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We are used to stories being about conflict. There can be an antagonist, or a hostile environment, or even an internal problem (like depression), but conflict is there. The story arc involves dealing with some problem or other and growing in the process.

But think of My Neighbour Totoro. No conflict. No antagonist. There is the mother's sickness, but that's just a situation, something the girls need to deal with. Her getting better is unrelated to the girls' actions, and only happens in the credits - not in the film proper. The story "arc", if it is an arc, is the girls getting to know their magical neighbour. They do not go on to save the world together with that friend or save the friend from "normal humans" - nothing of that sort. They just make a friend.

How does such a story work? What is it that makes it interesting? What drives the plot? What marks the end, if there is no conflict that could be resolved? How does one write without a conflict to drive things?

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    From the linked Wikipedia page, there definitely seems to be conflict. For example: “Despite her many attempts, Mei is unable to show her family Totoro's tree.” So Mei wants to achieve something (show the tree to her family), but fails, repeatedly. If that is not a conflict, then I don't know what is. – celtschk Jun 18 '18 at 9:28
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    @celtschk Mei indeed can't show her family Totoro's tree at first. The standard way to write a conflict would have been for the family not to believe Mei, insist she's dreamt it up (if not invented it) - similar to how Narnia starts. Instead, Mei is believed by everyone, and her father goes so far as to thank the wood spirits for looking after her. See what I mean about "no conflict"? – Galastel Jun 18 '18 at 10:14
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    I think there is conflict in Totoro. At some point they urgently want to see their mother and there is no obvious way to get there on their own. At the very least I don't have the feeling Totoro is without tension at all. – Trilarion Jun 18 '18 at 10:17
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    My Neighbour Totoro definitely has some conflict. What distinguishes it for me is a lack of malicious intent in any character. – svavil Jun 19 '18 at 11:52
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    @EdmundReed: No, the start of "protagonist" is from "proto-" ("first"), not "pro" ("for"). It just means it's the primary character. – psmears Jun 19 '18 at 14:09
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There is definitely conflict, in the sense of narrative conflict, in My Neighbor Totoro. Sickness (with possible death) counts, whether it's resolved through any action of any characters or not. Finding Totoro and then not being able to find Totoro, or seeing the growth of a magical grove of trees, and then having it not be there later counts. Not knowing Totoro and getting to know Totoro also counts. It's an unknown that gradually reveals itself.

Personally, I'm not a big fan of the word conflict for a narrative because of this very confusion. I prefer to think of it as tension, or even better dissonance, as in music theory. Something is unsettling (a V7 chord, a person is sick, a character or place can't be found), and then that unsettling thing is either resolved or isn't. The unsettling thing, whether you call it dissonance, tension, or conflict, is what brings interest. It doesn't have to be a fight between two or more characters or ideas, or a massive obstacle that is overcome. It can be two girls getting to know a magical creature and experiencing a new place. There are plenty of moments of tension in My Neighbor Totoro, though. Just look at how the expression on the girls faces change, moment to moment, and you'll see it.

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    Does this answer conclude that you can't have a story without this "tension"? – Nacht Jun 18 '18 at 0:33
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    I doubt he'd go so far as to say "it can't happen", but I'd also be interested if Dan Hall has ever come across a book without "dissonance" that worked in the sense OP intended. – aaaaaa Jun 18 '18 at 1:06
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    Stories/shows that are meant to be pure relaxation are basically tension-free (you could argue they aren't, but I think at some point you start becoming unreasonable). Bob Ross's painting shows, perhaps? Though it's hard to call that a "story", especially in a writable sense. – zibadawa timmy Jun 18 '18 at 3:13
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    @zibadawatimmy even Bob Ross has tension - the mistakes he makes. And resolution: he turns them into "happy little accidents" and talks about how, in the end, they add value to the painting. The calming nature comes from the soothing way he just smooths over the tension, not from the lack of tension. And it's very applicable to both life and writing - things that add tension (sometimes at least?) end up resulting in a more beautiful life/story. – dwizum Jun 18 '18 at 12:56
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    I would say that you can't have a good story without tension. Good in the sense of emotionally satisfying. – Aaron Mahan Jun 18 '18 at 21:58
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My Neighbor Totoro makes heavy use of Kishōtenketsu:

Kishōtenketsu (起承転結) describes the structure and development of classic Chinese, Korean and Japanese narratives...The first Chinese character refers to the introduction or kiku (起句), the next: development, shōku (承句), the third: twist, tenku (転句), and the last character indicates conclusion or kekku (結句).

