This essay will meander a bit and ultimately has no conflict. But that’s kind of the point.
A few weeks ago, Dara posted an article on facebook “The significance of plot without conflict.” Shortly thereafter, I saw “Tiny Furniture,” the debut film by Lena Dunham. Then, I read the extremely formulaic screenwriting book “Save the Cat.”
The article talks about the standard advice in Western writing class that every story must have 1) a beginning, middle & end and 2) conflict. In fact, screenwriting/acting classes will tell you that each individual scene should have conflict. Here’s Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 writing tips, which makes the point in a less hacky way.
According to the article, there is a Chinese/Japanese plot structure called kishōtenketsu that does not rely on conflict. The first and second acts set up the situation, the third act introduces a “new surprising element,” and the fourth act draws some kind of conclusion. Just read the article and come back when you’re done.
Dara tagged both me and Matt, and Matt can make his own response. But my response is: Fine by me.
I do not have a lot of formal training in creative writing. I’m basically self-taught by studying genre pieces, mystery novels, and whatever Great Literature manages to pierce my genre bubble.
So I’m not terribly beholden to the 3 Act/Conflict model. I see it as a tool in the toolbox, and I’m happy to see that there are other tools out there. It’s possible that my first movie, A Voice From The Dead, uses a similar structure.
I will say that the 3 Act/Conflict model is a very effective tool, and one that’s been hashed out over 4,000 years of Western Civilization. And I think a conflict-free story would be a bit boring unless it’s done really well (I’ll refer you back to A Voice From The Dead).
For a conflict-free story that’s done really well, I’ll refer you to “Tiny Furniture.” If that story has conflict, it’s on such a small scale that I can hardly see it. In it, a young woman returns home after graduating from a liberal arts college, falls back into her old patterns, and halfheartedly attempts to get laid.
Describing the plot of “Tiny Furniture” doesn’t really do it justice. There’s not much “arc” to it. Some scenes have conflict, but not much changes. The film succeeds on the quality of its images and its tone-setting.
So this brings me back around to the 3 Act/Conflict model. Any rule can be broken, if you have the talent and skill to pull it off.