A Theory of Story Structured Around Something Other Than Conflict

I’ve been studying current practices for the construction of stories.

What is story? It is the human activity of representing mankind’s life through narrative. I say that it is mankind’s whole life that is represented, not because I believe each story should include everything that life is, but because I think it’s a mistake to organize story theory around only one aspect of human experience.

If story represents life itself, then we have to ask the question: In what do men’s lives truly consist? What is essential?

At the center of man’s life is relationship – or to say it differently Love. Relationship is a cycle of knowledge, desire, pursuit,  knowledge. The activity of relationship (and therefore the business of drama) is endeavor. Endeavor is comprised of attention, effort, persistence and sacrifice. Further than this, any creative and perceptive intelligence may discover through fiction some facet of human life which was previously unexpressed. If it is true and can be fictionalized, it will work.

This is my current theory, but this theory is not currently accepted among many others.

In fact, everyone seems to agree that story is built on and organized around conflict. I can only consider this theory to be Marxist, evolutionist and dualist. I think the kind of theory that makes story revolve around conflict only produces tame look-a-like stories that derive all their interest from the simulation of anxiety.

Conflict is what happens when two parties whose interests cannot be reconciled must struggle against one another instead. While situations like this do sometimes happen, it’s a mistake, I think, to imply that this is the essence of human life or that people only find conflict interesting. This kind of thing lends itself to judgment, forgiveness, self-indulgence, and anxiety-addiction. It tells us that whatever we happen to want (happy endings) is the point of our lives even if others must be deprived. It also reduces the very necessary experience of sacrifice and struggle to something automatically destructive and self-absorbed.

Capitalist theory would perhaps proclaim that life and stories are properly centered around a series of transactions between human beings. This is, frankly, more like the real thing than the Marxist or evolutionary theory, but it is a mechanical reduction of part of the truth. Transactions are the mechanics of relationships but are not relationships themselves. Sacrifice is a transaction but it is much more than a transaction. Furthermore, there are transactions which are valuable and good, but not equal or fair. 

Fatalism would have it that life and story is about what that happen to men, what comes upon them. I don’t like this either, because I believe that men who are only acted upon are less than men.

How can I demonstrate that endeavor, rather than conflict, is the stuff of drama?

We can imagine that in a perfect world, there would be endeavor without conflict, failure, or lack of reward, and this would still be interesting to the inhabitants of such a world.

In endeavor, what do we experience that we find so priceless? This precious heart of endeavor, what still exists to interest us without the good/evil dichotomy, is to be able to wrestle with something greater than ourselves and win. To enter into the joy of what we wrestle with, rather than to wrestle with someone or something in order to deprive it of what it desires or needs – this is true story and true joy and true Man.

This theory of story involves what is either a paradox or a logical impossibility.

If our opponent were truly greater than ourselves, how could we conquer it?

Here story reveals the secret paradox of love. Nothing truly greater than ourselves can be conquered through destruction or force (through conflict, that is.) Only one who loves us can be conquered when he is greater than us. It happens when the Beloved relents to us because of his kindly regard for our tremendous desire and the deeds we do in consequence of this desire.

When we traverse and pass beyond the territory of our individual and private concerns; when we throw away what was previously precious and now does not compare; when we become a pyre of desire and yet hold ourselves in hand and do no evil nor perform no transgression; then the beloved is gentled and leans to us in delight and accession and kindness.

We cannot possess the beloved without endeavor and yet endeavor can never seize the beloved by force, precisely because nothing worth seeking for remains the same if it could be forced. It is the struggle to move out of ourselves toward the beloved that is our secret joy and stretching and endeavor. At its best this endeavor moves us to the taut tingling edge of despair but instead of pushing us over the edge it strengthens us so that we go beyond and grasp what we could never have held before. Sometimes we despair to all else in order to avoid despairing to our true Love. Thus we persevere and the ecstatic joy of possessing the beloved’s love is the reward of our kind assault.

This is life; this is story. Unless you buy evolutionary philosophy, that is, in which case life is a mask for predation and story is the narrative of endless self-seeking.

Where failure enters the true story, it is a confession of man’s limitations. Where things happen to men beyond their control, it is to confess the limitations of mankind and to describe how true Love and its endeavor overcome even these limitations and failures. These things all serve the main endeavor. Man is limited but in a sense endeavor is eternal – it is limitless in one direction (that is, it can always increase as time goes by) if a man keeps heart and keeps faith with his beloved.

Where transactions happen, it is to dramatize (that is to explicate by externalizing) the relationships. When men in stories endeavor and endure, we practice our ethics by honoring them with rewards.

As an example of what I mean: in the Hobbit movie that was recently released there is a scene in which the dwarves sing a song of longing for the mountains and digging in mountains and seeking gold. This song is so moving to me that I cry every time I hear it, just to release the physical sensation of my heart expanding. The song appears in the book, but the movie has a great melody for it. Later in the movie whenever the dwarves are battling – to escape from goblins or kill orcs – the musical score reprises the theme from this song of longing for the far-off mountain and its treasure.

