The blog Still Eating Oranges (at http://stilleatingoranges.tumblr.com/) had a post titled "The significance of plot without conflict" which I found via another site (can't remember who linked to it), and I thought the post was worth considering. I'm going to copy and paste a good chunk of it here for review, you can follow the link to find the full post (which is worth reading in its entierty). To start with, the author talks about plot and conflict, from Western and Eastern perspectives:
In the West, plot is commonly thought to revolve around conflict: a confrontation between two or more elements, in which one ultimately dominates the other. The standard three- and five-act plot structures—which permeate Western media—have conflict written into their very foundations. A “problem" appears near the end of the first act; and, in the second act, the conflict generated by this problem takes center stage. Conflict is used to create reader involvement even by many post-modern writers, whose work otherwise defies traditional structure.
The necessity of conflict is preached as a kind of dogma by contemporary writers’ workshops and Internet “guides" to writing. A plot without conflict is considered dull; some even go so far as to call it impossible. This has influenced not only fiction, but writing in general—arguably even philosophy. Yet, is there any truth to this belief? Does plot necessarily hinge on conflict? No. Such claims are a product of the West’s insularity. For countless centuries, Chinese and Japanese writers have used a plot structure that does not have conflict “built in", so to speak. Rather, it relies on exposition and contrast to generate interest. This structure is known as kishōtenketsu.
Kishōtenketsu contains four acts: introduction, development, twist and reconciliation. The basics of the story—characters, setting, etc.—are established in the first act and developed in the second. No major changes occur until the third act, in which a new, often surprising element is introduced. The third act is the core of the plot, and it may be thought of as a kind of structural non sequitur. The fourth act draws a conclusion from the contrast between the first two “straight" acts and the disconnected third, thereby reconciling them into a coherent whole.
From here is a little manga-styled comic with four parts, each roughly one 'act' of a story:
1) we see a girl at a vending machine
2) the girl gets a soda
3) we see a boy sitting at a park bench
4) the girl gives the soda to the boy
Then the author continues:
Each panel represents one of the four acts. The resulting plot—and it is a plot—contains no conflict. No problem impedes the protagonist; nothing is pitted against anything else. Despite this, the twist in panel three imparts a dynamism—a chaos, perhaps—that keeps the comic from depicting merely a series of events. Panel four reinstates order by showing us how the first two panels connect to the third, which allows for a satisfactory ending without the need for a quasi-gladiatorial victory. It could be said that the last panel unifies the first three. The Western structure, on the other hand, is a face-off—involving character, theme, setting—in which one element must prevail over another.
We have another comic here:
1) we see a girl at a vending machine push a button
2) nothing happens
3) the girl pushes the button again, and a soda drops out (though, for purposes of his narration, it would have been better if the girl had hit or kicked the soda machine and then the soda dropped out)
4) the girl gets the soda
The first panel gives the reader a “default position" with which to compare later events; and the second panel depicts a conflict-generating problem with the vending machine. The third panel represents the climax of the story: the dramatic high point in which the heroine’s second attempt "defeats" the machine and allows the can to drop. The story concludes by depicting the aftermath, wherein we find that something from the first act has changed as a result of the climax. In this case, our heroine sans beverage has become a heroine avec beverage.
What this shows is that the three-act plot, unlike kishōtenketsu, is fundamentally confrontational. It necessarily involves one thing winning out over another, even in a minor case like the one above. This conclusion has wide-ranging implications, since both formats are applied not just to narratives, but to all types of writing. Both may be found under the hood of everything from essays and arguments to paragraphs and single sentences. As an example, the reader might re-examine the first two paragraphs of this article, in which a “default position" is set up and then interrupted by a “problem" (namely, the existence of kishōtenketsu). The following paragraphs deal with the conflict between the two formats. This paragraph, which escalates that conflict by explaining the culture-wide influence of each system, is the beginning of the climax.
Now, while I found this illustration to be interesting, it also seems to be a bit muddied. There are actually several things all being thrown together under the heading of "plot" and "conflict" and then blurred into each other, and not necessarily in a proper way. Let me try to tackle a few of the terms and illustrate what I mean.
