A Story Experiment: Conflict or Connection?

Recently, I wrote an article, “Is Conflict Necessary in Every Story?” Several of you disagreed with my argument that conflict is not always required.

I don’t expect to win you over with more theory. But please let me tell you about an experiment I conducted, using a personal memory that I had never shaped into a story. 

First, I looked at this memory through the lens of conflict. Second, I viewed the same memory through the lens of connection. I was startled by the different results!

My "Debby Link” Memory

One day, when I was in first grade, I discovered that one of my classmates, Debby Link, lived around the block from me. This was great news for me because I hadn't known anyone from my class who lived close enough for me to walk to their house.

Debby and I agreed: we’d play together after school that very day. I was ecstatic!

When I got home that day from school, though, my mother met me outside our door. “Don’t even change your clothes. We’re going clothes shopping right now!”

My heart sank. I knew that resisting my mother would get me nowhere. Whatever excuse I raised would be dismissed in a way that would make me feel even worse. 

On top of this, clothes shopping was my least favorite activity. It consisted of my mother choosing the clothes she wanted me to buy and then telling me why I was foolish not to like them, not letting up until I  said “I like this”—and said it with a happy enough tone that she didn’t have to feel bad for making me buy them.

The moment we returned from the clothes-shopping ordeal that day, the phone rang. My mother answered it. When she hung up, she turned to me and said sharply, “That was Mrs. Link. She says that Debby has been crying because you didn’t come to play with her.”

She looked at me a moment, then her face softened. She said, “Why didn’t you tell me you had made plans with her?”

I was shocked. My mother sounded like she actually might have welcomed hearing about my plans with Debby! Was it possible she wouldn’t have made me feel bad for making my own plans?

Through the Conflict Lens

To look at this memory through the lens of conflict, I began by listing the potential conflicts I saw in the story:

  • Between me and the situation (no friends)

    • My plans with Debby Link appeared to resolve this conflict.

  • Between me and my mother: play or shop?

  • While clothes shopping: between me and my mother: which clothes to buy?

  • Between Mrs.Link and my mother

  • Between me and my mother (blaming me)

  • Between me and myself: could I have actually told her what I wanted?

I talked the memory through with a partner, then asked myself, “What is this story about for me?”

One answer came to me as, “Learning to ask for what I want—even at the risk of humiliation.”

Organizing the story’s moments around that answer, I came up with three main stages of the memory as I told it:

  1. I believed that I couldn’t ask for what I want;

  2. I didn’t even ask to see Debby;

  3. My mother asked me, “Why didn’t you tell me about Debby?"

To finish the story, I saw two possible fourth stages:

4a. Later in life, I would ask for what I want and get it, thereby learning to ask in the future.

Or:

4b. Later in life, I would notice myself not asking for what I want, and realize that I had learned early on not to ask. (This could be followed, perhaps, by my learning to live with not getting what I want.)

Through the Connection Lens

Next, I talked through the same memory, but from the point of view of connection and disconnection. My list of relevant moments included:

  • I have no friends (disconnected)

  • Clothes shopping: the ultimate disconnection

  • Add blame! (even more disconnection)

  • Mrs. Link and Debby want me to be connected?

  • Does my mother want me to be connected?

When I got this far, I remembered an earlier memory, from my year in kindergarten while living in a city neighborhood:

I played in kindergarten with a girl named Heidi. I even got in trouble for talking to her during class. Weeks later, my mother took me for a walk down an unfamiliar street. She went to the door, rang the bell, then told me, “That’s a shame. This is Heidi’s house, but she’s not home."

As a kindergartner, I was stunned. Why? At that moment, I remembered an even earlier memory of my mother being angry at me because, as a two-year-old, I had climbed into the arms of a teenage aunt and refused to come back to my mother. In other words, I learned—and subsequent events substantiated—that my mother was jealous of my attentions to other females. That’s why her taking me to play with Heidi had surprised me.

The Story Expands

At this point, I realized that the story had expanded to include other memories of connection and disconnection involving my mother. An expanded story outline might now include:

  1. My mother was jealous of my connection to my aunt

  2. I learned that she wouldn’t allow me to connect to other females

  3. When she interrupted my plans to see Debby, I didn’t even ask to see her;

  4.  My mother asked me, “Why didn’t you tell me about Debby?"

  5. ….

The resolution (5) might take many forms. For example, it might jump to my adult life, when I would finally realize that hiding my activities with other women actually caused disconnection from my wife—and, at last, I learned to assume that women I love actually want me to live a connected life.

Results of the Experiment

For me, this experiment had two major results:

 I. Viewing the story through different lenses led to different results;

II. In this case, viewing it through the Connection Lens expanded the story’s scope and, for me, its interest.

What Can We Learn from This?

I do not believe that viewing stories through the connection lens will always lead to better results. But I do believe that it will sometimes lead to new insights and better results.

For this reason, I object to seeing every story primarily as a sequence of conflicts. Focusing only on conflict can make us miss the results we’d get by considering other foci as well.

Do you want to narrow your understandings of your stories by viewing them through only one lens? Or are you willing to consider other ways to look at the stories you create, develop, or learn?

For myself, I believe that life and stories are too complex to be reduced to any single principle—and that our approaches to story structure need to be inclusive enough to accommodate all forms of human experience.