salamander room
Take a look at the categories of movies in the video store, or the categories of fiction in the book store, and you’ll discover that the vast majority of stories in our culture are about struggle, about conflict between ‘good’ and ‘evil’, and ultimately about heroes overcoming adversity. Dramas, biographies, sports stories, war stories, mysteries, action & adventure stories, even horror stories and most romances and fantasy stories fit into this category. Most video games are the same. The only exceptions seem to be pure comedies, some children’s stories, and stories from other cultures. Why is this? Isn’t there enough struggle in our daily lives already?

Is it schadenfreude — the secret pleasure we get from witnessing others’ misfortune and knowing it is worse than our own?

I remember as a child asking why the Lassie stories “were always about bad things happening”, Once we get past the very earliest stories of infancy, most of the stories we are told involve struggle — Grimm’s fairy tales, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, The Grinch etc.

Or is it about adrenaline? Do we need stories to excite us, to vicariously involve us in danger? Or do we need stories to provide us with escape, a way to get away from our own unhappiness, boredom, misfortune?

The other day I picked up an award-winning children’s book called The Salamander Room written by Anne Mazer and beautifully illustrated by Steve Johnson. It’s the simple, wonderful story of a boy who brings a salamander home, and wants to keep it in his room, and then in response to questions from his mother, imagines converting his room into a wilderness paradise where he and the salamander can both be at home. There is no struggle, no conflict, no hit-you-over-the-head moral.

Why do adults find such stories so unsatisfying? I have been told that in many tribal cultures the stories rarely involve struggle, and are instead about discovery, exploration, learning from others, but when Westerners read them, they assume they are “just children’s stories”. And when I outlined my idea for my novel on one of the environmental discussion boards several people said I should place it in an apocalyptic future, not an idyllic one, if I wanted anyone to buy it. Why can we not be engaged by stories that don’t involve conflict and suffering?

What’s wrong with us, anyway?

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  1. tonio says:

    The popular canon of books which purport to explain the dramatic process define drama as conflict, and you can read Aristotle for his views on tragedy and catharsis.I’ve read elsewhere the idea that drama (and to some extent all art) embodies suffering as a way to make the artist the cultural scapegoat (for a cathartic effect again), hence our obsession with the supposed connection between the tortured artist and his work.I personally find dramatic pieces that lack some inherent conflict to be lifeless and implausible. Life is conflict. At least, as I experience it. I think, however, that a narrow view which defines conflict as *violence* is a bit too prevalent in our popular culture.

  2. Evan says:

    I have never heard of a tribal story that lacked conflict. It certainly never came up in Joseph Campbell’s work on the common threads of mythology. I’m certainly interested, if you can substantiate that.A story–any story, every story I’ve ever heard–is about people changing. Usually, more accurately, it’s about being *being changed* by interaction with people or forces outside themselves. It’s about someone’s life going in one direction, and then something happens that forces their life to go in a new direction. How can that *not* involve some kind of confrontation or conflict?I cannot recommend highly enough the work of Keith Johnstone (_Impro_ and _Impro for Storytellers_, but especially _Impro_) to anyone interested in narrative and the structure of stories.

  3. Jake says:

    Walter Wink suggests one part of the answer of this important question. He convincingly argues that the myth that we identify with today is the the Babylonian creation story (the Enuma Elish) from around 1250 B.C.E.…In this myth, creation is an act of violence. Marduk murders and dismembers Tiamat, and from her cadaver creates the world. As the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur observes, order is established by means of disorder. Chaos (symbolized by Tiamat) is prior to order (represented by Marduk, high god of Babylon). Evil precedes good. The gods themselves are violent…

  4. butuki says:

    I take it when you say “us” you mean people in the Western World, right? Because here in Japan and in Germany where I was born, stories are usually not told in the “Good versus Evil” tradition. Here, even in animation, the “evil” characters are nearly always obscurely so… take a look at the popuar animated movie “The Princess Mononokehime”. There are no “evil” people in it, only people doing foolish things or being selfish. And there are usually no defined “lone heroes” either. It is easy to fogive these people, and to identify with them, learn soemthing from them.I tend to find American movies (though not always, of course) predictable and boring because of the simplistic ways they appraoch life. I can’t stand Disney animations or the mind stultifying, conflicting-cop partners/angry boss/inevitable car chase scene movies.One of my favorite movies recently was a Japanese film called “Letter from the Mountain” (Amidado-dayori). Almost nothing contentious happens… just a couple returning to their childhood hometown and encountering the people there and dealing with the emotions that grow out of years of absence. The end of the movie left me sobbing in the theater long after the lights had been turned on, so powerful it was. I think it is a sign of a mature people and society when they can explore the avenues of the mind without having to send the knights in shining armour after the lord in the castle. The drama of the everyday is just as important and fulfilling as the tales of heroes and princesses in the fairy tales, maybe more so. I think if people would stop seeing the world as a place of “good” and “evilE, and more as a place of human foibles, then stupid conflicts like the Iraq war could be avoided.

