Saturday, 1 September 2012

A Plot Without Conflict

In the West, plot is commonly thought to revolve around conflict: a confrontation between two or more elements, in which one ultimately dominates the other.

I've been watching a lot of movies lately, and no matter what the genre is, they all seem to end with some kind of bloody confrontation. I've grown so fed up with guns and car chases and death on a mass scale that it makes me just want to throw my hands in the air and give up hope for the entire human race. After three million years of evolution is this really the best we can do?

This obsession with violence got me thinking about an article I read a while ago titled The Significance of Plot Without Conflict (which is where the quote above came from). Everyone who has ever done a creative writing course is told that conflict is what drives the plot, and without it there is no story. But is this really just a cultural construction, from a society which has been unable to get past conflict? Of course the conflict doesn't have to be violent, but it almost inevitably is in most Hollywood movies and much of the genre fiction that dominates today (not to mention cardboard cut-out characters and cliches that just won't quit).

The article suggests that it is possible to have a plot without conflict, using as an example the structure known as kishōtenketsu which has been used by Japaenese and Chinese writers for centuries. In the Western 3 or 5 act narrative structure the conflict appears towards the end of the first act and it then takes centre stage. In the 4 act kishōtenketsu model "no major changes occur until the third act, in which a new, often surprising element is introduced. The third act is the core of the plot, and it may be thought of as a kind of structural non sequitur. The fourth act draws a conclusion from the contrast between the first two “straight” acts and the disconnected third, thereby reconciling them into a coherent whole."

Apparently this is the structure for Japanese comic manga, which I know very little about, but it has given me much food for thought. I can see now how my own writing has followed the Western model, but after reading this I'm very interested in trying a different style in which "no problem impedes the protagonist; nothing is pitted against anything else. Despite this, the twist in panel three imparts a dynamism—a chaos, perhaps—that keeps the comic from depicting merely a series of events. Panel four reinstates order by showing us how the first two panels connect to the third, which allows for a satisfactory ending without the need for a quasi-gladiatorial victory."

No need for a quasi-gladiatorial victory clearly means no epic battles, no gun-fights, no dramatic car chases, no cities being decimated, no monsters being slayed by heroes, no more mindless, pathetic, numbing spectacles of violence and destruction. There's enough of that in the real world, just turn on the news. Of course in the real world the "good" guys don't always triumph, and it can be much harder to tell who they actually are, which is the whole attraction of these big budget bimbos, but enough is enough.

I think it's really interesting that the Western narrative structure is reflected in Western philosophy. When I was at university the Derrida was all the rage, which isn't surprising given that he was a student of Nietzsche: "As a Nietzschean, he believed that reality consisted, invariably, of one thing dominating and imposing on another, in a selfish exercise of its will to power.......Apparently, Derrida was uncontent with the three-act structure’s nearly complete control over Western writing: he had to project it onto the entire world. Eurocentrism has rarely had a more shining moment."

I long for kinder, gentler, smarter stories in the same way I long for a kinder, gentler, smarter world, and I extend the author of the post's call for "a renewed look at kishōtenketsu in the West" because..."it offers writers the opportunity to explore plots with minimal or no conflict. Perhaps it could even change our worldview."

Here's hoping.


  1. Have you read White Truffles in Winter? It's a rare book that doesn't really have a plot. It's about the chef Auguste Escoffier and his dying wife. The wife wants him to create a "signature" dish for her before she dies- the way he has for so many others. Including his mistress. It goes back in forth in time- not so much happens. It's more about what happens between people than events. Very low rated on Goodreads, I think because of the lack of plot. Even if people can't quite put their finger on that as the reason. But it was great...if you're in the mood.

    1. This book sounds quite interesting. I've just added it to my TBR list. Sometimes I really do feel like reading books like this that aren't based on conflict and drama. Thanks for the heads up!