This site contains a deeper analysis, but here's an example:

  • Kiku: the girls run inside the house that their father tells them is most likely haunted
  • Shoku: the girls find a rotten pillar holding up the veranda
  • Tenku: instead of something bad happening, they push the pillar back into place and everything is fine
  • Kekku: the girls run away into the forest

EDIT: commenters have drawn parallels between kishōtenketsu and western literary analysis concepts, such as Freytag structure or the three act structure. While superficial similarities exist, the devil is in the details. Here's an article that explains the difference better than I could, but briefly, a story using a kishōtenketsu structure contains no conflict, no violence. Instead, the tenku, or twist, usually uses a non-sequitur or surprise to create something to resolve in the conclusion (or kekku). The fundamental distinction between kishōtenketsu and western forms is that the protagonists need not struggle for that twist to be delivered, the confusion can exist wholly on the part of the viewer.

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    I think this is the greatest answer - analyzing a Japanesee work through lenses of western culture (like other answers and indeed the OP try to do) makes completely no sense. Instead, one has to use lenses of the place where the story originated. – Empischon Jun 18 '18 at 11:24
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    @Empischon The analysis of a story does not necessarily need to be done from the same perspective as its creation. In particular, we "learn" to digest stories in the way that they are written and analyzed in our own culture, so when we view media from other cultures, we will see them from our own perspective. Asking how this story works as viewed by a westerner almost necessarily merits a western-style analysis. Also worth noting are the similarities between kishotenketsu and the Freytag structure; the cultural lenses in this case are not very different. – AlexanderJ93 Jun 18 '18 at 16:32
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    @AlexanderJ93 'we' learn to digest [...]? Maybe You do, but generalizing this to others is a risky proposition. Taking wrong perspective will invariably either make the story (much) more shallow or not work at all. Sure, some people do that. I stay by my -opinion- that doing this makes no sense. I, personally, find learning new languages, cultures and philosophies very rewarding, and analyzing a work in its proper cultural context is a part of that process. Also sorry, but I don not find Kishotenketsu and Freytag's piramid all that similar. Alas, this is not the place for this discussion. – Empischon Jun 19 '18 at 7:54
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    Seems like a translation of the concept of the three act story structure. – Todd Wilcox Jun 19 '18 at 21:03
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The first paragraph of the plot summary for the example you've given suggests there are at least two forms of emotional conflict in the material. The mother's illness, the strangeness of a new place. Conflict need not be in the form of overt confrontation but something needs to be changing to drive a narrative forward.

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    Yeah. You don't have to blow something up to have a story. Easy to forget these days. – Joe Jun 19 '18 at 20:05
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Remember back to elementary school. There are three kinds of stories.

  • Man vs. Man (Let's call this Capt. America vs. Iron Man)
  • Man vs. Nature (How about The Perfect Storm or Alive)
  • Man vs. Self (Castaway, for example)

Now many "real" stories have some of each category, but every story relies on one more than the other.

For your story (with no antagonist) your going to do more of the man vs. self or man vs. nature.

For example, you could tell a very heart-wrenching story of a family separated due to a hurricane. The family members can meet awesome people.

The children can stay with "the older couple next door", the parents with friends in another city. All while the roads and infrastructure are being rebuilt after the storm.

The children, while never in any danger of any kind can struggle with the fact that they miss their parents, and that the older couples' house is so different.

The parents can meet all 100% nice people and still can't manage to get to their children because bridges are out, roads are shut down. They could struggle with the fact that they can't get to their kids because the Red Cross, while nice, know their kids are safe, so they won't divert rescue parties from missing kids. And how that must feel to know that your kids are safe but having a part of you that wishes they weren't so you could get more help in getting them back to you.

