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Entertaining reads with no conflict (2 Viewers)

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vranger

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In my school age years, I used to come across quite a few books that were simply slice of life stories. There was no villain, there was little to no conflict, just interesting and funny things happening.

Yesterday, I thought about Arthur C Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama, which won the Hugo and Nebula Awards, and is considered one of his top tier novels. There is no villain and no conflict in the novel. It chronicles the appearance and subsequent exploration of a mysterious alien probe. The only tension in the novel occurs when a crewmember gets stranded on one side of the probe's interior and his crewmates work out how to get him back. The rest of it is a sense of wonder at the experience of exploration.

The novel doesn't even provide dramatic discoveries or a first contact. When they run out of time, they leave, and they leave with little understanding of what they observed. No resolution. I don't know if that sort of story arc is unique in the genre, but it's markedly unusual.

Despite the absence of plot elements we're commonly told are 'essential', Rendezvous with Rama is a fascinating read and a page turner. Sadly, the sequels written by Gentry Lee--which are more traditional plots--are cures for insomnia. I don't know how much Clarke contributed to the plotting of the sequels, but he didn't do the writing. I don't like all of Clarke's stories, but he was never boring.

So we have, in one series, a lead novel with no conflict which is fascinating, followed by three traditional plots including conflict which were, at least to me, snooze fests.

James Herriot's series starting with All Creatures Great and Small also fits the bill.

I'd love to write a book like that, and so far I haven't felt I'm up to it. Thinking about it, I may have a possibility three novels hence (including my WIP), which I only just considered could fit this mold. I have an unusual trial in mind for the MC, but I realize he doesn't have to experience major conflict to face his trial. (I'm going to put that in my notes, NOW!)

Does anyone else think about writing such a story, or have already written such a story, or would like to name other novels fitting the discussion. If so, I'd love to know about them.

Also, discussion of how to write such a story, and do it well, might keep this thread from being moved. LOL
 

indianroads

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Many years ago I was listening to NPR and they were extolling the virtues of an award winning book that was about a man picking up his dry cleaning during a break at work. Apparently it was all about memories that were triggered while doing this chore. I never read the book, but it seems that many people liked it.

Currently, I'm rereading Kerouac's On the Road. Not a lot of conflict there, just flow of consciousness of the beat generation that manages to be entertaining.

As a human, I find drama in everything - even Rendezvous with Rama, floating to the other side of the ship and the discoveries they made I found to be dramatic. Often, emotional conflict can be as, or even more compelling than physical conflict. Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions had very little in terms of a plot or conflict, yet was extremely entertaining.
 

Taylor

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The book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance comes to mind. It was very popular in the 70s. Although I can vaguely remember the story, I remember really enjoying it. The title is a bit of a giveaway, but the point of the story is more about the quality of life. In modern terms it would be synonymous with mindfulness. Not a lot of plot, or villains. It had a big impact on me as teenager.

Although, now that I think about it, there was conflict, but more with his internal journey.
 
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Theglasshouse

WF Veterans
Unfortunately, I haven't had the opportunity to read either of these yet. But if Rendezvous with Rama doesn't rely on conflicts does it rely on characters? Some rare storytellers don't rely on conflict. I seem to think literary works of this sort are even considered rare. The one that started that trend was that Russian writer (not Tolstoy).

I am thinking I can't judge it well enough. I am guessing it relied on intriguing characters (I used wikipedia). I looked up some fans' opinions, and he supposedly uses some unique characters. It could be a good debate whether he deserved the nebula and Hugo for the novel and why? It might just be a discussion of what made it work.

Maybe he made his conflict almost invisible if it is all internal and what happens to the characters is inside their mind. After reading and mulling some comments this doesn't seem the case with this novel.

According to the book it is an idea driven story maybe about alien culture. That is according to the synopsis.

I think indianroads explained maybe why people like it. It is about the ideas or speculation that people like from it the most. It was because of the discoveries made. It is much liked by fans for many reasons. But this seems to be enigmatic and mysterious since every novel seems to have conflict in the situations or a plot. It is after all about space exploration.
 

