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Unless a better writer can dissuade me I am minded to say no. The 'essential' 'conflict' is cultural. It is part of the western 'Human Condition' - Eastern cultures have stories without conflict.

Indeed, I'd venture the first story you ever wrote did not contain a conflict. It was entitled "Me and Mommy in the park" and was little more than a juvenile chronicle - regardless it was still a story.

My next experience comes from comedians, 'The two Ronnies' spring to mind. Their stories (jokes) had no conflict and in many examples the expected conflict never materialised. (That fact, in itself, making the story humorous). The skill of these comedians lay in how long they could entertain whilst stringing-out a simple story.

In my personal development as writer I began the exercise of how long I could go in a story without introducing a conflict. (I can do about 60k).

This is a very old debate - the defence of the argument seems to be to broaden the definition of conflict.

My current position is that conflict is not a requirement. In comedic terms - how long can you string out a joke before revealing the punch line.

I have been asked to clarify this question as it has been flagged as similar to 'Can you have a story with an antagonist?'. Antagonist is generally used with regard to character driven conflicts (Hero vs Villain). The films 'The Martian', 'Gravity' and 'Castaway' do not have antagonists because the character is alone. (Wilson is a foil). These stories are tales of struggle. Whether 'struggle' = 'conflict' is a debate in itself.

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    Require for what purpose? The term "novel" often gets used to mean any piece of long fiction, but it also has more precise definitions. Obviously it is permissible to write 250,000 words of fiction with no conflict. Is your question, 1) will it sell, or 2) does it meet a specific definition of the word "novel"? – Mark Baker May 26 '17 at 15:55
  • Your comment assumes the purpose of writing a story is to 'sell' it. Your assumption contributes to the demise of literature as an art. Real writers seek knowledge in methods of expressing themselves . . . others want to know how to male buck - write what people want to hear . . Oh, wait, why are complaining about Fake news? – Surtsey May 26 '17 at 16:12
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    No, my comment explicitly asks you what you think the purpose of writing a story is, because the answer depends on what your purpose is. Conflict is required to fulfil some purposes, but not others. Most of the questions (and answers) on this site have the implicit presumptions that we are talking about salable commercial fiction. It is not clear to me what the function of a QA site would be for Ars Gratia Artis, but perhaps there is one. But, observing the bias of the site towards commercial fiction, those who ask ars gratia artis questions would probably be best advised to state as much. – Mark Baker May 26 '17 at 17:04
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    Possible duplicate of Can a book be written without an antagonist? – Lauren Ipsum May 26 '17 at 23:12
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    @Surtsey: Your post here is both posing the question "Can a novel be written without conflict," and attempting to answer it (with IMHO several very good points. That's good content, but makes it very hard to respond to in a Q&A format. Can I suggest you simply edit to "Can a novel be written without conflict" (and why you think this needs to be asked in the first place), and then post the rest of your points as an answer to your own question? – Standback May 28 '17 at 8:17
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According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary a novel is

an invented prose narrative that is usually long and complex and deals especially with human experience through a usually connected sequence of events

Apparently, this definition (one of many, yet rather typical) of the novel is not only flexible, but also lacking any mention of a conflict being the necessary component of one.

Furthermore, none of the sources of conventional online wisdom, I have referred myself to, list a conflict as such, so I can gladly and wholeheartedly say:

NO

The conflict is not necessary.

I can expand the notion even further (challenging the definition above): the only requirement for a work of art in this medium to be called novel is length. Any result of stringing words into sentences upon reaching the required length (the industry standards vary from genre to binding choice) can be called a novel.

One can write about anything—from people to minerals—or nothing at all, one can write the whole thing without ever using the word I, one can write it as a single run-on sentence, or one can make all sentences exactly seven words—it does not matter.

Once your baby hits the required length—bam!—it's a novel, and no one can say it's not.

The real question is who is going to read it if it is one sentence/it is about a molecule/it has no conflict?

Define your target audience, that will tell you if your story needs a conflict.