First, "Plot." Well, what is plot? Let's grab a dictionary definition real quick. There are a few, the word gets used for several things after all, but I want to pick two (from my wonderful program WordWeb, not sure where it gets its definitions from): "The story that is told in a novel, play or movie etc." and "A chart or map showing the movements or progress of an object." First, as the author in the post also uses, plot is the method of telling a story, which I'm sure is a common and easily agreed-upon definition. Second though I think is most telling, because while 'a chart of map showing the movements or progress of an object' may be the definition that comes from using the word plot with a graph or illustration, it is actually very relevant to the whole story aspect too. Plot is how we move the characters and scenes in our story, what states they begin and end in.
Why does the idea of movement matter? Well, as the post states, there are several ways to move things. One is through external conflict, two things meet, they struggle in some way, and one gets moved. Or there is internal conflict, two ideas/beliefs/habits meet, they struggle, one gets moved. And, as the post points out, it is possible for things to just move, coming and going, without struggling against each other. Something that, from the tone of the post's author, rarely if ever happens in western literature. Well, um, not quite. Actually, its pretty common. It's called narration.
Narration is "A message that tells the particulars of an act or occurrence or course of events." It gets used all the time. Sometimes it is related to conflict, like a voice-over in an action movie, but not always. It might be a nature show describing the lives of penguins, it might be the telling of a myth or folk tale, it might be describing a person or event. We narrate things all the time, without any conflict. If I tell you about my cat, or my day, there may not be any sort of conflict involved at all. And there may be all sorts of surprises and twists, unexpected things, which makes my narration engaging. I'm sure that everyone reading this, if they think long enough, can come up with a story they have been told by a friend, or something in their own lives, that is conflict-free and yet still engaging to listen to. It is not really all that uncommon, in any culture or any time or any place.
And there, really, is the root of what we're looking at, a word heretofore unnoticed yet is the lynchpin of everything: engaging. It's root word, 'engage' has so many definitions it's worth it to look at them in a big list: "Carry out or participate in an activity; be involved in - Consume all of one's attention or time - Start in a job or pay to do a particular piece of work - Ask to represent; of legal counsel - Give to in marriage - Get caught - Carry on (wars, battles, or campaigns) - Hire for work or assistance" and a few more variations on those main ones. When you say you got 'engaged' by something, you could be talking about all sorts of things.
See, in order to tell a story, you have to have someone pay attention to it. They have to read or listen to or watch the story, otherwise you have the 'if a tree falls in the woods and no-one hears it does it make a sound' dilemma. A story unread/unviewed/unwatched might as well not even exist. So it needs to engage someone enough to make them stick around and experience it. Which then begs the question, how do you engage people? The author mentions conflict being the quintessential 'Western Way' to which he adds Kishōtenketsu as the 'Eastern Way' - and frankly I'm going to jump over to Orson Scott Card for what I think is a much, much better grouping. In a book Mr. Card wrote on writing (the title of which eludes me right now)(and I'm not on the internet to look it up either, darn) he proposes that there are 4 different elements that I believe all contribute in some way to building engagement (which is why I remember them and not the rest of the book), he calls it the MICE quotient:
⦁ Milieu - the setting and locale of the story, and the descriptions of the world (you could add views and pictures to this, for something like a nature documentary)
⦁ Idea - the concepts explored in the story, of scientific, humanistic, religious, economic, cultural or other sorts
⦁ Character - the people involved in the story (which might not even be the story characters, some people go see movies for the actor/actress involved)
⦁ Events - the actions of the story, which can include surprise (which I get the feel is the defining trait of Kishōtenketsu) and conflict (our defining western trait)
Now, having read many books on writing I will agree that the advice on conflict is very, very common. However, it is a mistake to think that it is the only way to generate interest, even in many books that discuss its use. Looking at the MICE list above, these are all things that every writer/storyteller thinks about weather or not and how in include - consciously or not. And any kind of good writing book or advise is going to cover them all. As Mr. Card says, every story has all of these, but their degree differs. An action tale/movie will have lots of Events, while a mystery may have lots of Character and Idea. Again, nature stories, and many epic fantasy stories have an emphasis on Milieu (heck, what else is The Lord of the Rings trilogy ?) as well. Terry Pratchett writes comedic fantasy books that are loaded with Idea-centered plots (Small Gods and the exploration of religion vs faith jumps to mind easily). There are lots of ways to create engagement, and a good story uses at least two, a great story might use all four (hard as that is to keep them balanced and interesting).
