the ripples, the ups-and-downs contribute to influencing the readers. Yet, in the end, readers are the ones holding the cards, the commitment to see a story through its end.
Readers and viewers alike look to add value into their lives, let it be entertainment, information, novelty or validation. Initial expectations can be high or nonexistent but the more we dedicate time and effort, the more we – rightly – hope for a good return on investment.
Growth and improvement don’t always take the same form, nor is it linear. From one story to another or even within the same material, we can be impervious, disappointed or reluctant in pursuing.
Regardless of our feelings or the objective worth of a story, it is not about what we gain but what we take from it. Reading, viewing and thinking, should already be rewarding. Doing all of these in a proactive manner is a lifelong process of learning, discovery, and enjoyment.
Maybe a story worth telling is one worth sharing.
There are stories we can quote, stories we theorised hours about, stories we couldn’t bring ourselves to finish. These are the same stories other people hold close to their hearts, despise with all their strength or have been left unread for decades until someone picked them up from a dusty corner.
Maybe a story worth telling is one worth remembering.
Stories regarded as “Classics”, carry a universal inner quality in which they echo humanity and overcome borders. Readers and/or viewers unite to integrate them into a common heritage. These are perennial stories crossing media, borders, boundaries and withstanding the test of time. These Chosen Ones become a legacy for future generations to come.
There are stories within stories and so many it would be preposterous to count them all, and as such, to rank them at all.
Unlike when we trade a coin for a piece of chocolate, where Person A would eat the chocolate and Person B might exchange the acquired coin for another good, stories are here to stay.
Once we read, watch, listen, talk about them, they become part of us. It is an organic process, where things merge and there’s no loss.
In time, it only grows and expands: it’s culture. It’s belongingness.
Stories aren’t equal. Voices aren’t either. It all boils down to what matters to us, as a society, free-willed individuals and agents of change.
Herein, perhaps things we whisper to ourselves in the midst of the night are already worthy of a thought.
 kishôtenketsu (起承転結): 1) “ki” stands for “kiku” [起句, “introduction] in which the scene is set, 2) “shô” refers to shôku [承句, development], where the story develops from the 1st panel, 3) “ten” for “tenku”[転句, twist] where the climax/something unforeseen occurs and 4) “ketsu” or “kekku” [結句, conclusion] in which we witness the effects of the 3rd panel.