  • By that definition, a phone book is a novel, but I think you would find few who would call it such. This is the difficulty with argument by definition. Words are not actually created by a process of definition, but by the need to give a name to an experience. As the judge famously said, I can't define pronograpy but I know it when I see it. But this is actually true of most words. Definition divorced from experience tells us little or nothing. We know what things are by the experience they give us. We may not be able to define novel, but we know one when we read one. – Mark Baker May 26 '17 at 18:30
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    @MarkBaker Most certainly so. A pile of dung can pose as an art installation and it will be a revelation for some spectators for sure, and it had been done before. The range is wide. The kind of novels I know for novels when I see them, do require conflicts, plot, and other heathen deviations of the high wordsmithery. P. S. A phone book should not be considered a novel, for it is not a work of fiction (I should ament my definition). – Lew May 26 '17 at 19:46
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    @Lew Your definition needs no amendment it contains the word 'invented'. – Surtsey May 27 '17 at 3:53
  • @Surtsey yes, j guess it covers it. I was not going to labor over it anyway because I think I have made my point clear enough: you should employ the tools of the trade according to your goal. If you are writing a genre fiction, you will be better off playing by the genre rules; if you are up to a high literary narration, purple to the point of white poetry, the sky Is your limit, go for it. The answer to your question is, of course, still no for the kind of writing you claim to gravitate to, and definitely duh for the potentially commercial strata of the trade. Once again—your call... – Lew May 27 '17 at 4:17
  • Indeed. Consider "White Fang" by Jack London. It is a story, not a conflict. In local passages there may be a conflict, but that's not what the story is all about. – user23046 May 29 '17 at 1:08
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The defence of the argument seems to be to broaden the definition of conflict.

This might be true, and the defence (or offence, perhaps) of the opposing view might be to broaden the definition of story.

It could be said that a chronological list of events:

  • is not in itself a story, unless there is conflict.
  • will nonetheless contain conflict, even if none is put there consciously by the writer, and is therefore (according to the "conflict = story" view of things) a story.
  • is a story, but does not contain conflict (thus invalidating the "conflict=story" view of things).

Any of these things can be claimed, because the definitions of the words (like most definitions) aren't strictly defined, but the reason the "conflict = story" idea tends to stick around is that it's proven to be a useful (at least to some people) in describing the differences between things they intuitively regard as story and things they intuitively don't.

Of course, there are other ways to make that distinction. I prefer to think of stories as being about the interplay of a character's inner model of the world and the world as it actually is (for example: the detective changes their inner model to fit the reality of what actually happened, the superhero changes the world around them to fit their inner model of a world in which justice prevails, etc.).

In any case, you can, if you like, write things that you regard as stories, which you regard to be devoid of conflict. If you like writing that sort of thing, and you think other people will want to read it (or else, don't care that they won't), then go for it. Expect, however, that some people won't regard them as stories, or will see them as full of conflict.

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Stories need conflict - that's a rule.

Rules are there to be broken - that's another.

And there's the unbreakable one, about when the rules can be broken: when you know what you're doing.

Story when the author failed to create a conflict - through negligence, lack of skill, or burn-out, or whatever lame excuse - are boring. Yes, you can create one, and no, it won't be good.

But a conflict is such an inherent part of every known story, that subverting it can achieve great results when done right.

It's very rare the conflict will vanish completely. It may do so in some jokes, especially groaners. It may be completely vestigial in slice-of-life, documentary, mood pieces. Sometimes it will be merely implied. In more "active" genres the more likely approach is subversion: consciously "murdering" the obvious conflict and replacing it with a more subtle and less obvious one.

Let me give an example of the latter: One Punch Man manga. It's humorous, but simultaneously cynically bitter. The protagonist is a superhero, who can beat every single enemy with a single punch. Which totally ruins the obvious conflict of the typical superhero story (which "One Punch Man" pretends to be). That's boring! And that boredom is lampshaded to ludicrous levels.