Pamelyn Casto

WF Veterans
The book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance comes to mind. It was very popular in the 70s. Although I can vaguely remember the story, I remember really enjoying it. The title is a bit of a giveaway, but the point of the story is more about the quality of life. In modern terms it would be synonymous with mindfulness. Not a lot of plot, or villains. It had a big impact on me as teenager.

Although, now that I think about it, there was conflict, but more with his internal journey.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is one of my all-time favorites. I love reading about Plato and Aristotle and their ideas (I love to explore ancient Greek culture) and the way the author pulled them in was purely delicious to me. From the title, I never dreamed it would be a book of interest to me. I first met and and read it in the 1990s but it remains on my bookshelf, all marked up, ready for me to join in with it again. I love that book to pieces.
 

vranger

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But if Rendezvous with Rama doesn't rely on conflicts does it rely on characters?
I read Rendezvous with Rama in 1975 ... found it in the college bookstore my first quarter, so I'm pondering your question. To answer it, I think about other books I read at the time I haven't revisited since, including other Clarke. All which impressed me have one or more characters I remember vividly, and I remember their conflicts vividly ... including Clarke. Arguably his most famous character is HAL.

While the characters were interesting, I don't recall any major character conflict, and in my mind they weren't the stars of the book. The star was Rama the alien probe. The draw of the book was the mystery of what they would find, and when they did find things, the potential for explanations of what it all meant ... explanations which never came. Of course, we didn't know the book would leave us hanging until we finished the last page, and even more surprising, once we realized that we didn't care. LOL
 

Taylor

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Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is one of my all-time favorites. I love reading about Plato and Aristotle and their ideas (I love to explore ancient Greek culture) and the way the author pulled them in was purely delicious to me. From the title, I never dreamed it would be a book of interest to me. I first met and and read it in the 1990s but it remains on my bookshelf, all marked up, ready for me to join in with it again. I love that book to pieces.

Oh yes, I had forgotten about all the Greek philosphy. I had the same experience with the title...lol! Been so long since I read it, I'm going to read it again. Thanks for the inspiration!
 

vranger

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I should have done some puttering around the web on the subject while on the initial post.

One of the top results proclaims there is no story without conflict! (A Quora answer, which I always consider suspect).

There there was this:
https://www.standoutbooks.com/without-conflict/

which includes a quote from Ursula Le Guin:
Modernist manuals of writing often conflate story with conflict. This reductionism reflects a culture that inflates aggression and competition while cultivating ignorance of other behavioral options. No narrative of any complexity can be built on or reduced to a single element. Conflict is one kind of behavior. There are others, equally important in any human life: relating, finding, losing, bearing, discovering, parting, changing.

Change is the universal aspect of all these sources of story. Story is something moving, something happening, something or somebody changing.

I also found this, which I discovered more or less agrees with my opinion of Rendezvous with Rama:
https://mmjordahl.com/2013/04/28/stories-with-no-conflict/

There are other blogs on the subject, many drawing ambivalent conclusions. The more 'courageous' among the bloggers encourage their readers to consider the possibility, with a sentiment that giving into nothing but stories with conflict is 'same old same old'.
 

indianroads

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There's conflict in everything. If I go to the refrigerator looking for a snack, I'm conflicted, should I pick celery or ice cream?
Le Guin's Lathe of Heaven, which is one of my favorite books, has conflict, as does the Left Hand of Darkness, and every book in her Earthsea series.

Defining conflict as physical combat is IMO limiting.
 

Terra

Senior Member
Would ‘inspired writing’ fit the bill for this style?