Again, a story need not have an antagonist to be a good story. It does need conflict of some kind, but that conflict can be internal. Some of the most dramatic times in our lives don't come from fighting an external power, but from fighting our own internal issues.

  • Those categories don't fit all: they assume it always resolves around a main character. And what about "Chucky" or "Christine" (Stephen King): not quite a natural phenomenon and not human either. – Cœur Jun 18 '18 at 1:57
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    Both of those are Man v.s. Man. These are really rough types. Not meant to literally mean a human v.s. human. Totoro seems to be Man v.s. Self. Maybe with some Man v.s. nature. The main line of the story seems to be the girl coming to terms with the situation. – coteyr Jun 18 '18 at 2:05
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    Some stories even have Woman. :P – Stian Yttervik Jun 18 '18 at 8:42
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    There are multiple ways to classify conflict but I've never seen it limited to those three. Most lists at least include Man vs Society as well. Many lists include other variations, such as Man vs God (or Supernatural) and Man vs Technology. – Dan J. Jun 18 '18 at 11:46
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    If the story is more about how he learned to gain the confidence to fight a lion it's man v.s. self, if the story is about the fight with the lion it's Man vs Man. again, these are really loose types. Man v.s. Man is defined as character v.s. character. Man v.s. nature was taught to me as character v.s. the elements. Keep in mind that this is an elementary school look (primary school) and not a "high school"/secondary school view. – coteyr Jun 19 '18 at 11:26
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The answer to your base question is subtext...

Give the audience or reader something to chew on and make it enjoyable or terrifying or whatever... but in some way interesting... and some people will come along for the ride. Once they love it enough, they'll pay attention to the details and real or imagined patterns will begin to emerge. You can play David Lynch or James Joyce and just embrace that in silence; you can play George Lucas and go around ruining it for everyone; but you'll have your story and your peoples.

...and there's plenty in My Neighbor Totoro...

Aside from the mother's illness and the girls' new home and the older sibling's worry for the younger, the easy peacefulness of the film is also made interesting by the absolutely gorgeous visuals and the view of a rural slice-of-life as seen by urban transplants and the Japanese nature spirits, reimagined as oversized slightly dim children, and the transplant girls' success with befriending these new children, a worry of any kid in a new town.

Any one of those can speak to children or adults, who fill in the vast blanks with their own experiences and imagination.

...even before getting to Totoro being a psychopomp...

I mean, yeah, you obviously forgot the entire sequence about the older sister's anxiety over the younger but there's plenty in the movie—besides its original double billing with Grave of the Fireflies—to suggest that things didn't end happily and one, or both, or both of the girls and their mom actually died.

...What that means for the story is that when Mei goes missing and a sandal is found in the pond, Mei actually drowned. When Satsuki is asked about the sandal she cannot face the truth and lies about it not being Mei’s sandal. So Satsuki goes on a desperate search for Totoro, calling for him and actually opens up the door the realm of the dead herself. With Totoro’s help she finds her dead sister and they together go to their mother’s hospital. There, the only one who actually noticed that the sisters were there, was the mother, who also soon is going to die.

And in the ending scene, Satsuki and Mei don’t have any shadows...

I'll save you the time: Of course, most people don't pick up on this and it would hurt sales so, of course, there's been an official denial from Ghibli that says the shadows were nixed—in that scene but not others—because of budget concerns. And I've got a bridge I'd like to sell you. Watch the ending again. Remember what this movie was double-billed with; remember that Spirited Away was actually about adolescent slavery and forced prostitution.

There’s a famous murder case called [t]he Sayama Incident (My Neighbor Totoro takes place in Sayama Hills) in which two sisters turned up dead.

...the Sayama Incident did happen in May, and both of the sisters in Totoro are actually named “May”: “Satsuki” means “May” in Japanese, and “Mei” is the Japanese pronunciation for “May”.

In Japanese, there are also the “May blues” (五月病 or gogatsubyou) and [it] typically affects new students and new employees, because the school and the work year both begin in April. This sort of depression is found in people having trouble adjusting to new surroundings. In My Neighbor Totoro, the family has moved to a new area. This can be spun out further as a more general reference to depression.

