Q: Is it possible for a film to succeed without the presence of conflict in the story?

A: When studying the art of storytelling, there are two identifiable categories of conflict: internal or external. Encompassed under these broader terms are countless variations of different types of conflict. Although, the three most commonly identified are man vs. self, man vs. man, and man vs. environment. I can recall memories of Middle School English class, in which we were taught that every story was guaranteed to have one of these plotlines, it was just a matter of identifying it.

Conflict plays an incredibly significant role in film and it is arguably essential, especially when concerning the portrayal of on-screen characters. It is nearly impossible to express a character arc without some form of conflict that challenges a character and instigates a transformation, pushing them towards their goal and the conclusion of the story.

Author Robert Mckee has said that “nothing moves forward in a story except through conflict.” He describes all aspects of a story such as setting, plot, or imagery as important but peripheral; conflict remains at the epicenter, as the “soul.”

Some would counter that there are films that have found a way to work around these conventions by excluding conflict. Eraserhead (dir. David Lynch, 1977) and Clerks (dir. Kevin Smith, 1994) are commonly referenced examples. Eraserhead takes on the form of a more abstract, experimental film rather than a traditional narrative, while Clerks presents a unique “day in the life” chronicle. Most of writer/director Harmony Korine’s filmography follows a similar format as Clerks, with a loose plot structure and a focus on a group of characters rather than one specifically, bringing his work into the discussion.

I believe that conflict is still present in these instances, perhaps just not in the traditional sense, as they themselves are not traditional films. While most cinematic conflicts fall into the categories I have mentioned, I don’t believe the classification always must be so rigid and static. The “conflict” can be any matter of tension, disconnect, or complication that the character(s) must overcome. As such, conflict is undoubtedly an aspect in each of the films I discussed, as all the respective characters encounter some sort of hinderance that they must work around as the film progresses. Additionally, with this in mind, it is fairly clear that conflict is indeed at the soul of a narrative. Without it, a film cannot succeed.

Besides, everything would just be too easy that way.

Sources/Additional Reading