Conflict simulation, violence and order

I’m skeptical if intrigued about using the tools of evolutionary biology to trace the genealogy of myths and folktales, but the idea that stories that demonstrate good conflict resolution are adaptive (more useful and thus more likely to survive) stood out to me as insightful:

“Little Red Riding Hood,” the tale of Polyphemus, and other ancient tales are all preoccupied with peril. They are populated by predators real and imaginary. They are replete with physical and interpersonal threats—in particular deceit. They confront characters with at least one crisis and force them to either resolve it or meet a terrible fate. Even the folktales of the Agta, which emphasize harmony, only do so through a sharp contrast with discord. When we try to define the qualities of memorable narratives today, we often fall back on clichés and tautologies. Stories need conflict, we say. Why? Because conflict makes for a good story. But maybe there’s a deeper reason.

Not only are ancient myths and folktales almost universally concerned with danger and death; they are blatantly didactic. If we remove their layers of symbolism and subtext—which have been interpreted and reinterpreted for millennia—and focus on their narrative skeletons, we find that they are studded with practical and moral insights: people are not always what they seem; the mind is as much a weapon as the body; sometimes humility is the best path to victory. Modern stories frequently plunge us into lengthy interior monologues, exhaustively describe settings and people’s physical features, delight in the random, absurd, and orthogonal, and end with deliberate ambiguity. The earliest stories were, for all their fantasy, far more pragmatic. Their villains were often thinly veiled analogies for real-world threats, and their conclusions offered useful lessons. They were simulations that allowed our ancestors to develop crucial mental and social skills and to practice overcoming conflict without being in actual danger. Though we may never definitively know what confluence of biological and cultural pressures hatched the first stories—though narrative has far exceeded its preliminary role in human evolution—it seems that our predecessors relied on stories to teach each other how to survive.

The idea of story as practical simulation makes intuitive sense and provides a neat alternative to the received wisdom of “stories need conflict because conflict makes for good stories,” which I had never recognized as a tautology until this article called it out.

Jonathan Gottschall’s The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human makes a similar point about stories as conflict simulation, but I while I read that book I was thinking only in terms of how stories do their work, and not about where the “rule” for writers came from.

The other book this makes me think of is Lajos Egri’s The Art of Dramatic Writing, which claims that a story needs a dramatic question, and then needs to answer it—another way of describing the didactic function. At the time I read that book, that claim seemed suspect—if you have a lesson to impart, just be direct and write an essay! Dressing up a lesson in the guise of a story felt both dishonest, like hiding medicine in food, and like a good way to waste the unique strengths of fiction.

But now I wonder. Maybe there are questions and answers that are best addressed through fiction—ones that aren’t “lessons” because the questions are ineffable or the answers are multiple or contingent or otherwise complicated. The article above lists lengthy interior monologues, randomness, and ambiguity as evidence that modern stories have abandoned their didactic function. But isn’t that instead evidence that we are facing different sorts of conflict in the modern age?

Man versus ennui. Man versus the algorithm. Man versus his own alienation. These are a long way from the old “man versus man” and “man versus nature” models of conflict you get in high school. Maybe a better framing for modernity is not conflict/resolution or question/answer but disorder/order. Tzvetan Todorov talked about the idea of “violence” rather than “conflict” in his book Introduction to Poetics. There is a system in a certain order, some violence is done that upsets the order, and then work has to be done to put things back into (probably a new) order. (I think I’m remembering my Todorov correctly—I admit to working from one sentence I jotted down in school a decade ago.) This feels to me like a mental tool as well adapted to modern fiction as “versus” is to fairy tales.

Universals, norms, and “rules”

Since my previous post, in which I responded to Richard Brody’s idea that codified story development processes were turning movies into formulaic gruel, I’ve been mulling over different ways to describe story structure. I think it’s helpful to divide these descriptions into three types.


In his book The Storytelling Animal, Jonathan Gottschall refers to a “universal grammar” of storytelling.