The film and credits both point out that 'totoro' was Mei's misunderstanding of the 'troll' from The Three Billy Goats Gruff, which tried—albeit and failed—to eat children that passed its way. Further, one of the catbus stops is the 'way to the tomb' (墓道).

...so,

y'know, not necessarily the best example of what you were talking about...

...or a clue that there can be plenty of conflict more subtly done than 'Bob done shot that dragon what stole his girl'.

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    Umm, if Totoro is a psychopomp, what's going on in the sequel "Mei and the Kittenbus"? – Galastel Jun 18 '18 at 15:03
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    @Galastel Obviously that's just Mei's dying dream, like how the whole of Grease was just Sandy's dying dream. [/sarcasm] – F1Krazy Jun 18 '18 at 15:58
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I find Totoro actually quite similar in feel to Kiki's delivery service. There is not much of what we might consider a grand story arc driving the story, only a series of small hops from one stone to the next, each associated with the main problem (ill mother, wanting to succeed in life) but not necessarily moving the plot toward the resolution. In both movies, there is an idealized "feel" of childhood, with a series of small challenges, each met and resolved. For me, that is the appeal of the stories. I don't know anyone who had such a lovely, idyllic childhood, but the gentleness of this fantasy is like balm to my soul whenever I watch it.

In Totoro, the characters meet and deal with many challenges: the rotten support that almost falls, the spidery critters that turn out to be harmless, Mei's refusal to stay with Granny during the day when Father is gone, the rainy day when they wait for Father and he doesn't get off the bus, and finally Mei running away. In each of these cases, the focus seems to be less on how the problems are solved and more on who the characters are. It's an exploration of life rather than a straightforward march to victory. It allows us to stop and smell the flowers, and feel the wind on our hair.

In Kiki, first there is the long journey with unsureness of where she is going to end up or whether they will like her, then her inability to find a place in the town which is solved because of who she is; a kind, helpful girl. There is the loss of the stuffed cat doll, the cold, wet night and her subsequent illness, her loss of confidence and then finally that incredible wild ride that I never get tired of watching. It always gives me little goose bumps to watch the bristles of that street cleaner's broom suddenly come alive with her magic.

Many of the challenges come as a result of the character's feelings about what is going on, rather than there being an actual threat. Consider the scene where Kiki is on the beach with Tombo, and his friends come by. Kiki gets upset because she thinks they are making fun of her. If this was a western movie, this would probably happen because the kids were mean and spiteful, but instead they say, in a rather admiring and approving way, "She's working already?"

Honestly, I don't know if the appeal of these movies can be successfully translated to a written medium in our culture. Its very simplicity would be lost under the volume of detail that stories require. And the blowing of the wind, the drumming of the rain, the gurgling streams, the quiet attention to the details of small insects and imaginary creatures, which are all staples of these movies, would very likely be lost in a book. You could write about them, but readers often skim over "irrelevant" details, looking for the action.

5

A few thoughts.

What about low stakes. People (especially Hollywood) think they like high stakes, high octane, non-stop action. Think 'Rugrats' and 'All Grown Up'. Not real antagonist there, and low stakes. But an intriguing tale, touching narrative, and just fun times to be had.

Haya Miyazaki was really good at no villains because the antagonist was always just that, someone with an opposing goal--not a bad person. Look at Princess Mononoke, for example. Two groups with directly opposing goals (one wants to save the forest, the other wants to provide for her people), and a sole man that tries to mediate between them. No one is portrayed as 'good' or 'evil', they have flaws and make bad decisions.

Or how about taking a look at the narrative of Pixar movies. Rarely a villain in the traditional sense, but always a gripping story that doesn't let you walk away. Cars, you have a jerk of an antagonist, but the story isn't really about him--it's about Lightning's growth and finding himself. In fact, so much so that he throws the race on purpose.

In the same vein, why not antagonist as an obstacle to overcome. Lightning McQueen's true antagonist is his own vanity, and perhaps his loneliness. He doesn't have any real friends, because no one truly sees him--only his success. It isn't until he's essentially lost in this backwater town does he truly find himself.