Why? What had the search for gold to do with fighting goblins? Only the whole meaning of the story: that for the sake of what they loved, they were able to endeavor even to the point of battling with ferocious beasts. The composer of this musical score knew more about the story in that sense than the writers of the screenplay did, it would seem. In order to give the story more interest, the writers inserted various conflicts, especially between Bilbo and Thorin, which were not present in the book. To my heart, these unnecessary conflicts obscured the meaning of the story and the splendid characters bequeathed to us by Tolkien. The music revealed the true meaning of the story: even the conflict that was canonical was incidental to the endeavor. Ergo, and the endeavor could appear without conflict. (Struggle is not necessarily conflict.) The same melodic reprisal appears when the dwarves and Bilbo are merely tramping through the mountains.

In Orthodox Christian terminology, each story ought to be iconographic.

Does evil enter into man’s world and consequently into his stories? Yes, of course it does. But if we believe that evil has entered in as something that has no rightful part in man’s being, then we must write stories in which evil comes in as an alien, and is thrust out, so that the characters can continue to seek what they love. This is not the essence of the story, even then. It is a confession.

Is it necessary to throw out everything we’ve been taught about story structure? I don’t think so. The arc of the story is indeed natural and instinctive. Basically, we expect to see someone kindling desire in the first 25 percent of the story, make some small efforts in the next, some herculean efforts in the third, and then finally a last push and a crisis and success, with reward, in the final 25 percent. The direction to make obstacles organic to the story is even more important than many would suggest. We do not throw difficulties at our protagonists just to make their toils more interesting to us, unless we think God does that to us. Rather, we confess the difficulties that humans face and discuss how they arise, the reasons from which and the means by which we overcome them in our quest for Love.

We confess conflict or obstacles when they are necessary given the circumstances, characters, and relationships we have proposed.

Or to go a little further into this minor mystery, we depict man’s rising to whatever heights necessary to grasp his beloved Object, and in the process we depict whatever sacrifices or struggles he needed to go through to get there. What follows is a suggested story outline that avoids any mention of conflict. I don’t think it’s the only possible way to do this but it’s one way.

Click here to see my diagram of suggested conflict-free story arc.

I would be very grateful for any suggestions or discussion of these ideas, which are somewhat new to me. I have been trying to write the same several novels for ten years or so, and I always bog down at a certain point in the outlining process as I cannot force my story to follow the rhythm of conflict that is prescribed by story doctors. This is a long struggle for me but I guess the truth is that I love stories so much that I want to write them even though I’m better at poetry.

Also, a challenge: I’d like to see anyone write a thousand-word short story that is interesting, has arc, and does not center around or include conflict. Anyone? If you have a story like that, post it on your blog and leave a link in the comments.

10 thoughts on “A Theory of Story Structured Around Something Other Than Conflict

  1. The fiction of Wendell Berry, for the most part, does not follow the typical conflict arc. And it’s some of the most beautiful and moving stuff written in our lifetimes.

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  2. Beautiful, wonderful thoughts here – several that I need to chew on for some time! I find your poetical-philosphical ruminations enchanting (poetic voice). The old Aristotelian formula for drama is indeed conflict – if resolved (usually in marriage) that is comedy, if not resolved it leads to tragedy. That is why Shakespeare at the end of his life invented a new form, commonly called ‘Romance’ (Winter’s Tale, Tempest) that goes beyond both genres and hints at redemption after tragedy. That has been my model for narrative. I too think of fiction as needing to address the deepest possible human themes and endeavors. I see endeavor as a confrontation with human limitations, leading beyond them to breathtaking, unexpected revelations, opening a new vision from a higher perspective.

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    • I had no idea that Shakespeare was doing that kind of pioneering. I’m more familiar with the earlier stories, though I recall the Tempest moved me deeply even in the re-told form I encountered it as a child.

      “…endeavor as a confrontation with human limitations, leading beyond them to breathtaking unexpected revelations, opening a new vision from a higher perspective.”

      That pretty much makes me cry. I think the story I am working on would work very well in that kind of framework of expectations. I’ve broken down in my process at the point where I am trying to plan the scenes. I couldn’t figure out how to move the characters from one point to another.

      What do you do for structure?

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      • I think I write fiction like you write essays – I let my ruminations go where they want to go. I rarely have any more than the vaguest idea how a story will end, and so remain open to surprises. The story starts with an idea or character that intrigues me, that makes me want to write and explore. So I let structure emerge – I fill pages with contemplative sketches of plot possibilities and character developments, and absolutely love the process. But I do it like you write an expository sentence – when you write the first words, I don’t exactly know how your thought is going to turn before you come to the end. What is it you are looking for in your deepest thoughts, in your intuition?
        For example – you know a character is taking real life in your imagination when he/she surprises you! That’s who that character is, and you didn’t even know! The same with a new turn in the plot. So what if you have to go back and rewrite the beginning? You’re having fun. Try that.

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  3. As someone who also is a student of story, I would suggest that perhaps you’re considering conflict too narrrowly and overtly. The middle column of your diagram is full of conflict!

    One of the best books I’ve read on the subject is “Story Structure–Demystified,” by Larry Brooks. I encourage you to send your diagram to him through his blog at http://storyfix.com/ and as for his thoughts.

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    • That’s interesting, Ann, I’ll look into it.

      I’m aware that “conflict” CAN be considered broadly – i.e. conflict within oneself or conflict with circumstances, what have you. However, each of those situations can also be defined as something other than conflict. Basically, I think that the urge to classify all these situations as “conflict” is based on philosophical reasons that many people are not aware of. For one thing, it equalizes the thing a person is struggling against with the person who is struggling. Basically, it tends to equalize bad and good.

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