I’m told to “show, don’t tell”, but being able to take the ordinary and make it extra-ordinary ... being able to ‘see’ a story inside something that other folks would take as an everyday happening, doesn’t always require showing imo. The craft of telling stories is ancient, and I just can’t picture one of my ancestors using a bunch of adjectives and adverbs to tell a story of what happened on ‘the day when ....’ Inspiration comes from within, and I think sometimes that gets lost in the ‘how to write’ rather than just telling the story.
 

luckyscars

WF Veterans
In my school age years, I used to come across quite a few books that were simply slice of life stories. There was no villain, there was little to no conflict, just interesting and funny things happening.

If you google the definition of 'conflict', you will see several. The one people most commonly associate with literary conflict is "a serious disagreement or argument, typically a protracted one." That is common, sure, but there are others...

- "a prolonged armed struggle."
- "a condition in which a person experiences a clash of opposing wishes or needs."
- "an incompatibility between two or more opinions, principles, or interests"

There is also a verb form: "be incompatible or at variance; clash."

I feel like if one considers all these definitions and all the ways they can possibly manifest, there is probably no story in which there is no conflict. There may well be (definitely are, actually) stories were the conflict is infinitely more subtle, to be sure, and perhaps for the sake of semantic simplicity it would be easier to say 'this story lacks any real conflict', but that does not mean it is true.

Rendezvous With Rama, let's talk about that one because I have read it. But for those who have not, let's simply use the first paragraph of the Wikipedia synopsis...

After an asteroid falls in Northeast Italy in 2077, creating a major disaster, the government of Earth sets up the Spaceguard system as an early warning of arrivals from deep space.

The "Rama" of the title is an alien starship, initially mistaken for an asteroid categorised as "31/439". It is detected by astronomers in the year 2131 while it is still outside the orbit of Jupiter. Its speed (100,000 km/h - 62,137 m/h) and the angle of its trajectory clearly indicate it is not on a long orbit around the sun, but is an interstellar object. The astronomers' interest is further piqued when they realise the asteroid has an extremely rapid rotation period of four minutes and is exceptionally large. It is named Rama after the Hindu god,[6] and an unmanned space probe dubbed Sita is launched from the Mars moon Phobos to intercept and photograph it. The resulting images reveal that Rama is a perfect cylinder, 20 kilometres (12 mi) in diameter and 50 kilometres (31 mi) long, and almost completely featureless, making this humankind's first encounter with an alien spacecraft.


^ This is absolutely a conflict already. It doesn't matter if it's not terribly pronounced within the text on the scale of, say, Independence Day or something. This is a conflict because we have a sense of two 'sides': Humanity and space.

I don't want to be quoting giant blocks here, but anybody can see that this story does contain conflict within the parameters of the definitions listed. I think it's worth pointing out that the adversary in any story does not need to be a human being nor particularly adversarial.

Consider a survival story like Robinson Crusoe. There are actually human antagonists in that, but they show up fairly late, are relatively secondary. A large portion of the book the conflict is really just the protagonist trying to figure out how to survive on an island. Nature can be adversarial, like 'A Perfect Storm' or 'The Martian'.

Whether or not the writer also includes human antagonists is besides the point: They are not required to do that. Indeed, the conflict could potentially be inward, like simply coming to terms with personal tragedy or figuring out what to do with one's life. There are stories about those things. It's hard to write them without any human interactions, sure, but it's absolutely possible to write a novel with a single character locked in a single room (or on a desert planet, etc) and still capture a sense of friction.

Tl;DR: I don't believe there are any stories with no conflict, because I don't believe there is a 'slice of life' without conflict. Life is conflict. It is a physical truism. Whether it's bayoneting a Nazi or struggling with getting to work on time in traffic, plot requires perseverance and perseverance requires resistance. There is a different discussion to be had regarding the relative quality of different forms of conflict in literature, but the premise that stories exist without conflict is not correct IMO. The moment the brain leaves the vat, it is stung by the sharpness of light and air.
 

vranger

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Tl;DR: I don't believe there are any stories with no conflict, because I don't believe there is a 'slice of life' without conflict. Life is conflict.

I simply completely disagree, because I've read them. And saying "life is conflict" is just wrong. Parts of it may contain conflict, but that doesn't mean life is one long conflict.