Like @coteyr said, there are three types of conflicts. Use the one that fits the story you are trying to tell. And play with the concepts a bit.

After all.

What's the point of writing a story, if you don't have something interesting to say?

4

I personally think that most people give too much importance to the plot than to what the story means, or what the characters have to say. I feel that is because a clever plot is more exciting and engaging, and writers and producers or editors want to appeal to the public (rightly).

A story without conflict can exist, and can be beautiful, if it's beautifully told. You can do so by thinking in terms of micro-units, i.e. scenes. A scene can have a conflict, although small, and you can build around that.

A story like Totoro is full of small conflicts that build up scene after scene. The exploration of the house at the beginning, when the two girls meet the makkurokurosuke is built around the conflict between the characters and the unknown and scary place. The young neighbour Kanta is initially hostile. Etc.

Single units of the story can have great power in the emotions and meanings they convey, and I believe that this is material enough for a great movie or novel.

3

The slice of life genre is fairly popular in Japan. These kinds of stories use the lack of a plot and lack of conflict to serve as peaceful escapism. This is what makes them enjoyable.

Life, observed and examined. A cast of characters go about their daily lives, making observations and being themselves. School is perhaps the most common setting for these kinds of series, especially in animation. Coming of age is often a major part of their stories.

A related, perhaps more extreme concept is iyashikei (Japanese for "healing"), which refers to anime and manga that are purposefully intended to have a healing or soothing effect.

Works of this kind often involve alternative realities with little to no conflict, emphasizing nature and the little delights in life.

Even though many iyashikei creations seem to have a strong escapist basis, the goal is not only to offer a means of getting away from daily worries, but to let the audience embrace a calming state of mind. As these works tend to involve normal people in normal situations, this trope often overlaps with Slice of Life.

If you don't mind getting trapped in TV Tropes, the above links have many examples of such works. Some examples include ARIA and Sketchbook Full Color's.

These stories don't really have much plot to speak of. The healing or soothing effect is the main draw for series like these. So, to write stories like these, the focus needs to be on the scenery and on the little things. One idea: Think back to how you entertained youself when you were really young (like 4), when everything was still new and exciting. Ordinary things like that typically fit well with slice of life and iyashikei.

See also this essay, which discusses iyashikei in more detail. Some highlights:

  • Iyashikei series move at a slow, calming pace, and forgo both narrative and comedic tension.
  • Iyashikei uses and creates atmosphere through heavy focus on setting.
  • Mono no aware is another common theme in iyashikei. It is usually described as "a somewhat bittersweet appreciation of the beauty found in life, with the knowledge that everything in it is ephemeral".
  • Iyashikei stories do have narrative, but iyashikei de-emphasizes these compared to other genres.

Plot doesn't need to be something grand like good vs. evil or man vs. nature or anything like that. Take Yotsuba&! chapters 81-82, for instance. In these chapters Yotsuba and the gang go camping. There are a lot of trees. It is fun.

What drives the plot? Well, what drives you? Why would you want to go on vacation? Why would you want to go to the swimming pool? Why would you want to go for a walk in the park? Why would you want to hang out with friends? It's the same idea.

Of course, "interesting" is subjective, and this kind of story won't appeal to everyone. Some people have fallen asleep trying to watch anime of this genre, and some people aren't really interested in reading a story about stuff they already deal with in real life, and that's fine.

As for what marks the end... Well, these types of stories tend to be fairly open-ended, so there usually isn't a clear ending point. Anywhere is fine, really. With stories set in school though, the story typically ends right around when the characters graduate. You could also end it after a significant character growth, like with Sora in Sketchbook, when she talks more (spoilers). With Calvin and Hobbes, Bill Watterson ended it just because his interests had shifted. With Peanuts, Charles Schulz ended it because of declining health (and incidentally, he died one day before his last comic strip appeared in newspapers).

So I suppose you can stop the story at a natural transition point such as graduation or coming of age, when you are no longer interested in the story, or when you are dead.

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