There’s a common saying in writing classes–one of the first you will ever hear–that goes like this: stories require conflict. If you don’t have a conflict, you don’t have a story. This is good advice most of the time, because characters who go through their whole story with nothing but smooth sailing are boring as shit (and also probably Mary Sues/Marty Stus), and nobody wants to read about someone who just has good stuff happen to them all the time. We need our schadenfreude. However, like most writing advice, I don’t think the conflict rule is applicable in all situations. Sometimes, other elements in the story are more important, making the actual plot irrelevant–and therefore not requiring conflict. Like usual, I made you a list.
First off, a note on plot-driven stories. Personally, I’m very much a plot-or-gtfo kind of reader and, consequently, I also tend to be that sort of writer. Impatience is my middle name, and I prefer a story that gets to the freaking point. However, I recognize that plot-driven stories are only one direction that writing can go, and that it is a largely Western convention to have stories that rely so heavily on conflict. In many Eastern storytelling traditions, it is way more important that the story demonstrate the emotional reality of a character, or fully illustrate a setting, or explore a philosophical concept (also popular in greek/roman stories). The plot is secondary. Our obsession with conflict-driven media is entirely cultural, and it’s never a bad thing to step outside of your culture once in a while.
But that doesn’t mean Western literature doesn’t have its own examples of no-conflict gems. Here are the ones I could think of:
1. The Nutcracker
This is easily the most widely known and celebrated story on this list; it only gets more obscure from here. This Russian tale first appeared with E.T.A. Hoffman’s 1816 novel The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, but the far more famous ballet form of the story was first choreographed in 1892 (to a complete lack of acclaim). You probably know the story, but basically, this girl Clara gets an ugly Nutcracker doll for Christmas, and then she gets shrunken down to its size in the middle of the night, and the Nutcracker comes to life to save her from the Rat King, and then he takes her on a magical journey through a magical kingdom with fairies and shit. It’s a lovely enough play to watch, particularly for the music but also (if it’s a good production) for the dancing–the Sugar Plum Fairy in particular.
But here’s the thing. Very little actually happens in this story, and there is almost no conflict to speak of. The most dramatic moment comes when the Nutcracker kills the Rat King, but the scene is over in like two minutes and it happens at the very beginning of the story, while the rest is basically just a way to showcase ballerinas and the orchestra. In fact, this story has so little conflict in it that an old screenwriting teacher of mine once called it “the white whale of screenplay adaptations.” It’s been tried a million times, but in the end, there just isn’t enough story to make The Nutcracker work as a movie (though that didn’t stop them from making one anyway back in the 70s). Clara has zero personality or motivation, and that goes double for the Nutcracker, and the only major conflict is resolved in the first half an hour. It ought to be the worst play ever, but nobody cares because it’s such an amazing vehicle for music and dance (and holiday cheer, too, I suppose).
But that’s a ballet. Plot has never been terribly important in ballets; they’re about the dancing. What about a novel? Don’t worry. I’m on it.
2. Rendezvous With Rama
Arthur C. Clarke’s 1972 SciFi classic is basically the definition of “hard science fiction.” It’s set in the 22nd century, where an alien craft has just entered our solar system. The book follows a group of explorers as they contact the ship and study what they can of it before it flings itself around the sun and back out into space. The interior of this ship is described in long-winded, painstaking detail, to the point where you start to feel like you know the wind patterns of the craft better than you know the Captain of the ship. Basically, this whole book is just an excuse for Clarke to show off his cool ideas about what an alien spaceship might look/act like, and everything else–including the human society and characters with it–is secondary.
Because this book is so completely focused on the alien technologies Clarke is imagining, very little happens in the way of story conflict. Yes, there’s a planetary council that occasionally gives them exploration commands, and then at the end of the book the Mercurians suddenly decide to be assholes and the explorers have to thwart them, but both of those story elements feel very much like later additions. It reads like Clarke got to the end of this novel-length description of his alien ship and went, “…shit, but my writing teacher said there has to be conflict…NOW THERE ARE BOMBS FROM MERCURY.” It’s pretty silly, and the book is a way better read if you just kind of ignore everything that attempts to be plot. In this case, plot just gets in the way of the main event: the fake science.
It’s worth noting that there’s a whole world of “hard science fiction” out there that would fit here just as nicely as Rendezvous does (Tau Zero, by Poul Anderson, comes immediately to mind), though I do think this is the best example. But fake science isn’t the only novel element that can over-ride plot and draw a reader’s attention. For that, we turn to one of my new favorite authors:
Mervyn Peake’s 3-book fantasy epic is a series I have only recently discovered, at the behest of a friend of mine who cited it as evidence against my plot-or-gtfo theory of writing (he was right; meandering, intensely detailed prose can be extremely effective, but it rarely is because so few people are Mervyn Peake). It is a great series, though I wouldn’t recommend it to everyone; it’s very much a book for people who get entirely too excited about sentences. The prose in this series is so gorgeous and mind-bending that I have literally thrown the book across the room out of sheer exasperation with its brilliance, but you have to be a real student of sentence structure to figure out what is happening sometimes.
The thing about Gormenghast is that, while lots of plot-like things happen, including murder and deception and intrigue and people getting cats thrown at their faces, most of the action is completely buried beneath miles of Peake’s exquisite descriptive prose. Things happen, but they happen so subtly that you don’t really notice them. Reading the book is less watching a story unfold and more exploring a setting as it slowly evolves around you. The Castle Gormenghast is the book, and all of the characters within it are just extensions of the castle, and the story is the castle slowly waking up from a long sleep. Plot is not important; setting is all that really matters. That’s it. Or, at least, that’s it so far–I’m only about 1/4 of the way through the second book at the moment.
And that’s my list, brief though it may be. As always, if you can think of other examples, make sure to leave them in the comments!
“I could never live off lemonade and candy.” -Clara, The Nutcracker (1977)