It is a truth universally acknowledged that you can’t take two steps through the mean streets of writing advice without running into someone hawking a shiny new concept to solve all sorts of authorial ills. Of these outlandish claims, perhaps the most common is that if you use some nontraditional story structure, your story doesn’t need to have conflict in it anymore. Amazing, just one weird trick!*
The only problem is that these vaunted structures never actually perform as advertised. Usually, this isn’t malicious. Most people sharing them are just misinformed as to how stories work, rather than intentionally selling snake oil. But the result is the same either way: writers wasting their time on placebos rather than improving their craft.
What Is Conflict, Anyway?
As with most storytelling debates, we must first tackle differences in terminology. When some people say they want a story without conflict, they’re specifically referring to physical violence. They would like to avoid sword fights, gun battles, punch-ups, and probably chase sequences as well. Others have a wider definition that includes social and emotional conflicts. They don’t want characters to argue or to try to support a friend despite their own severe depression. The debate gets even messier if you consider whether conflict requires more than one person or not.
At Mythcreants, we use “conflict” to mean at least one character struggling to accomplish something. Violence isn’t required, nor is another person. The character might be trying to win a sword fight against an enemy or trying to access tech support through an uncaring phone tree. There’s a bit of fuzziness around the edges. Is it a conflict if your hero needs to get out of bed, but they don’t want to because the blankets are warm and toasty? That’s largely up to how the author portrays it.
Something only qualifies as a character if it is capable of intent. A dog isn’t sapient, but it’s intelligent enough to demonstrate intent, at least if the story properly communicates its point of view and how it’s a good dog. Inanimate objects definitely don’t count. That means two asteroids smashing into each other is not a conflict. On the other hand, if one of those asteroids were actually a silicon-based life-form trying not to be crushed, then it would definitely be a conflict.
To make matters more confusing, when people talk about stories with low or no conflict, they’re often referring to tension instead. Tension is the worry that something will go wrong. It’s often related to conflict, but the two are not synonyms, and one can exist without the other. For example: if the story starts by showing a tsunami warning for a coastal community, that creates tension, but there’s not yet any conflict because no one is doing anything about it.
Since it’s often unclear what people mean when they extol the virtues of conflict-free structures, I’m going to paint with a broad brush and assume that they don’t want conflict or tension. That’s how the discussion inevitably takes shape, whatever the intent of specific arguments or think pieces.
Why These Structures Don’t Do What People Claim
The sheer number of things that get listed under the banner of “conflict-free story structure” is staggering, as are the generalizations made to support such claims. Often, the claims aren’t related to structures at all. I have encountered articles stamping entire genres of Chinese and Japanese literature with the no-conflict label, a tactic that can generously be described as overly broad. Less generously, I’d describe it as blatant exoticism, trying to sell largely white authors on something by implying that it hails from the strange and mysterious East. Plus, it’s easier to make wild storytelling claims if it’s about something your detractors can’t easily google.
Even more ridiculous, sometimes whole mediums get roped into the action. “Oral storytelling” is sometimes included in a list of conflict-free story structures, even though it’s not a structure at all. It’s also just an absurd claim to make, because whether a story is spoken or typed has nothing to do with how much conflict it has. This also strikes me as exoticism, because even though Western culture has plenty of oral storytelling traditions, the practice is often associated with Indigenous peoples. That could just be coincidence, though, as there appears to be little rhyme or reason to what constitutes a conflict-free “structure.”
There are so many of these structures that in the time between conception and publication of this article, I discovered several new ones. If you don’t like the options currently available, just wait a few months and more will appear.* Covering them all would take more time than anyone has, so we’re just looking at two that are particularly popular: kishōtenketsu and daisy chain plotting.
The first thing to know about kishōtenketsu is that we don’t actually know much about kishōtenketsu, even though it’s on just about every list of conflict-free story structures out there. It’s supposedly a four-act structure that originated in Chinese poetry and is now also popular in Japan and Korea, across many different mediums.* I say “supposedly” because most of the discussion about it comes from poorly sourced* blog posts. More authoritative sources are always behind paywalls or buried in expensive books. Even then, there’s not much in English, probably because scholars from China, Korea, and Japan have better things to do than worry about debates among English-speaking storytellers.
The best source I could find is a cool series of YouTube videos by employees of a Japanese manga company.* They don’t outright state whether kishōtenketsu has conflict or tension, though a lot of what they talk about certainly makes it sound like there’s both. To these guys, kishōtenketsu is primarily a method of pacing a story. In fact, the pacing graph they use looks a lot like ours, except a bit curvier, and they use “audience engagement” the way we use “tension.”
This one source is not enough for me to understand how kishōtenketsu is used in Japan. It would be like reading our article on Joseph Campbell and assuming all Americans feel the same way. Fortunately, I don’t need to know how kishōtenketsu is used in its countries of origin; only the way it’s marketed to English-speaking writers, which is remarkably consistent. Using this structure, stories are divided into four sections, or acts: introduction, development, twist, and conclusion. According to the hype train, this means kishōtenketsu stories don’t need conflict, which is quite the claim.
