The Boulder is Over His Conflicted Feelings
And will proceed to bury you in a wordalanche!
A few weeks ago, there was a big mess on Twitter, the Big Mess Place, about whether stories needed ‘conflict.’ A few general camps emerged, among them “no, lol” and “how dare you talk that way about my sainted high school English teacher.” I don’t often wade into this sort of thing, because I don’t have time, and because the Big Mess Place shapes the conversations it hosts in much the way a station wagon tire shapes a beloved toy left, by accident, in the driveway. But it got me thinking.
Many of you have encountered, at some point—perhaps from your sainted high school English teacher—a sort of skeletal description of a story, that hinges around ‘conflict.’ You may even have been encouraged to memorize a particular taxonomy of all possible conflicts, say, ‘man vs nature,’ ‘man vs. man,’ ‘man vs. technology,’ ‘man vs. society,’ and so forth, with a caution that while every story contains one of these conflicts, most contain more than one. Very much (sic), on all of the preceding gender tags. Perhaps a triangle was drawn on a chalkboard. Three act structure may have been discussed, or five act, or Aristotle. There’s a relevant xkcd (or perhaps dresden codak? or Tom Gauld?), but in my sleep deprivation-addled state I’ve been unable to find it.
I don’t think this language or angle of attack on the huge, sprawling question of “how story anyway” is a dead end. I’ve mined a lot of value from resources and writing on narrative structure. (I particularly like McKee’s STORY—I’ve heard people accuse it of being formulaic, but I don’t think that tracks, at least compared to our post-SAVE THE CAT world. McKee movies have an 80s music feel to them—formulaic, maybe, at times, but not yet full-on algo-pop.) Also, if you work, or want to work, in an industry where the producers have to convince cocaine oligarchs with nicknames like “the Butcher of PLACE_NAME_HERE” to put up a hundred million dollars of their own money for financing, it helps if you can talk about your work using the established professional cant.
But the formal statement ‘all stories need conflict,’ has always left me feeling… cold. Most of the time when I see writers represent for ‘stories don’t need conflict,’ though, I see them talking about work like Invisible Cities, or defending this beautiful poetic space full of stories in which nothing happens, not even weather—and look, Invisible Cities moved me in a way few books have, but that’s not the heart of my problem. Claiming that all stories need conflict, to me, feels like telling someone to punch the target, rather than to punch through.
I suppose part of the issue lies in the definition of conflict, which gets awfully flexible in this sort of conversation, as any property purported to be universal tends to, given how many different and wonderful things there are in the world. The working definition of conflict that tends to be employed in discussions of story theme, is an opposition of paired elemental forces, thesis and antithesis, sharply delineated, each premised on the negation of the other. Good and Evil, say, or Love and Hate, or Life and Death. Neither force makes up any part of the other’s nature. Through the story, they bash at one another until one triumphs. It’s Hegel with action figures.
Even if you don’t agree with this definition altogether, when you use a term like conflict it’s hard to avoid its unhelpful conceptual baggage—winners and losers, theaters of war, casualties and resolutions, etc. When you think of stories this way there’s a natural tendency to fill your work with exemplars of anchor themes, with eidolons rather than characters or people. Taxonomies that categorize stories by their conflicts tend to sand away specificities of character and circumstance, until the tale decays into bloodless moralism. Self good! Society bad!
As the years pass I find myself thinking more in terms of dynamic tensions, as I’ve mentioned previously. (This particular language owes a lot to the writing of online philosopher FT, which you can find on Patreon.) A given character tends to operate in tension between, say, individual and society, much more often than they operate as party to one side or another of a conflict between them. A person may feel bound by society—a society of which they, themselves, are a part, and which is a part of them. The circumstances of the story provide pressure, and the choices a character makes under pressure, disclose their nature, and the nature of the tension they experience, and how they, personally, resolve it, under a particular set of circumstances. It’s a subtle distinction, I’ll grant, but it makes all the difference. I don’t mean this in a highfalutin’ literary way, either, all shades of gray and emotionally unavailable characters with substance abuse problems. For example: let’s talk about Star Wars.
