Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Story is Conflict

Writing Wednesday

Have you ever watched an ant hill? It's hard not to marvel at how all the individual ants work together. The magic, according to entomologists is in the signal chemicals that the ants exchange when they meet. Those chemicals allow them to recognize each other and coordinate their activities.

There's a good case to be made that for us story-telling is like the ant's signal chemicals. Long before we worked out conventions for courses, text books, encyclopedias, etc., we told stories. Story-telling has been a part of human culture for ages because beyond entertainment it serves the fundamental purpose of conveying information. Think of stories as a primitive "how-to." Stories essentially say, "if you find yourself in a situation like this, here's how to deal with it."

This is the reason why conflict is essential to stories.

A story must have an unmet need, an impediment, more than one possible action, and a resolution. Without all four elements, you're doing something other than telling a story.


If you're perfectly content, there's no story because there's no need to make any changes. If you want nothing, then you can do nothing but live happily ever after.


So now you want something. If you can satisfy your want with simple and/or well-understood actions, then again you have no story. "Fred was hungry, so he made a peanut butter sandwich." Well, good for Fred.

The impediment is usually what we focus on when we talk about conflict. The antagonist is almost always the impediment, but it could also be something external like a force of nature.


"I have an antagonist, so I have conflict, so I have a story, right?"

It's not that simple. If your protagonist has one or no options, then you still don't have a story. Remember, as a primitive how-to, a story tells us what to do in a similar situation. If there's noting you can choose to do, then you don't have a story you have fact (i.e., "If you step off the cliff, you will fall").

It's also not a story if the situation is resolved by events beyond your control. "I was poor, then I won the lottery," doesn't tell me how to change my state from poor to rich.


A story isn't just a relation of cause and effect, but if the narrative doesn't show how some action removed the impediment and satisfied the need then it's still not a story. There is a special case, the cautionary tale, in which you want to show why nothing works and admonish your listeners to avoid the situation entirely. But in general, only stories with solutions have value for their listeners.

Image: Simon Howden /

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