But, let's jump to point #2, Conflict. What is it, why do we use it, and why is it so common to find advice about using it? At the risk of getting all academic again, let's check out another set of definitions, "A state of opposition between persons, ideas or interests - Opposition between two simultaneous but incompatible feelings - An incompatibility of dates or events - A disagreement or argument about something important" and, the one most directly relevant, "Opposition in a work of drama or fiction between characters or forces (especially an opposition that motivates the development of the plot)." Wow, again this is a little word with a lot of meaning. However, there are three words that I think merit being singled out: opposition, incompatibility and disagreement. We see one of those three used in-between two other objects in all of our definitions.
So we have conflict as: opposition - two things acting against each other, as incompatibility - two things that cannot exist/act/be at the same time/place, and disagreement - two people/views/concepts that do not match. All three of these create another magic little word, tension (just one definition, I'll go easy on you) "a balance between and interplay of opposing elements or tendencies (especially in art or literature)." Conflict, in stories, is there to create tension - and tension can create engagement. Our damsel is tied to the train tracks, you hear the train whistle blow in the distance as the hero rides by on his white stallion, who will get to her first? (to go all 20s black and while for a moment) That's conflict, and thus tension. It increases engagement. So does seeing the daddy penguin walking in a huge pile with his baby penguin egg on his feet, warming it from the bitter cold. Tension, will the baby make it, yet without conflict - right?
Ummm.... not exactly. See, here's the thing, conflict is, well, pretty darn common in the world - let's go back to our three words that formed the core of our definition: opposition, incompatibility and disagreement. The baby penguin can't be both alive and dead, in a kind of Schrodinger's Cat situation - either the little tyke's going to make it or not. While the conflict might not be out in the open, it is still there. Like it or not. Quite simply because it is there in life, at almost all times and in all ways. Economics has been defined as the conflict between unlimited desires and finite resources, and really, it is the crux of humanity - we want it all, be can only have some; so which some are we going to choose? This is a kind of conflict that goes beyond money - you want to be at work to earn the promotion but you also want to be at your child's recital (incompatibility). You want you daughter to clean her room and she wants you to leave her alone (disagreement). You want to win the big game to impress the hot cheerleader and the other team wants to win the big game to impress their hot cheerleader (opposition). Lets face it, almost every decision we make is framed around one of those three elements of conflict. We have it in our lives constantly. Thus, when we see a fictional character making a conflicted choice or faced with a conflicted situation, we can relate to them - either directly for having been in the same situation or indirectly for knowing what it is like to have to choose, or at the very least we can wonder how it is going to end.
This makes a key distinction between story and narration, at least from the 'western' view and that of most writing advice: since a narration has no conflict, it is likely to only be engaging to those who already care about the topic, while a story based around overt or subtle conflict can be engaging on some level to virtually everyone. If you don't like penguins, you are not likely to go see or enjoy/engage with a penguin documentary. But, if there is conflict, will the baby penguin make it or not, you can potentially engage every parent directly (having faced similar fears for their children) and every person indirectly (for creating some sort of tension via that conflict). It is a valuable tool in the toolbox for getting engagement - because your audience is also conflicted, do we go see that movie or this other one, or do we just stay home? - they are trying to decide weather or not to see/read/experience your story, and thus you want to give them incentive to do so.
Let's jump back to our little comics the author used to illustrate (no pun intended)(but I'll take it anyways) his points. Our first scene has the little girl getting a soda, then introduces the boy as the girl gives him the soda. This creates interest. Who is the girl? Who is the boy? What is their relationship? Why is she giving him the soda? Why didn't she get one herself? There are a lot of questions that can arise from this simple narration of events [quick aside, he contends the twist of introducing the boy keeps this from being merely a "series of events" but that is exactly what it is, in fact, as I mentioned, that's what plot is in the first place]. In the second comic we have conflict, the girl obviously wants a soda, is hindered in getting one, but eventually gets her way. This actually generates only a little interest, who is the girl? why does she want the soda?, but it does generate conflict, girl vs soda machine. And I like the soda machine example perfectly, because it highlights the difference between interest and tension - interest is relative, while tension is universal. You look at the girl, maybe you care, maybe you wonder to yourself the questions I presented above - maybe not, maybe you don't give the proverbial flying fig about some girl or some boy or whatever. But, I challenge you, if you live around or have ever used a soda/vending machine, to not instantly recognize in your own life the fight with the machine when it is keeping something from you that you paid for, the darn things do it all the time. Because conflict, and the tension that arises, is a more or less universal thing, we can identify with it relatively easily. Whereas we may or may not identify with a place, people or things on their own. Little boys go "ewww...." seeing a boy and girl kiss, teenage boys and girls may swoon with the desire to experience it themselves, adults may think it is quaint and nostalgic to be young and in love while they have mortgages, kids of their own, and so many other things to deal with. Everyone has a different threshold for interest when it comes to different things. So trying to hook someone, to engage with them, by interest alone is difficult.
