Most storytellers will tell you that conflict must drive your story. I disagree. See what I did there? I created conflict in the first two sentences. My disagreement with the underlying notion that conflict must drive story is not what I will write about however. You will see through my writing and storytelling implicitly that conflict is not necessary to engage and hold the interest of an audience.
There is an art to storytelling that gets lost in the mad dash to tell a story and that is the underlying notion that if you just find the conflict you can make it a better story. I’ve always believed that there is something beautiful in the ordinary. We often talk about striving to be better than “ordinary” in our jobs or in our lives. No one wants to be normal anymore. But, what if I told you that there is no such thing as normal? Would that change how you thought about people, places, events, and circumstances? I think so. There’s a great moment in Bret Easton-Ellis’s ‘American Psycho’ where the anti-hero Patrick Bateman declares: “I just want to fit in.” This is, of course, the opposite of what Bateman wants. Bateman wants to lash out and indeed he takes pride in disrupting a society that he loathes deeply.
When I look at a story I don’t look for conflict I look for points of interest. I was driving down the road the other day. In front of me was a Harley-Davidson motorcycle – not at all uncommon in Wisconsin – but there was a couple that was riding on the bike and they appeared to be fighting. The woman was yelling at the man and the man kept reaching his hand back trying to hit her or something like an angry father tries to keep his children from fighting in the back of a minivan. This struck me as remarkably unsafe. Not only was his attention divided between keeping the bike on the road and whatever was happening between he and the woman on the back of the bike, but he only had one hand on the front of the bike. He kept looking back at the woman instead of keeping his eyes on the road. This couldn’t possibly end well, I thought. I have no idea what happened to them. They probably got into an accident or something. Perhaps they got killed. I don’t know as I wasn’t particularly interested in the outcome after a few minutes of watching this. It became normal to me because I had been witnessing it over a period of time that they would be fighting, so the conflict became normal. This is what happens in a story. In order for that story to get better something worse would have to happen. But, does anyone really care if they got into an accident? Probably not because they were behaving foolishly and unless I can insert some sort of out of place moral into that story it’s not really a story worth telling by the guidelines of our storytelling society.
In screenwriting, what we’d do is raise the stakes and this is why so many films often look ridiculous. What are they going to do next? Stand up on the bike? Go on the expressway and zoom past semis? The point of escalation becomes absurd and the story becomes ridiculous if the stakes are raised therefore the story is only interesting for the brief period of time in which it appears to be out of the ordinary. Now, I could construct this event in a different context or with a different character, but I would have to ask myself why that would be necessary. This is simply an incident of foolishness. Does it have conflict? Yes, of course it does. Is it particularly interesting? Yes, as far as the minutiae of our daily lives are concerned. The great dramatists would argue that the bikers story as I told it was not a good story and perhaps is even unworthy of being told. I disagree. This is real life. It opens our imagination. Let me ask you a simple question: do you have a picture in your head of what this scene looked like? Unless you weren’t paying attention you did even if it was merely in passing. Thus, we can tell stories about ordinary life without being ridiculous and without having outrageous conflict. The job of a storyteller is to make their audience think.
I tend to write by tangents. I loathe the idea that there must be an obscene amount of attention paid to story organization at least at the outset. Writing, to me, is more like mental masturbation than some great art to be revered. Sometimes we just need to explode all over the page. Try getting that image out of your head. All you really need to create a story is people who are doing something. The common equation for drama is: these people, in this place, with this problem. Who said there needs to be a problem? No one really knows. Screenwriters trace it back to Syd Field, who wrote the bible on screenwriting. One imagines that at some point in the history of storytelling someone laid down the absurd rule that without conflict there can be no story. It was probably the Greeks come to think of it. Naturally we’d adhere to the same line of thought for thousands of years without challenging it. And because we are – as far as societies go – largely unchanged in terms of how we measure success in terms of art there is perhaps no other rubric that would make sense with which to judge our stories by. But, this does not mean that we shouldn’t challenge it.
The nature of drama – according to the theorists – is that drama = conflict. Must conflict always be present in order for drama to occur though? I think not. I think that because our lives are so complex we can have conflict that we are unaware of and that because we cannot be aware of conflict at all times it is not necessary to always concentrate on it. We should concentrate on the commonalities and point out the differences and let the conflict arise naturally rather than compiling our story around whatever conflict we decide has occurred because that is what we have to do if we want to tell a story with conflict. We must decide where the conflict is in order to tell the story around it. We do not always know where the conflict is in a story or what is the most significant conflict. If we did there would be no surprises and it is surprise that is the real gem in storytelling. We should never give an audience what they expect. Rather we should give an audience what will excite them. Conflict may be exciting, but it is also expected. Storytelling is best when you keep your audience interested without them being aware that they are interested. When you can do this the audience does not need to be told anything because they have surrendered their imagination to you.