This is the actual conflict: man versus self; protagonist versus own boredom. He's so powerful he has no room to develop. No super-villain is powerful enough to stand in his way. And so we have the actual conflict - search for friendship, recognition, challenge, overcoming simple daily routine difficulties - all in a world wrecked by supervillains he can dispose of with one punch.

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I am not sure that you can have a good story without conflict. However, not all conflict is the same. There are three main kinds of conflict:

  1. Man vs. Man: I think that most novels use this one as the main conflict.
  2. Man vs Nature: I think this is where White Fang would fit in. This is also the category where the examples that the OP used: 'The Martian', 'Gravity' and 'Castaway'. In each of them, the protagonist started in normal circumstances and was then thrown into a place where they had to fight for survival.
  3. Man vs. Himself: This can be difficult to write if this is the only conflict. The movie "Fight Club" is the best example I can think of at 2am.

Conflict doesn't have to be ninja's attacking a hero. It can be a normal man trying to fight the insects that are killing his tomato plants. It can be a man's struggle to live his life with major depression.

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Putting aside what makes a novel specifically, I don't believe every story needs a conflict.

I think we can all agree the phone book is not a story. But this is not for lack of conflict, but for lack of possibilities.

What makes an account into a story is the possibility for something to change. And that change must be visible before it happens. The reader must understand that "It could go like this or it could go like that" without needing to be told. (For the best stories it is usually both or neither).

The story is over once whatever it is comes to a head. Of course that story might just be a single chapter/paragraph/line of a longer story or novel.

"Me and Mommy in the Park" becomes a story when the writer is separated from Mommy and gets lost. Suddenly two possibilities spring up. Does the writer get back to their Mommy or not? I think it would be hard to phrase this story in terms of a conflict. There is certainly no antagonist.

What a conflict is, is a way to make two possibilities visible to the reader, by incarnating each possibility as a person. I want things to go down like this, but he wants things to go down like that. Bingo bango you have your possibilities. The story cannot end before one possibility asserts itself over the other. And one way to make this obvious is for one person to assert themself over the other.

Comedy routines like you mention carry a story but it is not the story as written. The story is "is this the punchline or is that the punchline?" And these stories rely on the fact you know it is a comedy routine to function. So very young children might regard the routine as "stupid" because they don't know what to look out for.

Monthy Python routines tend to carry a story as written but no punchline type of story. Those routines don't exactly have punchlines. This makes the little sketch transitions more important than you might think. It would feel incomplete for that sketch to end just before "Let's look at that handshake in slow motion".

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I don't know the eastern tradition well enough to comment on whether or not it has stories without conflict. But of course, this depends on what you mean by story. But then the question is not about stories, it is about novels and the novel is not an eastern art form. It was invented in the west within the culture of the west.

But that does not help much because it depends on how you define the word novel, which gets defined broadly or narrowly by different people for different purposes (see Walter Scott's distinction between novel and romance, mentioned here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Novel)

But this is just how language works. There are not enough words for all the things we want to talk about, so words are used with different degrees of specificity and scope depending on the kind of argument you want to make. Any serious work of argument, therefore, has to begin by defining its terms.

For example, one could argue that all humor requires conflict because the essence of humor is the conflict between expectation and reality. The fork handles sketch is funny because of the conflict between the expectation the Ronnie Barker wanted four candles when he actually wanted fork handles.

But you might argue that that is not conflict, just a misunderstanding. But that is not a disagreement about substance, it is simply a preference for a different definition of the word conflict. Behind it is (one hopes) a desire to make an argument about the real world, not simply an attempt to claim prior right of definition.

The best way to get to the substance of the matter is often to reframe the debate without the use of the contentious word. So let me take a stab at defining story without using "conflict".

Story (for my immediate purpose here) is a fictional narrative in which a change of state takes place which engages the interest of human beings. The key components of this definitions are fictional (it did not happen) change (something is different at the end than at the beginning) and interest (the change captures our attention).

So, a fictional narrative in which nothing changes is not, for my purpose, a story. Call it a vignette, if you like. It is out of scope.

So, what makes a change interesting?