The definitions of those sections vary a little by blog post, but here’s the gist: “introduction” is where we learn what’s happening in the story, “development” is story events taking place, “twist” is when something changes, and “conclusion” is the end. How does any of that replace conflict and tension? It doesn’t. In fact, kishōtenketsu has nothing to do with either of those. A story using this structure might have them, or it might not.
Kishōtenketsu without conflict or tension:
- Introduction: We meet Anne and Nikki, who are engaged and have a seashell business that is doing well for itself. This gives us the protagonists’ status, but there’s no problem to concern us.
- Development: They collect seashells and find many different kinds while they make elaborate wedding plans. Since they have nothing at stake, there’s nothing to keep us interested.
- Twist: They discover the seashells are actually ancient fossils, which means the shop is about to get more popular. This discovery is a change only in the technical sense. It doesn’t change the situation in any way that matters.
- Conclusion: They get married, and their shop is much busier now because people come to see the fossils. This sequence might be cute, but since there was nothing to keep them from getting married, it doesn’t mean much.
Kishōtenketsu with conflict and tension:
- Introduction: We meet Anne and Nikki, who can’t afford to get married because their seashell business is barely breaking even. This has a problem that creates tension: will Anne and Nikki be able to get married?
- Development: They stay out later and later to collect more shells for sale, putting their relationship under strain. This is a conflict, as the two of them are struggling to make more money. The conflict is also necessary to maintain tension, as tension would fade if no one cared enough to do anything about the problem.
- Twist: They discover the seashells are actually ancient fossils, which they can sell at much higher prices. This is the turning point in their conflict! If it’s successfully executed, we’ll have the satisfaction of a problem skillfully and justly resolved.
- Conclusion: They take some time off to de-stress, then have enough money for the wedding they’ve both dreamed of. This gives us a nice little epilogue to show that the problem is resolved and our characters are happy.
Both of those follow the same structure, but the first one is much more likely to bore readers because there’s no worry that something might go wrong. You could arrange these events to be in three or five acts and it wouldn’t change anything. Such a story could always succeed on other merits,* but it will be at a serious disadvantage.
Daisy Chain Plotting
While kishōtenketsu is explained by dozens if not hundreds of questionable articles, it’s much harder to find information on daisy chain plotting, even though it’s on almost as many lists. The oldest mention of it that I can find is a 2013 blog post from author Ingrid Sundberg. For all I know, Sundberg invented it, though she doesn’t claim to have. If she did, then congratulations to her, as this structure has certainly made the rounds. Let’s see what she says about it.
In the daisy chain plot there is no central protagonist with a goal. Instead multiple characters or situations are introduced through the cause-and-effect connective tissue of a physical object that is passed from one character to the next.
- Film Examples: The Red Violin, Twenty Bucks.
- Book Examples: Lethal Passage (Larson).
- Modified Daisy Chain Plots with a Protagonist: The Strange Case of Origami Yoda (Angleberger), Thirteen Reasons Why (Asher).
You may have noticed that this isn’t a plot structure, despite appearing under that label many times. At best, it’s a plot idea, and just like kishōtenketsu, it has nothing to do with conflict or tension.
In some more recent iterations of the daisy chain plot, the definition has expanded to include multiple narratives linked by an idea rather than a physical object, which is hilarious because the novel World War Z is one such story. Hmm, I wonder if there’s any conflict in a collection of vignettes about the zombie apocalypse?
More seriously, even if we limit it to Sundberg’s 2013 object-based definition, it’s clear that this concept could have conflict and tension just as easily as it could leave them out.
Behold, a daisy chain plot without conflict or tension:
- A blacksmith works hard making a sword, then sells it to a local aristocrat for a decent profit.
- The aristocrat displays the sword in her parlor, where she entertains many guests, including her future husband.
- The aristocrat’s son inherits the sword, but he sells it to buy a new house in the city.
- A merchant from the city buys the sword for one of her guards, who never needs to draw it in anger.
- When the guard retires, she gifts the sword to an apprentice blacksmith who needs an example to work from.
- The apprentice recognizes the maker’s mark as being his grandmother’s, so when he starts his own smithy, he makes the sword a permanent display piece.
A daisy chain plot with conflict and tension:
- A blacksmith works through the night to finish a sword for a local aristocrat. She needs the money to buy medicine for her sick husband.
- The aristocrat takes the sword off to war, where she wins numerous duels against enemy officers.
- After the war, the aristocrat is haunted by memories of those she killed. She sells the sword so it won’t be a constant reminder.
- A merchant buys the sword to arm one of her guards, who joins her in a coup attempt against the king.
- The guard is killed. Her sword, dented and bent from desperate use, is tossed into a scrap metal pile.
- An apprentice smith finds the discarded sword and recognizes his grandmother’s mark on it. He restores the blade and keeps it as a display piece.