As the linguist Noam Chomsky showed, all human languages share some basic structural similarities — a universal grammar. So too, I argue, with story. No matter how far we travel back into literary history, and no matter how deep we plunge into the jungles and badlands of world folklore, we always find the same astonishing things: their stories are just like ours. There is a universal grammar in world fiction, a deep pattern of heroes confronting trouble and struggling to overcome. (p. 55)

This grammar is versatile. Gottschall compares it to the human face: the same deep structural pattern the world over, but enabling great variety. It is composed of the structural feature of conflict — the pattern of “complication, crisis, and resolution” — as well as a handful of universal themes about sex and love, death, the desire for power, etc.

The argument recalls Joseph Campbell’s “monomyth,” in which the hero finds a conflict that requires separation from his home, initiation into an unknown world, and a return with special knowledge or powers. He gets much more specific than Gottschall, but the claim to universality is the same, and Gottschall, consciously or not, even draws on the title of Campbell’s most famous book The Hero with a Thousand Faces when he describes the universal grammar using the metaphor of the human face.

The Hero's Journey
Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey”

Often when you hear about Campbell today, it’s in the context of advice from a screenwriting “guru” about how to structure your script. But in those instances, the monomyth has been turned into something more like one of the two categories below.


I’m borrowing the term “norm” from the film scholar David Bordwell. Norms aren’t instructions; they are standardized sets of options.

In Hollywood film style, for instance, there are several ways to make spatial arrangement stress an important point: instead of a cut-in to a close-up, we can get a track-in, or a shift in lighting, or a character’s movement into the foreground. A norm is usefully considered as what semiologists call a paradigm—a bounded set of alternatives which at some level serve equivalent functions. (Narration in the Fiction Film, p. 151)

That example is a norm of style, but there are also norms of story construction, and this strikes me as a concept that can be applied to any medium.

Here are some story, plot, and narration norms Bordwell identifies for classical cinema:

  • stories present psychologically defined individuals who struggle to solve a clear-cut problem
  • plots end with a decisive victory or defeat
  • causality is the prime unifying principle, and space and time are arranged to emphasize cause and effect
  • narration tends to be omniscient, highly communicative, and only moderately self-conscious (i.e., the film is free to move around in the fictional world and tell us more than any single character knows, and a film rarely makes a show of the fact that it is a film)

These norms are not universal. Different norms take hold in different parts of the world and in different times. Bordwell identifies other storytelling traditions that are more episodic and elliptical, in which the goal is vague and the end inconclusive.


I reserved the word “rules” for this third type because, unlike the two categories above, these are meant to be prescriptive rather than descriptive. They are most often used by writing instructors, whereas the other two seem to be the province of academics.

Rules are instructions for fulfilling norms. They tend to range from specific to crazily specific. I’m reading a book on screenwriting called Save the Cat by Blake Snyder, in which he says

…the trick is to create heroes who:

  • Offer the most conflict in that situation
  • Have the longest way to go emotionally and…
  • Are the most demographically pleasing!

Those first two rules are ways to fulfill the classical norms of a psychologically defined character with a clear goal. (The third rule is unabashed commercialism.)

He goes on from there to identify which pages certain plot points should happen on: the catalyst on page 12, act break on page 25, b-story starting at 30…

It’s easy to sniff at this stuff from an academic perch, but I’m writing a screenplay right now and it’s been useful.

I’m tempted to always put the word “rules” in quotation marks because I don’t think there are inviolable storytelling rules, but I’ll resist because I think that’s generally understood among writers, as evidenced by the popular saying that you should ‘know the rules so you can know when to break them.’

The Goldilocks approach

I’m feeling somewhat Goldilocks about my list: “rules” feel restrictive and prescriptive. Universals are also problematic: too broad for practical use, and yet there will always be outlying examples that will cause trouble for academics: Gottschall is forced to write off Finnegans Wake and Gertrude Stein’s experiments in writing stories in which “nothing much happens” as failures.

Norms, though, feel just right. I see them being more useful more often to scholars, but I also think practitioners of story (writers, filmmakers, game designers, etc.) would get something out of knowing where the “rules” come from — that they are tried and true ways of fulfilling certain cultural norms, and perhaps sometimes universals, and not the invention of self-appointed experts.

Norms’ usefulness to storytellers might increase in the future as the boundaries between media dissolve: knowing to put the inciting incident on page 12 of a screenplay doesn’t do much good when you’re trying to craft a transmedia experience, but staying focused on presenting a story space with clear cause and effect and highly communicative narration would be essential.