Now, note I am not saying good or bad, just difficult. I love watching cooking shows, my grandpa hates them - they are made for people like me, and the creators understand in advance that their works will only appeal to a fraction of the audience, namely those who are interested in cooking to begin with. But then you have a show like "Restaurant Impossible" that is not about cooking per se, rather a professional chef tries to turn around a failing restaurant (there's another one with Gordon Ramsey too .... oh yeah, Cooking or Kitchen Nightmares). This type of show, by introducing conflict (bad/new/unskilled owners vs professional chefs) has lots of conflict, of a certain kind. It is the conflict of disagreement (owners think their food is good, professionals can't stand to eat it) and incompatibility (you can't be both failing and successful at the same thing, some behavior or view or item has to change) - but not one of opposition (after all, the professionals are there to help, not hinder).
Here's where we start point #3) Conflict vs Violence. When most people hear the word conflict, what they tend to associate it with is violence, and that's not accurate. Let's review our definition of conflict, which is essentially a state of opposition or incompatibility or disagreement between two or more people, places or things. Violence on the other hand is "An act of aggression (as one against a person who resists) - The property of being wild or turbulent - A turbulent state resulting in injuries and destruction etc." While violence is a form of opposition, and therefore a form of conflict, that's like saying all coffee is Starbucks; it's generalizing a whole group by just one of its members. And too many people make this generalization, including the author. You might have noticed that in the second comic, in my description of it, I wrote that the author should have had the girl punch or kick the soda machine to get her soda because it would have illustrated his point better. Well, I said that because of the comments the author was making about conflict, comments that seemed to be equating it to violence. Something that becomes much clearer in a later part of the post, which I will just show a little bit of here:
Jacques Derrida, probably the best known post-modern philosopher, infamously declared that all of reality was a text—a series of narratives that could only be understood by appealing to other narratives, ad infinitum. What kinds of narratives, though? Perhaps a benign, kishōtenketsu-esque play between disconnection and reconnection, chaos and order? No; for Derrida, the only narrative was one of violence. As a Nietzschean, he believed that reality consisted, invariably, of one thing dominating and imposing on another, in a selfish exercise of its will to power. The “worst violence", he thought, was when something was completely silenced and absorbed by another, its difference erased. Apparently, Derrida was uncontent with the three-act structure’s nearly complete control over Western writing: he had to project it onto the entire world. Eurocentrism has rarely had a more shining moment.
I'm sorry but, WTF? Where did we go from story structure to the projection of violence upon the entire world? And, given that the author has so repeatedly and clearly differentiated Eastern kishōtenketsu as "benign" and Western/Eurocentrism as "violent" now we're getting away from literature alltogether and into a very dark and unpleasant realm of 'my culture is better than yours' that nobody should ever get into. Things have gotten out of hand at this point.
But its a very understandable kind of exaggeration, because, as I mentioned, so many people tend to confuse conflict and violence, and conflict gets used so often. So, it's something worth looking at. I'm not going to go into one culture or another, I have been trying not to for this entire post of mine, rather I want to look at the principles and assumptions involved.
Now, this leads to another key element we have to take into account: principles are general, guiding concepts about how we should be/think/act/respond to the world and others around us. However, they almost always have exceptions, and it is in those exceptions that we learn a lot more about ourselves than the principle. For example, you should love and be gentle towards everyone, hating no one and harming no one. It's a great principle, but when you're getting raped, might be kind of hard to love that particular neighbor. Or, you shouldn't be violent, but when you are being car-jacked with the safety of your children in the car in question, you might be willing to set that aside and protect your family at the expense of someone else's health. It's all well and good to say that there is a universal principle of belief that should be adhered to at all times, but it is very, vary hard in practice. There are not too many Ghandi's running around out there. And with good reason, the real world is a crazy and unpredictable place and trying to reduce it to a one-size-fits-all conceptual box can cause as many problems as it solves. We make exceptions because the world likes to throw us a curve, and because not all things are always equal. Let's pretend that you can only save one life, period, no exceptions, no getting around it - so do you save the six-year old child or the convicted murderer? All men are created equal is a fine principle, but here is one place that might be worthy of an exception.