  5. alyssa says:

    what’s wrong with us? not enough room on any server to really start answering that question.

  6. Stu Savory says:

    It’s a by-product of Darwin’s Evolution theory. If you get X wrong, you are more likely to die and less likely to procreate.Therefore it is beneficial to learn about getting X right.That’s what education is about. Formal education AND storytelling.People are more likely to listen to your story if it’s interesting. Hence drama, hence struggle.Stu

  7. Evan says:

    He convincingly argues that the myth that we identify with today is the the Babylonian creation story (the Enuma Elish) from around 1250 B.C.E.While that’s an interesting observation, and it may be true that that’s *one* of the myths that underlies Western culture and Western thought, I think it’s much too narrowly focused to have much meaning when you’re talking about stories in general.Consider the story “boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back”: How does that map to the Babylonian creation myth?I think we’re talking about something even deeper than the mythological underpinnings of our culture; we’re talking about the structure of narrative itself, from which mythology arises. Very few people tell the story “boy meets girl and everything goes great, the end”, because that story doesn’t involve the boy and girl changing one another: They’re just fine at the beginning and they click and everything’s nice; who needs to grow?It’s boring because it doesn’t teach us anything about growing. We know that we have to grow. We know that growing means changing. We know that changing means giving up what we used to be. We know that that can hurt. So we teach ourselves how to do it by telling ourselves stories in which some obstacle is confronted, and there are setbacks, but eventually the obstacle is overcome.To put it another way, stories contain struggles and conflicts for the same reason that they aren’t *all* struggles and conflicts. No one would tell this story, either: “Once upon a time, there was a great battle, and people hacked at each other with swords, hack hack hack, the end.” Anyone can look at that and know it’s not a story–no one and nothing changes. A frenzy of activity that never stops is just as static as nothing happening at all; it’s just noise, like a 60Hz hum from an old refrigerator.BTW, Dave, I would disagree with you that The Salamander Room has no conflict. I haven’t read it,but from your description, the story is about a boy who wants to keep a salamander, but his room isn’t the right environment for a salamander. He has to overcome that somehow, and he does it by imagining a different room. In doing so, he has learned that he has power over his own inner world. This is a good story and an important lesson for a young child. (I do something similar with my own son when he’s frustrated that he can’t do or have something he wants: I encourage him to pretend.)

  8. Paul Towlson says:

    The resolving of tension is a basic component of a satisfying story. The last note in a musical piece brings a sense of completion. Perhaps conflict is the most obvious form of tension, but it is not the only one. The genre of film that has good versus evil, embodied in the good guy and the bad guy is the most simplistic. The more realistic stories have that tension within each person, but without some kind of tension and some kind of resolution there is no story, and no music, and that sounds insipid.

  9. shari says:

    Thought-provoking as always, both the post and the comments. I do agree with Evan above. Conflict is essential, especially for a story to have transformative powers. But what I decry is the incredible overstimulatory quality which seems to be part and parcel of current movies, video games, etc. I wonder if we ,as a society, requires super stimulation in order to rouse us out of our coma.

  10. Dave Pollard says:

    Tonio/Evan — Tragedy appears to have originated with the Greeks, prior to which (except for religious works) most stories, from what I’ve read, were parables, lessons, observations, or just humorous anecdotes, without necessarily any struggle or conflict. The tribal stories in The Truth About Stories are both amusing and peaceful, almost like cartoons without the violence, but usually with a lesson for the unobservant, lazy or narrow-minded. Jake, Evan: The Babylonian myth is certainly violent. And I agree with Evan’s point about the need for change in a story to give it meaning and value, but I don’t think that necessarily involves conflict or violence. The Salamander Room dialogue is simply a mother’s wise questions and a child’s creative answers, leading very subtly to the child’s awareness that the best room for the salamander, and perhaps for man, too, is the natural outdoors. The child has no preconceptions going in, just a desire to accommodate his new friend, and a willingness to learn. Alas, in too many modern stories, there is adrenaline and resolution, but no learning, nothing that leaves you richer for the experience.Alyssa: Amen — but we keep trying nevertheless ;-)

  11. Dave Pollard says:

    Butuki: This is an interesting observation. I think we often imagine Japanese films as Samurai films of grim self-sacrifice, and Chinese films as martial arts variants of Westerns. My favourite movies are either documentaries, silly comedies (like French Kiss), or cerebral films like Mindwalk, where there is almost no dramatic tension, but great entertainment and much wisdom imparted. Maybe I’m showing my age, but I see enough conflict in the real world, and when I watch a movie I’m looking for something else.Paul: Your point about internal tension is a valid one (Macbeth being the classic example), but I’m still not sure you need even internal conflict to have an entertaining and educational story. Shari: I’m going to dig up some native American stories to see whether their lack of conflict leaves us flat, and if so try to resolve whether that’s innate or a culturally learned reaction.

