Tuesday, September 14, 2010

So what is this "conflict" anyway? - Part I: the theory

(Related article: What is "conflict", Part II)

We've all heard it a thousand times. Drama cannot exist without conflict. Drama IS conflict. Conflict is the force that powers drama. Etc., etc., etc. This is unquestionably true. As anyone who reads scripts will know, a story without sufficient conflict is a terribly dull and pointless experience. Nothing worth caring happens, and because there is no reason for anything worth caring about TO happen. According to the Story Spine, a story without conflict cannot even be called a story. It bears about as much drama as your aunt's four hours of vacation slides, or a description of a blouse in last year's Sears catalog. Without conflict, there is nothing for an audience to find interesting. No matter how creative a narrative's premise, setting, and characters, a storyteller will never hold an audience's attention for more than ten minutes without conflict.

But the question I have the arrogance to ask is, “Why?” WHY can't drama exist without conflict? Why does a story need conflict in order to exist? What is it about the nature of conflict that makes it interesting to a human viewer, while anything without is a flat bore? Over and over I have heard men and women, experts in the field of drama, make statements about conflict as if they were as much as a given as the sky being blue, but I have never heard anyone explain why. Is there a reason behind this?

In mathematics, there are concepts known as “axioms.” An axiom is a basic mathematical proposition that is considered to be self-evident. If someone wanted to proved it through logical deduction, they would find it impossible. Examples include that if a = b, then therefore b=a, or a+b=b+a. Unlike theorems, axioms cannot be derived by principles of deduction, nor are they demonstrable by mathematical proofs, simply because they are starting points; there is nothing else from which they logically follow. Doubt the axioms, and all of mathematics falls apart. Is drama=conflict an axiom of storytelling? An unprovable fact that must be accepted by faith? Or is there a reason behind it?

To proceed logically, we must begin by defining our terms. What exactly is “drama?” Both drama and dramatic are used in such various ways the terms become vague and abstract. Even in literary and artistic circles it becomes a go-to label to describe just about anything narrative, theatrical, or emotionally striking. But when one tries to pinpoint an actual definition, we find that our question is a dog chasing its own tail.  

“Drama” means “conflict”. The two terms are nearly synonymous. If someone says that a situation was dramatic, they mean that it was filled with conflict. If you had too much drama in your last relationship, this means you and your other had constantly conflicting attitudes and emotions. If something creates a “dramatic change,” this means that there is a definite contrast (a conflict in appearance or perception) between how things were before and after. Even when “dramatic” denotes strong displays of emotion, one must admit that such displays cannot exist in a person without a conflict to trigger it. Therefore, we need to throw the word “drama” out the window and change the question to, “Why does a story demand conflict?” What is it about conflict that people find interesting?

Human beings love to experience conflict. They crave it. It's an urge still alive and well after millions of years of evolution in our reptilian brains. And I don't just mean the ancient savagery of cheering for blood in a gladiator arena. It exists in all of our lives. Modern enjoyments of conflict include an interest in sporting events, court cases, politics, gossip, board games, business, contests, competitions, hunting, fishing, hide-and-go-seek, the list could go on. But people rarely want to experience conflict directly in its cruel unchecked form. Very few enjoy the stress of arguments or the threat of fist fights. We want to experience the joy of conflict from either the perspective of an uninvolved viewer, or within safe controlled boundaries, such as the rules of a sport. This is completely normal, and many believe healthy within limits. But to try to find an explanation, one would have to delve deep into the nature of human psychology. There are undoubtedly volumes of discussion dedicated to this question, but to investigate further would probably only create more questions than answers. So, I will leave that Pandora's box closed and focus specifically on how the human desire for conflict manifests itself in story

Why does a story need conflict in order to exist? I have thought about it, and try as I might, I cannot come up with any direct answer. All I can hope to do is relate it to the needs of a narrative story.
Definition time again: What exactly do we mean by “story?” What separates a story from other types of narrative communication, such as a news article or television commercial? In a chapter of my upcoming book, I present this definition:

A STORY is 1.) a structured series of events, 2.) about characters, 3.) dealing with a problem, 4.) unified by a premise.

Now, trust me when I say my definition backed up by sound logic, because the only part of this definition of interest at the moment is part #3. Stories are about problems. From the simplest of folktales to the grandest of literary epics, all well-told stories from the beginning of time revolve around a character dealing with some kind of problem. A problem naturally implies conflict. Something is wrong with the protagonist's world, and the protagonist sets out to struggle against forces set against them to solve that problem.
Why is this? Why have all real stories ever told fit into this simple pattern? The answer lies in why stories exist in human culture in the first place. Humanity has a psychological need for stories. The world we live in is chaotic, confusing, orderless, and sometimes meaningless. Things rarely turn out the way we want them to, and the cumulative effect of our hopes and desires consistently going unfulfilled can drive a person to despair or even madness

Story's most important social function is to give people the illusion of a structured, orderly world where things happen for a reason, where actions have tangible results and clear meanings, a world where things are resolved in the end. Stories are not a reflection of the world we live in, but an analogy of the world as we would like it to be.
 
We all have problems in our lives. They can overwhelm us. Many seem unsolvable. Sometimes our problems are so great they just might drive us insane. This is where stories come in. Stories are social therapy. Stories give us people with problems. People just like us. As the story progresses, the character moves forward to overcome that problem. Once the character's problem has been solved, the story comes to an end. Through the social therapy of stories, people come to believe that their troubles are not insurmountable, that problems do have solutions, and that no matter how bad things may seem, everyone has a shot at a happy ending.
So, one reason why a story demands conflict is because a story demands that a character struggle against a problem. From their comfortable position as a detached viewer, the audience can watch human beings like them take on enormous problems and battle against conflicts more severe than any of us ever hope to find ourselves in. We watch these people fight for their lives, their loves, their souls against forces that appear insurmountable. And the audience gains pleasure from that. If they see others fighting against such problems and ultimately succeeding, it makes the audience's own problems seem far less threatening. If others can achieve the impossible, it gives the audience hope for success in their own lives. And the bigger the conflict they experience through the story, the more pleasure they will receive.

I realize that this does not completely answer the question I originally set out to answer. It only illuminates story conflict on its most macroscopic level. Maybe there is more to uncover that will explain things on a deeper level.

Or, maybe drama=conflict IS a storytelling axiom. All I know is that, like science, continuously increasing our understanding of our craft on its most basic level can only make us greater, more insightful storytellers on its most advanced. Keep digging.

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