One of my favorite stories, read as a juvenile, has ABSOLUTELY no conflict. It's about a boy who has a job caring for an older wealthy ladies' lawn. He is tasked with asking for different levels of pay for the job each week depending on how good a job he thinks he did. He's always honest about it, and never asks for the top level. One Saturday he decides he wants that "perfect job" and goes all out. When he finishes, he proudly asks for the top pay, and is proud to show off the job he did, as the lady is impressed and eager to inspect it.

This is a story of honesty and growth. He never had any intent to be dishonest, so there is no personal conflict there. His pride in his work grew, and that type of growth is not conflict. Decisions COULD be conflict, but you really have to push it to get there. In this story, the boy was happy with where he was, but decided to do better anyway. Someone could tell me that deciding between happy and happier is "conflict", but I'll call bullshit.

You might find some detail to argue that you find some conflict in Rendezvous with Rama, but you'll be wrong in essence. It doesn't drive the story, and saying that "humanity and space" is conflict is nonsense. You might as well say that leaving your house to walk in your yard is conflict. LOL
 

Theglasshouse

WF Veterans
I understand your post vranger since I read Ursula K Le Guin's quote before. I think you'd find that in Janet Burroway's book. It's a good definition that appeals to me. That's even though I posted a thread on conflict and character tension. Life is full of conflict but it can be less subtle. It doesn't have to be abrupt as person versus person. IMO those are people who write literary fiction. IMO I see such approaches in people who turn anecdotes into stories. Using your imagination a flying kite becomes dangerous and does not involve a person versus person. Change is good in this example. But conflict comes in many forms. It has to be inclusion but that is just my opinion and I am no academic.
 
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vranger

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Change is good in this example. But conflict comes in many forms.

Of course conflict comes in many forms. As little reason as I found in Lucky's comment, he's on the right track about "two sides". But it's two sides with different goals, which COULD involve a decision between doing something right vs something wrong ... the angel on one shoulder vs the devil on the other. In his example "humanity and space", "space" doesn't have a goal. If something is hard to navigate, it's not necessarily conflict. Effort isn't conflict. Climbing a hill you want to climb isn't conflict.

Let's say we have a story where character A wants to learn something, so he goes to character B and asks a question, then character C, then character D. The three answers provide the information he needs, so he makes a personal discovery that helps him do something better. Learning, growth ... no conflict.

I have another example, and one by my favorite author, Heinlein. His story was about a young naval officer who was lazy. He didn't wish to do any unnecessary work for any task he was given, so he found easier and more efficient ways to do things. His methods became popular, and he rose through the ranks with a growing reputation as an efficiency expert. Possibly it was a true story about a fellow officer Heinlein knew from his time in the Navy. The officer was never tempted to "do things the hard way because that's how it was done", so no inner conflict. His better methods weren't challenged, so no conflict of status quo versus change. I do think Heinlein intended it as a parable to accept common sense when you come across it. But that's a lesson.
 
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Theglasshouse

WF Veterans
Conflict is difficult to describe. Try to describe the conflict in Romeo and Juliet as Ursula k Le Guin contends and you'll run into trouble listing them all convincingly.

I found in a search a source to quote from le guin. It's her contention and is the rest of the debate. A book has been written on connection. I own that book. But it is geared to a creative writing class. To connect is imo to feel emotion as some sort of empathy/love, hate among a few of the examples:

(from the web)

I was hunting around on reddit’s writing subreddit, and found a post mentioning this, from Ursula LeGuin:
People are cross-grained, aggressive, and full of trouble, the storytellers tell us; people fight themselves and one another, and their stories are full of their struggles. But to say that that is the story is to use one aspect of existence, conflict, to subsume all other aspects, many of which it does not include and does not comprehend.
Romeo and Juliet is the story of the conflict between two families, and its plot involves the conflict of two individuals within those families. Is that all it involves? Isn’t Romeo and Juliet about something else, and isn’t it the something else that makes the otherwise trivial tale of a feud into a tragedy?
–Ursula K. LeGuin, from Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, by Janet Burroway (4th Ed, HarperCollins 1996), p. 35
Claudia Hunter Johnson identified that “something else” as connection, which sounds like empathy to me!