Okay, a really, really long wind-up to get to the next point (sorry, my plot is kind of rambling here) - it is all well and good to hate violence and decry how everything and anything is violent (in the same way some hate all things sexual), but the world is not so black and white. My country, the United States, would not exist without the violence that won it its independence and then again the violence that pitted families against each other in the Civil War. Those sacrifices, that violence, has created this country I am in, and all the great and terrible things that come from it. That is also the story of every country. Every nation has come from somewhere and faced some sort of internal and external conflicts, every people does some good and some bad/ill towards others. At that level we are all the same, though there are definitely some countries that seem to treat their people and neighbors better than others (who would you rather live next to, France or North Korea ?). I'm getting back into nations and countries, which I wanted to stay away from, but I hope I'm making my point. No one is pure and perfect, not because they don't want to be, but because that's life. We all make some sort of mistake, we all do some good and some bad, and the people we tend to think best of are those who push themselves to maximize the good and minimize the bad. But pointing fingers is rather pointless because no one is without blame.
And that is why generalizing violence as "always bad" is a rather silly position. Again, you're trying to make something one-size-fits-all when life just isn't like that. In the right time and the right place violence can be very appropriate and necessary (after all, if no one ever stopped a violent person then we would all be killed by the murderers, who would then have to turn on each other, and eventually there would only be one person left on the planet). Likewise, violence in stories and movies and songs can sometimes be apporiate (we shall overcome) or inappropriate (kill all the -fill in the blank- people). And again, violence is only a sub-set and limited form of conflict, so drawing any kind of line between the two is muddy thinking at best.
Now, again trying not to get cultural, but broadening any style of writing into east and west is equally going too far. It would seem the author is saying violence in stories is a western thing - but if you've watched as many saturday-afternoon kung fu movies as I did growing up, you might dispute that claim. Likewise, low conflict or non-conflict stories are created in the west though all sorts of documentaries and independent films. No one culture monopolizes any form of storytelling. That's true for two reasons, first we've all been exposed to each others' stories and so they have blended together, and second some ways of telling stories are based on universal human principles. One culture may tend towards a certain style or topic, at a given time, but that too can change. There used to be a lot of western movies made in the US, but recently that has dwindled. The last two I can think of were a remake (of the John Wayne movie I suddenly can't remember the title of) and an animated film about a chameleon (Rango, awesome movie, I remember that one).
Okay, went totally off-topic on that one. So, violence is not conflict. Confusing the two leads to bad writing and bad thinking. Conflict is not a bad thing, it creates tension and helps build interest. Violence may or may not be a bad thing, depending on the context it is used in. Now I will admit popular American culture is not helping things with so many big-budget films that get lots of attention using more violence and less conflict, don't get me wrong - but at the same time Hollywood does not equal all of Western storytelling. I fervently hope we get a renaissance of looking at conflict separate from violence, because it is easy enough to do.
This has turned into a ridiculously long essay, so I'm going to wrap up my final point quickly. Point #4) Stories and Games are different. There is one place where almost hands-down conflict is a good thing, and plenty of it - and that is in a game. See, a game is a participatory event, it is not like a story or movie that is complete on its own. A game needs a player to finish telling the story, in the form of the player's choices. Here is where conflict trumps narration. If the game just shows you things, and there is no conflict, then it lessens the immersion and interactivity. It's the difference between a casual game like Bejeweled and Mass Effect. While moving the jewels around is fun, and addictive, you don't bond to the game like you do with the Shephard you've been making all sorts of moral choices about. Conflict works a lot better at drawing in the player, just look at all the complaints about cut-scenes in games (which are very narration, even if they depict some conflict, because they are out of the player's hands). That's not to say one is better than another, but one is deeper than another. Just a fast thought, and again the exceptions are sometimes more telling than the principle.
So, to wrap up, the ideas of conflict and storytelling and what makes a good story are large, confusing, and open to lots of debate. I'm sure many will disagree with some or all of my positions here, which will reassure my worldview that there is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to concepts and principles. If you want to leave a comment below please do so, and I hope this overlong and rambling essay has been at least a little engaging for you :)