Once again, the structure has nothing to do with it. A daisy chain plot without conflict and tension will suffer the same problem as any other type of story: being boring. Which actually makes sense because Sundberg’s blog post doesn’t mention conflict or tension at all. Instead, her stated goal is to explore stories that don’t have a central protagonist whose goals drive the plot. And she absolutely succeeds at that! Of course, ditching the protagonist has its own risks, but that’s another article entirely.
You can take a similar approach with the many, many other options that are held up as conflict-free structures. In most cases, you will find that like any story structure, they can be written with or without conflict. At best, these structures are competitors to the Hero’s Journey and the three-act structure. For some advice articles, that’s enough because they see the conventional Western structures as the source of conflict requirements, but that’s not actually the case. Other than some versions of the three-act structure specifying that stories should have a climax,* the need for conflict is independent of any structure.
Why Stories Need Conflict and Tension
Tension is one of our four critical elements that make stories popular. It’s a big factor in a story’s entertainment value, as it keeps audiences on the hook to see if the bad thing happens or not. Tension is what brings readers back for the next chapter, and it’s what keeps movie viewers from getting up to make popcorn. Tension is also what gives the stories their actual feeling of structure, as tension is vital for pacing and movement. As tension rises, it feels like the story is moving toward a conclusion. Without tension, stories feel like they’re just meandering around.
Meanwhile, conflict is a very useful tool for generating tension. The conflict has to be constructed properly, but that’s another article. Earlier, I explained that a tsunami warning creates tension even though there’s no conflict, but it is very difficult to maintain that tension if no conflict arises from it. If no one does anything in response to the tsunami warning, tension will fade. The resulting conflict might be trying to evacuate, stop the tsunami, or even make peace with loved ones before it hits. You might be able to create an edge case, like having the audience know about the tsunami while the characters don’t, but conflict-free niches like that are extremely limited.
Sometimes conflicts are epic in scale, and sometimes they’re more personal. The movie Space Sweepers begins with a conflict over the characters’ lives. If Elon Bezos catches them, he’ll kill them all. Later, the stakes are raised to all human life on Earth. If Elon Bezos isn’t stopped, he’ll make the Earth unlivable in service of his space utopia. Those are some high stakes indeed, and they make the movie a tense, edge-of-your-seat ride.
In contrast, the main conflict in Our Flag Means Death is the personality clash between Stede and Blackbeard. Usually, they aren’t directly opposing each other, but their different approaches to pirating often lead to friction between them. The stakes here are whether Stede and Blackbeard will fall in love and kiss, something we desperately want to happen.* This is more relaxed than a life-and-death adventure, but both conflict and tension are still present.
Conflicts are also really important for generating satisfaction, another of our critical story elements. Satisfaction is the conclusion of all that tension. In Space Sweepers, it’s satisfying when the motley crew of heroes takes Elon Bezos down and saves the Earth. It’s equally satisfying, if not more so, when Stede and Blackbeard kiss for the first time. Technically, Space Sweepers’ Earth could also be saved by Elon Bezos getting killed in a random shuttle accident, but that wouldn’t feel right. It would still be cute if Stede and Blackbeard got together right away, but it wouldn’t be satisfying if there was nothing keeping them apart.
These are the main benefits that conflict provides, and it’s the same no matter what structure, genre, or medium you’re working with. There is no shortcut or cheat code to get around it.
The Closest Stories Get to No Conflict
We’ve covered how you can create tension without conflict, even if it’s niche. Likewise, you can do the same thing with satisfaction, as demonstrated in the witch’s hat comic of Tumblr fame. In this comic, we see an elderly witch staring at a fancy hat with intense longing, and we can tell she really wants that hat. This creates sympathy for the witch and tension over whether she’ll get the hat. In the original image, that’s the end of it. Fortunately, another artist added some additional panels where a nice girl comes by and buys the fancy hat for the witch. There’s no overt conflict here, as the witch never tries to get the hat. But we want her to get it so badly that it feels like justice has been done when she does.
The problem with this method is that it’s extremely fleeting. It may work for a single scene or short comic, but not for anything more substantial. In longer stories, audiences need to see a bigger problem skillfully resolved, or it feels like the story was pointless.
When successful stories are low on or completely lacking conflict, they usually make up for it by focusing on high novelty and attachment. That’s certainly the method of movies like My Neighbor Totoro, with its extremely likable characters* and mysterious magical creatures. Although at the same time, Totoro isn’t as free of conflict as you may have heard. It has a few minor ones early, like looking for soot sprites and trying to keep Mei from getting sad, and then the ending turns conflict and tension up to eleven when Mei goes missing and Satsuki has to find her. The movie even raises the possibility that Mei might have drowned! Fortunately, Satsuki eventually finds Mei by getting help from Totoro and the Catbus, resolving the tension into satisfaction.
Can you replicate Totoro’s success to create a beloved story with very little conflict? Maybe, but to do so, you need to understand how such stories actually work, why conflict is so heavily recommended, and what you’re giving up by dropping it. Doing so isn’t rebelling against our three-act overlord, and adding a new plot structure won’t offer any solutions. The sooner we understand that, the better our storytelling will be.
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