This is from the actual book I own:

When “nothing happens” in a story, it is because we fail to sense the causal relation between what happens first and what happens next. When something does “happen,” it is because the resolution of a short story or a novel describes a change in the character’s life, an effect of the events that have gone before. This is why Aristotle insisted with such apparent simplicity on “a beginning, a middle, and an end.”


Burroway, Janet; Stuckey-French, Elizabeth; Stuckey-French, Ned. Writing Fiction, Tenth Edition (Chicago Guides to Writing, Editing, and Publishing) (p. 144). University of Chicago Press. Kindle Edition.

In Romeo and Juliet, for example, the Montague and Capulet families are fiercely disconnected, but in spite of that the young lovers manage to connect. Throughout the play they meet and part, disconnect from their families in order to connect with each other, finally parting from life in order to be with each other eternally. Their ultimate departure in death reconnects the feuding families. Johnson puts it this way: Underlying any good story, fictitious or true—is a deeper pattern of change, a pattern of connection and disconnection. The conflict and the surface events are like waves, but underneath is an emotional tide, the ebb and flow of human connection.


Burroway, Janet; Stuckey-French, Elizabeth; Stuckey-French, Ned. Writing Fiction, Tenth Edition (Chicago Guides to Writing, Editing, and Publishing) (p. 133). University of Chicago Press. Kindle Edition.

While the pattern of either conflict or connection may dominate in a given work, a story which is only about the conflict will be shallow. There must be some deepening of our understanding of the characters, which is achieved not just through conflicts between good and bad, but through conflicts of one good versus another: does a man join up to serve his country, or stay home to help protect and raise his children?


Burroway, Janet; Stuckey-French, Elizabeth; Stuckey-French, Ned. Writing Fiction, Tenth Edition (Chicago Guides to Writing, Editing, and Publishing) (p. 134). University of Chicago Press. Kindle Edition.

Like conflict and its complications, connection and its complications can produce a pattern of change, and both inform the process of change recorded in scene and story.

According to her you can build it by:
a passion
an emotion
an obsession
a person
an experience
an image
a perception
a principle

By identifying attitudes, values, and experiences you can create a "vision." She goes on and reveals a emotional menu of things you can write but must come from your self.

Example: a man discriminates a person who has HIV. That is disconnection based on an attitude. The connection would be to be open-minded. It comes from the character in this case. I consider this an attitude. (analysis from one example she gave)
 
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vranger

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If you have no conflict, you have no story. Keep in mind that conflict doesn't have to revolve around violence. It's a problem that has to be solved. No problem, no story. It's still conflict.

That was covered in one of the blogs I read. The author of the blog said he used to teach creative writing, and for a long time taught that to every student. The rest of his blog explained why he came to understand he was wrong.

The fallacy in that definition is that conflict is "a problem that has to be solved". If nothing opposes solving the problem, there is no conflict. I solve Sudoku puzzles on most days. I promise you it involves no conflict. From time to time I learn a new tactic that makes solving a puzzle take less time. Growth, not conflict.

I suppose I could write a story about how I learned various Sudoku tactics. It might not interest everyone, but people interested in Sudoku might be interested. I could liven it up by throwing in a few personal anecdotes, like how I discovered my "wrap around count to five rule", which often points out the next number that solves. Yeah, it's a how to, but I can make a story out of it.
 

Theglasshouse

WF Veterans
Last bit and another more concrete example (I omitted the rest of the example):

If we also look at “Cinderella” in terms of connection/disconnection, we see a pattern as clear as that represented by the power struggle. The first painful disconnection is that Cinderella’s mother has died; her father has married (connected with) a woman who spurns (disconnects from) her; the Prince’s invitation offers connection; the Stepmother’s cruelty alienates again. The Fairy Godmother connects as a magical friend, but the disappearance of the coach and gown disconnect.

