Conflict in a Story

Okay okay okay so. In English today, we were talking about Much Ado about Nothing, and how Don John’s role is, basically, as a plot device to create conflict in the story.

And anyway my English teacher starts to talk about how conflict is essential to a story. Generally I’d be inclined to agree with her, because I do think conflict is quite important, but then she said “In fact, I defy anyone to come up with a TV show, a movie, a book, a short story, any piece of fiction, that does not have a conflict to it.”

That’s where I sort of paused a bit. Any story? There has to be something, right? I mean, yeah, there’s always certain rules to a story, there’s always some things which must be true… but there are exceptions to every rule, no? All boundaries can be pushed, I think.

Her definition was quite broad, in fact. It wasn’t just an obvious conflict, anything that stops characters from getting what they want, but also internal psychological conflicts, and other similar things. Most things would be encompassed by her definition – I believe another example she gave was in detective stories, the search for clues and victim, that’s a conflict. Admittedly an obvious one, but still.

At the minute, the best I can come up with is short short stories, as in the ones that exist purely as set up for a final twist. The kind of thing I have in mind is like “The last man on Earth sat alone. There was a knock on the door.”,which was Hemingway I think, or “The smallest coffins are the heaviest.

I was leaning towards things like that because of the length of them – they don’t really have the time to set up any conflict. But it could be argued that there is, to an extent – in the first one, there’s the “what’s there?” question, and the mystery is a form of conflict. Same goes for the second really. But then, is the definition of conflict getting too broad?

You could argue as well that there’s implicit conflicts one could interpret in the text, like saying that coffin purchaser struggled with grief, but that’s not really a hard and fast rule – you’d be rather hard pressed to provide definitive evidence that the last man struggled with loneliness.

What that lead me onto though, and this is getting a bit meta, but… is there always an inherent conflict in story, but outside of the narrative? One that comes from the reader?

It was following on from the detective story thing actually. Is the reader wondering how the story ends, and trying to find out, a form of conflict? Yes, no, maybe? If they’re to reread the story, is the conflict still there, or gone, because they know how it ends?

Am I overthinking this? Almost certainly. Food for thought though, perhaps. But, really, is there a conflictless story? If you can think of a better example that The Last Man, which is frankly quite tenuous, do let me know.