Conflict with Plot
I am an English major. As an English major, I study the development of stories. One of the first things we learn, even way back in high school as we sit bored is that the central point of a story is the conflict. There is always some sort of conflict. Person versus person, versus self, nature, society. It is always someone against someone or something else. We are familiar with conflict and triumph. The hero slays the monster and gets the girl, the teenager overcomes depression and feels happiness. All these stories share the same bones that built them despite the generations, history, and context that surrounds them.
These stories are part of our social psyche. We want the Hero, we want to be the Hero, we want the Hero to succeed. When they don't it's a tragedy. (Literally, the tragedy storyline is the fall of the Hero.) This conflict emphasis in stories is the most familiar way to express the complex weaving of symbols and language we call a story. We may think that it is the only way to express the vast and often universal truths that humanity holds, but it isn't! While we grow up we always hear the tale of how the Hero slays the dragon and gets the girl and how that story is the origin for every other story after, forever and ever. Conflict actually isn't the center of a story despite our neat little time-line plots we draw out in school. Rising action, climax, and falling action... all settling to a nice little resolution. While this might seem like the basic construction it isn't the only construction.
That's because conflict isn't the right word for the centerpiece of a story. We think that it is conflict that keeps us hooked into a story. That's what teachers and authors tell us all the time. To be engaged in a piece there must be conflict. Two men, clashing and fighting, both ready to triumphanity perish for their cause.... That's what creates drama, intrigue, and focus. Without it, nothing happens. But that isn't true. Some genres can exist without conflict though, one being horror. The story at first glance may appear to be benign man versus self or nature but there is something going on there that makes it properly terrifying. Otherwise it would simply be a Hero story. Overcoming the dragon, overcoming the mental state. But horror isn't just about overcoming, sometimes it's about succumbing or merely about the amount of terror one can inspire in a reader before they shut off all the lights at night.
What makes horror scary isn't the conflict: it's the tension.
Writing two sentence horror stories
In one of my writing communities we started a game of making two sentence horror stories. In only two sentences you had to try to scare the living daylights out of someone. It was a fun mind bender. You couldn't have simple slashers or kidnappings here – they weren't scary enough in just two sentences. The hook for the story had to come from somewhere else. Tension. In horror most of the tension comes from the unknown. My favorite story that came out of this experiment was:
“You hear your mom calling from the kitchen. As you walk down the stairs you hear a whisper from the closet, 'Don't go down there, honey, I heard it too'”
Either way, you're gonna get your face eaten off. Look out small child!
The fear in this story isn't from knowing what is in the kitchen or what is in the closet. It is not knowing what either one is. You have no idea what you're dealing with. Your mother could be downstairs oblivious to the fact you might get your face eaten off or your mother could be in that closet hiding from a real threat downstairs. But you stand there in that stairwell for a moment in complete and total fear because you don't know. There is no conflict here, merely the appearance of conflict created by your lack of knowledge of the situation. In other words: tension. Tension between the known and unknown.
This is all created by juxtaposition. It's usually where tension arises. Characters with foils – common in love stories – spark chemistry and interest. How opposites work together and find ways to function are ways to tell stories that don't involve conflict. They still provide an interesting perspective on life and allow for insight and analysis.
There is another way!
The abrupt changes and contrasting elements make literature without conflict fascinating. For example, the Kishotenketsu, a Chinese and Japanese structure. It consists of four stages: 1) introduction, 2) development 3) twist and 4) conclusion. It is usually more open ended and speculative, but it still provides growth and development. This plot appears more confusing that sensible because it does not have direct head to head conflict. Rather it often shows to distinct story lines that may or may not be connected with the resolution sorting out both the story lines.
Surprise is another element created out of tension. Often employed by Kishotenketsu, it is the result of focus being directed one way, and a resolution coming from another. The tension arises out of the juxtaposition of the two and surprise is the resulting emotion. Thrilling dramas will use this tactic, often for the character to escape from having to use conflict as a resolution.
Tension coexists with conflict, which is why we probably fail to attribute our interest to it when conflict is present. Tension is quiet and subtle, conflict loud and brash. It's no wonder we don't notice. Conflict results in a victor and a failure. You cannot even have conflict without tension because tension is the friction of opposites, of things that are dissimilar that must be placed next to each other. Much like magnets can repel each other tension works with conflict (pushing them together) or without (watching them move apart). Both can be interesting in terms of telling a story. There is a distinction however, and it is worth exploring into new and interesting stories. There is more than one way to tell a good story! We don't all need to slay dragons.
The loss of one element does not always mean the success of another, the harmony of two elements does not always mean boredom. Interest should be generated by depth and complexity – not always from action and reaction (often interpreted as violence). This isn't to say that conflict has no place in story telling and shouldn't be used. On the contrary it has been so deeply ingrained into our culture because of its value and attraction. Conflict does create interest and significance because it reflects reality. We all experience conflict in some way and we must learn to deal with. The Hero reminds us of our social code of ethics – what we value in our actions. Learning to work with only tension though also reflects reality in that it reminds us that things don't always have a clear goal or opposition to fight. Ambiguity is the hallmark of tension driven stories, and ambiguity is what life is made of.