One reason Luke Skywalker is interesting, to my mind—and he really is interesting—is that, as of reel one in A New Hope, he’s wheedling Uncle Owen about when he can apply to the Imperial Naval Academy. He sympathizes with the Rebellion, or at least he’s excited by the idea of a Rebellion going on somewhere a long way off, but he’s a young man whose dreams have been shaped by the world in which he finds himself, and joining the Imperial military, like his buddy Biggs, is the way he sees to “teleport me off this rock.” But the narrow compass of his understanding doesn’t satisfy—think about that beautiful shot of the twin sunset, or the moment, not so long after, when he says, in sorrow and almost in disbelief: “I want to come with you to Alderaan. There’s nothing here for me now.” This same engine drives Luke throughout the Saga. From A New Hope to The Last Jedi, he keeps trying to figure out who he is, seeking to flourish in the social roles that present themselves to him as he moves through the world (plucky protagonist, Rebellion pilot, hero, Jedi Master), while at every step the universe calls on him—forces him, or requires him—to grow beyond. This isn’t an encounter of thesis and antithesis that leads to a clear answer, as we can see by the fact that Luke keeps finding himself in the same spot, film after film, to the very end. (“Let go, Luke!”) It’s an ongoing tension in his character, one that drives his story and endears us to him. We care about what’s going to happen because we don’t know—because we walk the same tightrope in our lives, finding out who we are just as we need to become something new. Seen from this point of view, what many would call the central ‘conflicts’ of Star Wars—Rebellion vs. Empire, Light Side vs Dark Side, and so on—function less as drivers of the story, than as convenient excuses to have someone walk into frame with a gun whenever our heroes slow down.
Another reason I find it more useful to think about tensions than about conflicts, is that I find tension in a broader sense to be the core feature of prose storytelling. In drama (the source of a lot of this story/conflict structural and thematic language), a human person stands on a stage and speaks a line, and we engage, at once, with the sheer fact of their presence, as a body, bones and meat and skin. How do we feel about them? Are they telling the truth? Do we respect them? Do we like them? Do they arouse us? When another human person enters the stage, we wonder: how does this person contrast with that person? Is one of them in charge? How does she feel about her? Do we agree? The language of hierarchy and conflict and social order occurs naturally. Teachers of beginning improv students often talk about the importance of convincing a novice player to enter a scene in a way that’s not just shutting down the first player. That’s how deep the instinct runs. The different ways characters respond to dramatic tension creates visible conflict, like the bit of the iceberg that sticks above the water, and we read the underlying tensions off the actors’ bodies thanks to millions of years of primate evolution.
But in prose, we’re left with words. The words evoke pictures and scenes, but we have to read them first and interpret them, or listen with an attention that cannot be taken for granted. Each word in a sentence, or each phrase, drives us to the end. Every new element of the text holds the door open for what comes after. What’s going on here—in this sentence, this paragraph, this scene? What’s new, and what’s new after that? How does any of this fit with what I know already? Why did she write that sentence instead of any other? How does this scene compare to that one? I just grabbed a nearby book—Delilah Dawson’s The Violence—and opened to the first page. “The first recorded incident of the Violence occurred as Ruth Belmont of Land O’Lakes, Florida, was putting a tub of mayonnaise in her cart at a warehouse store on Tuesday, April 15, 2025.” Without diagramming the whole thing out: just consider how many questions you’re asking right now. “First recorded incident.” Which suggests a wave, of enough significance that it’s worth recording the First. The capital V. Is there really a Land O’Lakes, FL? What’s Ruth about to perpetrate with that tub of mayonnaise?
We have our lives to get back to, our children to raise, our plants to water, our bills to pay. The writer has their voice, their ability to generate, not just conflict in the world of the fiction, but a need in us as readers, to know the answers to questions that did not exist in our world mere minutes ago. What’s going on here? What happens next?
I’ve leaned heavily on the concept of tension here, and I think it is helpful to ponder—but at the end of the day, I think there’s so much more to discuss, and more specific language with which to discuss it. Stories need interest—they need language, they need character and symbol and tone, they need consequence, they need tension and suspense and stress and relaxation, pace and color. Structural analysis helps you diagnose a particular subset of story problem, but I think it’s a mistake to let any one toolset, however useful, be the only way we consider the range of techniques and powers a good storyteller employs to bring the reader through to the end.