Rachel Manija Brown on story without conflict.
I’m always really (a-har) conflicted by these sorts of posts, because on the one hand I agree—I love quiet scenes and cutrainfic and so on—but, on the other, I think in some respects they sell the notion of “conflict” itself short. Yes, there is an over-emphasis on superficial external conflict (e.g. violence, arguments) in a lot of media nowadays, see pretty much every action movie, for example. But, also, I think it’s possible for subtler forms of conflict to exist within a narrative, including metatextual conflict between the narrative and itself, the narrative and other works, or the narrative and the reader.
Brown mentions the “secret garden” genre, for example, as one that tends to be without conflict. But I’d argue that the attraction of the secret garden is, in fact, rooted in a metatextual conflict in this latter sense. That is, it’s the conflict between the reader’s unfulfilled desire for their own secret garden and the fact that the protagonist has one that the reader, by the very action of reading, intrudes upon and eventually takes over (by subsuming the book, and thus the garden, into their own memories).
Curtainfic, meanwhile, is a work that’s almost always in conflict with its own source material. A solid third of all fics tagged curtainfic on the AO3, for example, are in the Supernatural fandom, with the next biggest chunk coming from the MCU. These are not canons known for their fluffy domesticity! As someone who loves a curtainfic, and particularly loves its Villains Out Shopping subtrope, I can assert the fun in both reading and writing these scenarios is definitely in exploring the conflict their quiet mundanity presents against either the canon or the characters. (See also: why villain/antihero/antagonist fandoms tend to be full of “fluffy” memes.)
For another, related, example, see any time anyone trots out kishōtenketsu as a “story without conflict” trope… and then proceed to give a handful of examples all of which include some kind of conflict. The fact that the conflict is usually framed as the story presenting contrasting narrative elements, with the conflict between them occurring within the reader’s head as a kind of dialectic—as opposed to direct “on the page” action—does not, in fact, actually mean the narrative is “without conflict”. But, like. Good luck getting anyone to admit that.
“But, Alis!” you might be thinking. “What you’re describing is contrast, not ‘conflict’. You’ve even used the word multiple times!”
Yeah. And what I’d argue is that, in almost all circumstances, when people talk about “conflict” in the context of narrative what they actually mean to talk about is contrast (a.k.a. tension). Two random characters having a fight is conflict, but it isn’t narratively interesting unless you’re one of those people who nuts to mechanized descriptions of fight scenes.1 Two characters having a fight over differing ideologies, on the other hand, is interesting, particularly when each side has some valid points and the audience themselves is engaged with attempting to determine who to root for and why. This is also why so many “popcorn villains” are so flat and kinda bullshit.
Think about, say, Strickland in Shape of Water, for example, who is pretty much the epitome of an uncompelling antagonist. This isn’t the fault of Michael Shannon, who does great; it’s because in the context of the narrative Strickland is just a one-note bad guy. He’s a bigot who hates the fish man! Okay, well… good on him, I guess. But the reality is Strickland could be replaced by literally anything else—including nothing at all—and the film’s conflict would remain the same. Why? Because the conflict in the film isn’t “oh no gubba gonna getcha fish, gurl”. It’s “ahaha in every other story like this the fish guy is either evil, or dies, or turns human at the end”. It’s a metatextual conflict, in other words, between the audience and their expectations for the genre. This is also, incidentally, why I thought the film was kinda meh; because I read a lot of monster romance, I have no genre expectation of the narrative going in any way other than “girl fucks fish man”. Because that’s how monster romances work!2 Which means the actual narrative itself felt empty in the “superficial conflict no contrast/tension” way.3 Also, the romance was really flat. Like, really flat.
I did look pretty, though. So… there’s that I guess.4 Also, it won a bunch of Oscars, which just goes to show why narrative conflict is such a minefield, since it leans so heavily on being able to anticipate the mental/emotional states of your audience…
- No judgement, you do you. ^
- Except when they’re, like, “boy fucks fish man”, or “girl fucks eldritch horror”, or “enby shares non-sexual intimacy with demon”, or whatever. ^
- Also see: the Obvious Hints that Sally is also, in fact, a fish monster. Meaning the story isn’t even “girl fucks fish man”, it’s “fish woman fucks fish man” which… eeeeeh. ^
- Though don’t get me started on the whole “sassy Black best friend with deadbeat husband” and “tragic queer uncle” tropes because, ugh. What is it about del Toro films and throwing intersectionality under the goddamn bus? ^