I believe that what makes a change interesting is how that change affects our lives. If the river is higher today than yesterday, that is interesting to me if my house is beside the river and I might get flooded out.

But such a change is only interesting when it is true. If someone tells me the river is rising and I look out the window and see that it isn't, I lose interest.

So the question becomes, what type of change is interesting even when we know it isn't true? I believe the answer to that is changes that involve making decisions. But not all decisions are interesting. The interesting ones are those with consequences. Decisions with consequences are hard to make because we then have to live with the consequences.

Making difficult decisions requires not only knowledge and skill, but also courage. Difficult decisions are the pivot points of human life. They are moments in which we commit ourselves in irrevocable ways that change our lives and the lives of others. As with any other difficult task, we like to rehearse for difficult decisions. We like to draw inspiration from the brave decisions of others. We like to explore the potential consequences of deciding one way or another.

Stories are how we do this. Stories are how we explore and prepare for making hard decisions in our lives. We read them for comfort, for reassurance, for courage, for guidance, and for inspiration, because we know that from time to time we have to make hard decisions ourselves.

If this analysis is correct, then a story (a fictional narrative the involves change and evokes interest) requires the protagonist to make a difficult decision with consequences for themselves and others.

Where does this leave us in regards to conflict? What makes a decision difficult is that it involves a choice between two values. (Thus my frequent assertion that all stories are fundamentally moral -- they are about a choice of values.) A choice between two values strikes me as a conflict. This is, finally, a matter of definition though. If you choose to narrow the definition of conflict to only apply when punches are thrown, for instance, then you can certainly have a story (by my definition) without conflict.

But then I would have to ask what larger point you were trying to make in defining conflict in a way that would exclude it from some instances of story.

0

For the naysayers - here's a plot.

After teaching the final lesson of the semester, a school teacher (also a single mother) gives her mixed-race son's girlfriend a lift home. During the journey the girl asks the teacher about her boyfriend's father. The teacher, through a series of flashbacks recalls the day she met they boy's father. They met in a cafe after unsuccessfully attending the same job interview. He was an Afircan-American. Using alcohol as a catalyst they console each other . . . after which they go to her place.

They are awoken in the night. A fire breaks out in the apartment block. He saves her by passing her through a window to the fire officers. When they return to attempt save him he seems to have no interest - he perishes in the fire.

The teacher has revealed her shame- she knew her father for only one day.

Where's the conflict? How's that not a story?

  • "The teacher has revealed her shame" If you do not see conflict in that act, I don't know what you can mean by "conflict". Does anyone want to reveal their shame? No. By definition, they are ashamed. But sometimes events conspire to force someone to reveal their shame. That is conflict. A choice between two things I don't want to do. What definition of conflict would not include that case? What purpose would such a definition serve? – Mark Baker May 29 '17 at 13:40
  • Also, it is worth noting that it is a common enough narrative technique to reveal the central conflict of a story in flashback or introspection. The story timeline starts after the central conflict has taken place and deals with its aftermath. But such a conflict is still central to the story. Story arc and narrative arc are not always aligned. – Mark Baker May 29 '17 at 13:43
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Let me reprhase the question: What is a novel?

I ask this because among the few persons I know who regularly read books, one of them only reads non-fiction. Not surprising. Especially in the P.O.D. market, non-fiction is the way to go.

I noticed that a couple of the books she's read are in the genre of what I call "fictionalized memoirs." That is, the writer is telling you about his life as a beach bum, or as a rock guitarist, or whatever. Its purpose is entertainment. How much of it is actually true, we don't know. This kind of books sells well (one of them is a NYT best-seller), but it is not intended as an authoritative resource.

Fictionalized memoirs don't need a moral, or a conflict, or an antagonist, or a plot. They merely need to be a diversion. Often they are humorous.

Would you prefer to read the truthful memoir of a rock guitarist who studied at the classical academy, and only played rock guitar when he couldn't get into the Philharmonic? Of course, his wife and three lovely children all don't mind. Or, would you rather read the memoir of a rock guitarist who talks only about sex and drugs and rock and roll, even if most if it is invented?

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