I also have a copy of crafting short screenplays that connect. But that I need to analyze further because I need to understand it better to explain it well.

To understand Claudia Johnston paraphrasing the book:
IMO what a character believes helps to create connection and disconnection. She gives an example of a man who has a set of keys and dislikes the responsibilities of taking care of other people. Because he manages 12 keys. He doesn't want to be responsible for other people. This is an example of disconnect or disconnection.

Decisions and discoveries are something she uses as stepping stones to explain how to write connection. It's more complex than a definition but is worth reading if people want to write like she does. She has some exercises in the book. It's very thick and I'd need to read it slowly. I also bought that book. It's helpful for studying but is difficult. With dyslexia, I have a difficult time analyzing it. I haven't spent the time to study it deeply.

To understand this beliefs and values determine actions and decisions. How discoveries play a part of connection I don't know.

Hamlet believes in many things and has many values that allowed him to take actions and decisions. Whatever he believed is interpreted in multiple ways. We interpret for example that he wants to prove Claudius's guilt and that makes him indecisive. Others have said it is his madness or that he pretends.

We can probably say hamlet values many different things and Claudius values the throne of Denmark. Hamlet values justice maybe. It could be different to what I said. That is why he takes actions towards revenge against Claudius who murdered his father (Claudius is the brother of his father).

The improbability of connecting creates the conflict. (connection and disconnection to my understanding creates change and thus creates a story from whom the character believes he or she is. That's where values, beliefs come from or what the character understands of whom they truly are) values can be googled. But I think you can understand the concept by analyzing it's definition which if you look up in the Oxford Dictionary is defined as: principles or standards of behavior; one's judgement of what is important in life.
Example: "they internalize their parents' values."

The concept of change:
A story starts in disconnection. It moves toward connection.

The concept starts in character. There seems to be a disagreement because of it. Her ideas are discovery, decision, conflict and connection are the "cornerstones of drama."

In cinderella imo one character values beauty since the stepsisters are ugly (and they want something or the prince in this case). This creates more scenarios. In the example disconnection happens because of the beginning since the mother is dead. I always assumed she was adopted in the version of cinderella I read. They value other countless things such as wealth, and so forth. To complete the connection she must marry. And since she is the protagonist it ends in marriage, and the stepsisters are not involved. So I guess this is the definition of a power struggle in the terms of how it plays out in Cinderella.
 
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Pamelyn Casto

WF Veterans
In my school age years, I used to come across quite a few books that were simply slice of life stories. There was no villain, there was little to no conflict, just interesting and funny things happening.

You might enjoy looking into writing haibun (or a version of haibun). (If you're not familiar with the term, it usually involves a literal or spiritual journey and is a combination of prose paragraphs with haiku and sometimes a bit of artwork (haiga).)

I say that because I enjoyed reading Jack Kerouac, Albert Saijo, and Lew Welch in their book about their trip from San Francisco to New York in 1959 (they were part of The Beat Generation). The short book is filled with their experiences, their observations, their thoughts, and their short segments while making that trip. (It's titled Trip Trap: Haiku on the Road.) There' no official "conflict" -- nothing major, just some guys on the road and sometimes having a good bit of fun with their trip and their short poetic creations. I love reading good haibun and can imagine an entire modern-day book done in these short sequences. Haibun has already been done by the old writers/ masters Basho, Issa, and Chiyo-ni so there's plenty to look into on the writing form that can create an entire book. What is life, after all, but a journey of some kind . . .

Anyway, just offering a possibility. Wasn't Garrison Keillor's work sort of slice-of-life stuff? Amusing, interesting, no villains, just people and life as lived in this tiny part of Minnesota (was it Lake Wobegone? (doing memory work here so have likely made a mistake or misspelled a thing or two).
 
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