Is Conflict Really Necessary for Fiction?

With almost every story, there are a few basic elements. There must be a beginning, a middle, and a end. You must have a setting, and you must have at least one character. You must have a theme, you must have a point-of-view, and you must have conflict.

But what if you take one of those elements away?

Specifically, conflict. Is it possible to write a good story without conflict?

Some story experts say that even if the rest of the story is composed of half-baked elements, great conflict can redeem the story. However, defying one of the most fundamental requirements for fiction is quite the act of rebellion, so let's consider it.

We need to define conflict first.

Let's use Merriam-Webster as a reference. According to them, conflict is the opposition of persons or forces that gives rise to the dramatic action in a drama or fiction.

The keyword here is "opposition". That opposition must lead to something that causes emotions. If there's no opposition, one-way or two-way, it's not conflict. Got it?  (For disclosure, I won't be going with Merriam Webster's definition of "opposition". I'll be going with the basic "two sides are fighting in some sort of way" definition.)

Let's consult the tropers.

I hope you tropers don't mind me mining the very discussion that influenced this article: "Is it possible to have a good story with no conflict?" It's an interesting thread with a premise that begs people to pitch in.

Among the examples given throughout the thread can include:

  • Iyashikei, anime or manga that might have flashes of strife and disagreement, but is focused on a healing effect on the audience. Very happy stuff.
  • Vignettes, which are scenes that are supposed to be only glimpses into a character's life.
  • Porn and erotica, when both parties are willing and the "act" goes smoothly.
  • Surreal fiction.
  • One story in a short story collection called This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen. One story involves a group of prisoners eating a human corpse--with no one putting up a fight or questioning their actions.
  • Kishōtenketsu, another form of Japanese fiction. There is a twist required, but it's immediately resolved.
  • Poems. This wasn't mentioned in the thread, but some poems are happy imagery...but they're not prose. Kishōtenketsu is also a kind of poem.

The degree that these stories can be considered "conflictless" is up in the air though. The problem with discussing conflict is that almost everything that has some negativity can be considered conflict. This is why it's necessary to define what is "conflict" when having a conversation like this.

My own prime candidate.

Interestingly enough, one tale with little or no conflict is one of the most well-known stories in the entire world, if not the most well known. Can you guess what it might be? Let me give you a hint.

"Let there be light."

Yes, that story.  Genesis 1, and the first section of Genesis 2. Christianity's creation myth. There's a beginning, middle and end. There's a setting, and there are characters. There are themes, there's the point-of-view, and finally...

...there's no conflict. There's no oppression, because the only being that can oppress anything during the story is doing the opposite. 

The closest it comes to conflict is the creation of those who create conflict. Despite that though, the first story of Genesis is the most famous creation myth in society, influencing lots of media, and even creating a core part of our lives: Sunday, the day of rest.

Regardless of your opinion, this is a good story in terms of influence.

An observation on the matter. 

The thing is though, the "creation myth story" structure is rarely accepted by our society, at least in new stories. It's basically the story mountain going up and up, and settling at the top, with little dips. Straightforward. Yet, it's awing to some, especially by our ancestors.

Remember, perception of a good story shift all the time! We readers today aren't the readers of the Victorian Era. Those readers loved the omnipotent POV more, and liked long paragraphs of description.

Today, we like our POVs close and our description in moderation. The readers of the future, on the other hand, will even have different standards.

The story is a subjective construct. It might retain the basic elements it had since the invention of communication and art, but to what degree each element usually manifests change based on culture.

So maybe that 400 page novel with no conflict will never sell, but maybe it will find an audience fifty years from now, once humanity is a few billion people more.

Yet again...

When I brought up Genesis 1 over at TV Tropes', a couple of users provided a counter-argument. One of them are:

...[I]t is about The Biggest Cheese so technically there can't be any obstacles because His power is absolute, but that's presumably why the story is presented as though there's some kind of obstacle, as though a series of steps must be overcome. If it just said, 'God thought there should be stuff so all of time and space were created fully formed and populated from nothing', THAT would be a bad story.

I guess the search for good, conflictless fiction continues.

YOUR TURN: Is it possible to have a good story with no conflict? Got any good examples?