Conflict vs. Connection

One of the big rules we always hear about writing is that there must be conflict! Without conflict you have no tension, no stakes, and the story doesn’t go anywhere. Some say “without conflict you have no story” at all!  Therefore we should always be on the look-out for the conflict in a scene and use it to make our stories more intense, emotional, and keep the boring-police away!

But, I have an admission. I’ve always had a problem with the idea that story revolves around conflict. I get nervous about how it limits what our stories can be about.

Don’t misread that comment. Conflict can be an important and useful storytelling tool, and there’s nothing wrong with using it. But… do we sometimes create conflict simply because we think we are supposed to? Are our lives defined by our conflicts? Is it all Man vs. Man, Man vs. Environment, Man vs. God, Good vs. Evil? Is it always about desire and obstacles and the conflicts that stand in our character’s way?

Is there not room for more?

This emphasis on conflict has always made me think of the fabulous quote in Diane Lefer’s essay, Breaking the Rules of Story Structure, where she says:

“The traditional story revolves around conflict – a requirement Ursula K. Le Guin disparages as the ‘gladatorial view of fiction.’ When we’re taught to focus our stories on a central struggle, we seem to choose by default to base all our plots on the clash of opposing forces. We limit our vision to a single aspect of existence and overlook much of the richness and complexity of our lives, just the stuff that makes a work of fiction memorable” (63).

Gladiator

Janet Burroway adds to this discussion noting that “seeing the world in terms of conflict and crisis, of enemies and warring factions, not only constricts the possibilities of literature… [it] also promulgates an aggressive and antagonistic view of our own lives” (Writing Fiction, 255).

These quotes have always resonated with me. I find I’m not an action-and-conflict writer. But at the same time, I didn’t have any other guidepost to lead me. So, if it’s possible for stories to revolve around something other than conflict, what would that “something else” be?

Connection.

In Writing Fiction, Burroway goes on to discuss a narrative engine built on the human need for connection, rather than the clash of opposing forces. She says:

“A narrative is also driven by a pattern of connection and disconnection between characters that is the main source of its emotional effect. Over the course of a story, and within the smaller scale of a scene, characters make and break emotional bonds of trust, love, understanding, or compassion with one another. A connection may be as obvious as a kiss or as subtle as a glimpse; a connection may be broken with an action as obvious as a slap or as subtle as an arched eyebrow” (255).

This is an idea I can get behind!

A pattern of connection and disconnection is a narrative guideline that feels rooted in truth, human desire, and hope. It’s a guideline that – if you need it to – can lead to conflict, should that be where you want your story to go. For me, the need for connection, and the movement between connecting and disconnecting, exists in a deeper space than conflict alone. Good vs. Evil sits on the surface.  Connection and disconnection is the pulse beneath the skin that motivates our characters. Can good or evil exist without it? This question excites me!  The possibility of small actions energizing a story excites me!

Gladiator 2

I believe in the little moments.

I believe in the impact of an arched eyebrows and a subtle glimpse, may they have the power to grip our readers with as much intensity as a fight to the death.

13 thoughts on “Conflict vs. Connection

  1. Hi Ingrid,
    An argument could be how ‘conflict’ is defined, but I see your point.
    I am just making notes for my next project, which will be quite a dramatic piece, and your post made interesting reading.
    I am also one for writing a story in the way that the story needs to be written, and not by sticking to rules or ‘ancient’ guidelines that may not be suited to the project.
    Great article!

    • James,

      I completely agree. So much depends upon how you define a specific term. For me personally, I always associated conflict with creating physical action (fights, action scenes, or “shit happening”). It always had sense of combat in my mind. I was excited to find a way to look at narrative drive that came from something quieter.

      I also agree that a story will tell you how it should be told. Guidelines are great, but sometimes they want to strangle the heart out of your story (particularly when you let to many other voices come in and tell you how your story should be written).

      Glad to hear this post got you thinking!

    • Stephanie – There’s something deliciously interesting to me in the idea of “passive conflict.” I’m not sure the implications of that at this moment, but I shall sit and ponder it!

  2. Wonderful post. I see Mr. Roses’s point. The ebb and flow of characters connecting or the lack of connection can be defined as conflict. It is ultimately the connection characters have with one another that resonates most with me. I like the push-pull of the ride getting there though. I’m glad I read your post. Very insightful.

  3. Thanks for this post, Ingrid. It deepens the discussion of desire as well as of conflict — not just the characters’ desires, but what we want for them, and why. It also made me think of brilliant John Cleese, and his idea that the only difference between comedy and tragedy is whose side you’re on.

  4. Claudia Johnson has written on this as well, in her CRAFTING SHORT SCREENPLAYS THAT CONNECT. Johnson’s point is that a drive to connect is often what motivates characters to action. Conflict arises from the obstacles they encounter in their quest to make that connection.

    Your take on the smaller moments and gestures deepens the point. Conflict and connection do go hand in hand.

    • Kathy,

      I absolutely think conflict and connection go hand in hand. I think conflict alone can be hollow. I find most writing “rules” or “guidelines” don’t exist in a vacuum. Every writing choice interacts and influences the next.

  5. It seems to me you are talking about tension. Donald Maas refers to tension on every page. The raising of an eyebrow or refusal to respond to another causes this tension. Which could also be considered conflict on a smaller scale. This keeps a reader turning pages, as the reader doesn’t know when all of this eyebrow raising will come to a head.

  6. I sooooo love this post. Love the aspect of connection. I sometimes find myself pushing to add a conflict that doesn’t really fit the character, but pushes my plot agenda. I think that’s what you mean, right, by conflict being hollow?

  7. Thoughtful post! And you’ve given voice to things that have rattled around in my brain for a while. I like writing for middle-grade, and the question of conflict weighs heavily for me in this realm. I don’t want the stakes to be too high. So the conflict I focus on is less good vs. evil, big scale stuff. I think I’d agree with you that connection is what drives me more. Thanks for the post.

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