  12. Evan says:

    Dave: I think I’m seeing a semantic misunderstanding. I’m sort of an ex-semi-pro in this area; I used to teach and perform dramatic improvisation and I’ve spent a lot of time studying the structure of story (hence my ability to babble about it), and to me, “conflict” has nothing whatsoever to do with “violence”. You used both of those words in close enough proximity to one another that I think to you they’re approximately the same thing.To me as a storyteller, a “conflict” is just a desire that a character has but can’t immediately fulfill.For example, the boy’s desire to keep his salamander with him is at odds with nature: Salamanders need very different environments to live in than little boys. That’s a story conflict, and the boy has to find a way to be at peace about it for the story to resolve.Nobody has to be arguing with anybody for there to be conflict in a story. (Heck, I’ve read some gripping science-fiction yarns about the last human being on earth–and there wasn’t anyone the protagonist could argue *with*.)I think what you meant to ask was why we like stories about fighting and violence and physical struggle and adversity, yes?If so, then I question the premise that these themes are in *all* of our stories (except for children’s stories and sometimes comedies); there are many very popular stories in which the struggles are all internal. But any list of the top box-office-earning movies is gonna be dominated by the action-flick, no question. And I don’t really know the reason for that, except that I think a lot of people dig the adrenaline rush (people say of movies, “It was a great ride!”), and also, a lot of people like to avoid thinking, and action movies are very, very simple.But they aren’t the only movies, aren’t the only stories. And though they may top the charts, they’re not the only *successful* movies and stories. Where’s the simplistic good-vs-evil violence in “It’s a Wonderful Life”?

  13. Yule Heibel says:

    Exigency, while without a doubt a story theme since Day One to the present, can be used rhetorically, as a tool or instrument for social intervention. In other words, it’s ahistorical in one sense, but in another it can be very specifically (historically) used. I can’t lay my hands on the research just now, but I remember coming across a German book about Not (exigency) and how its shaping and perception was instrumental in the political discourse of WWII Germany. Aside from any actual misery or violence or plain crisis that an individual experienced in wartime, stories or talk about exigency can be manipulated and shaped to marginalise the individual listener’s (or viewer’s) other imaginative options: shape it the right way, and the only way a story about exigency can go is toward heroics (and sacrifice). Perhaps it’s the politician’s answer to “got lemons?” Yeah, make sour lemonade, it’ll make a man of you! If we’re seeing a surfeit of struggle stories, it probably has something to do with how useful they are in keeping everyone in line, hero-worshipping. We’re invested in hero-worship, if only to be the hero of our own story, hence the door is already open, we’re ready for the hook. What goes missing under the pressure of the exigency scenario is the possibility of all the other options.

  14. Rayne says:

    RE: Struggle Stories — Hmm. I’m with Evan and Stu; struggle is archetypal to humanity, hence the enduring success of The Hero’s Journey (see Joseph Campbell, whom Evan mentioned). My premise is that if it’s archetypal and common across humanity, it’s close to being both genetic and memetic in nature. The archetype of struggle is something buried in the BIOS of the human machine; because it’s “on board”, it’s something that has a fundamental purpose which contributes to human’s on-going success.Stu’s comment is nearly in line with this; stories of struggle which originate in the human archetype are intended to shape the human menome to persevere in the face of threats to the human genome. The Hero’s Journey is the story of every man/woman and their path/their contribution to human success. RE: Shari and the XTREME — XTREME sports and other XTREME amusements are examples of the human search for the authentic. (A nod to The Raven and his 2002 assualt on XTREME-isms…) It’s a natural progression in the evolution of individual human consciousness to seek out a an authentic state; when so much is artifice around us, humans may seek out the extreme to force the authentic. Tribal cultures’ stories might appear flat to a degree when viewed by westerners since their survival is not threatened by basic hygiene and security issues; yet, if regressed by stressors like war and famine, surely westerners would related whole-heartedly.

  15. A more neutral word that seems to cover more of the meanings that people seem to be talking about here is “resistance”. Different styles of stories are different combinations of the different kinds of resistance and ways of negotiating through it.

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