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Storytelling Basics - Why Friction & Conflict are the Single Most Crucial Elements of all Stories

Throughout the ages, our lives have been filled with constant trials and tribulations. As a result, our entire biological make up is geared towards dealing with adversity. So, as a physiological necessity, our minds do not recognize things that do not hold challenges. The brain literary does not register adversity-less messages: no neurons are firing, no sparks are connecting, no memories are formed. In storytelling terms it means our minds are built to spot friction and conflict. Today, we delve in deeper into the why, and hand you ideas on how to add friction to your story. Buckle up! Where diving head-long into conflict!

We constantly face challenges

All right. So, I'm not trying to get your mood down or anything... but just as exercise, I'd like you to think of your day and note just have many small frictions are there. Maybe the hot water was low. Maybe the dog peed in a place it wasn't supposed to. Maybe you just woke up grumpy for no reason. Or with a stiff neck. Something on the news ticked you off. A family member asking a little too much of you. The coffee machine at work broke down. It started to rain just when you stepped out... life is full of challenges every day. And none of the above are considered big ones. Just imagine how serious your challenges could get!


Now, if this got your mood down, the opposite can be done too: just think of your day and the many small joys that it can bring. It's called 'Thankfulness', and is a mindfulness exercise that will bring you a lot more relaxation and happiness. The coffee machine broke down... but that meant you got a really tasty coffee from that great coffee place across the street. Your neck pain reminded you to pick up that new pillow from the shop. It started raining... but hey, that means you don't have to water the garden! The warm water was low, but you wanted to train cold water showering anyway because of its health benefits.


Trust me, this last - more sunny - disposition is a better way to live. Yet crucially, the Thankfulness-exercise does not hold any conflict or friction in it. And as such - a matter of simple biology - will be much less memorable than all those small frictions. And although it may not the superior disposition to live your life by, it is the superior method for storytelling.


Why? Well basically, because life sucks.


What do we mean with friction and conflict?

Now, hear me out, bear with me, don't run away just yet. I don't mean 'life sucks' in the way of thinking that leads to depression (if you're there, check out my other book). I mean it from a storytelling perspective. You see, stories are figurative 'tools' that help build narratives in our minds that make us better survivors. In other words, stories teach.


A love story is a tool to teach us what kind of behaviors lead to successful love interests, and what behaviors lead to failures. A story on the horrors or wars is meant to teach us how to prevent it next time. The same goes for 'smaller' stories, such as those in business, government communication and branding. The receiver of our messages is not psychic, so it helps if we can reach them with the right teachings about what we want to send.


And in those teachings should always be a form of 'conflict' or 'friction' because without it, the brain will not recognize it as crucial information to survive and thrive, and will not fire the neurons that cement it to memory.


But what do we mean in storytelling theory when we use the - interchangeable - words 'conflict' and 'friction'? To say it in technical therms, what we mean is: something that is in a state of conflicting values that needs to be resolved.


We don't mean literal conflict as in fighting (although yes, technically this could be one type of conflict in a story) but we mean it as something that is opposite to something else, most importantly on an emotional level. A conflict in storytelling - and in real life I might add - could be as simple as a woman being annoyed with her husband drinking that third cup of coffee, while they both know this means he will have trouble sleeping that night. Or it could be as complicated as an alien invasion affecting everything on Earth as part of an intergalactic biblically grant war spreading across the entire multiverse.


Both can be considered emotional conflict. And mind you: both can be equally fascinating to experience. In fact, when presented properly, the former example of the cup of coffee could have a much larger impact on the receiver of the story than the latter multiversal war effort.


That's because conflict in story is meant to teach emotional lessons. Plus, they can be small indications of much larger problems. That third cup of coffee that our guy drinks could be part of a pattern of ignoring his wife, with a marital struggle hiding underneath, and his and her lack of sleep not really helping. In such storytelling thinking, anything can be a conflict really, and anything can also escalate into something with even more conflict. In fact, adding to the conflict is considered the right path in storytelling: you keep adding more frictions until you hit a breaking point - called the 'climax' in the traditional story arc - that changes everything... and leads to an emotionally logical conclusion.


Conflict in storytelling... in practice

This even works in advertising. Note that every cleaning product commercial ever, always has the same story arc: it starts with first adding bucket loads of dirt to the bathroom, or the kitchen or the clothing... and then adds conflict in the comical hopelessness and frustration of the main characters in the commercial being unable to fight this dirt with unnamed 'bad' cleaning products... before coming up with the solution that changes the value state from 'dirty' into 'bright and clean and fresh and sparkly' with the desired brand. With everyone in the household always living happily ever after.


So, yes, even that is a story arc with friction in it. Even the music 'arcs' usually. And yes, even if you're here trying to find out how to sell commodity brands through storytelling, it can be very practical knowing what kinds of friction come up in a customers journey. This could already give you tons of inspiration for content. In our example, you take the values 'dirty' and 'clean' as your end points on the arc, and that add all those friction moments in that journey in between.


In much the same way - albeit enlarged - friction can be used in novels, fiction, films, series and documentaires and such. It's all about knowing the opposing value states. Sometimes in the world at large - religious versus secular, green versus red, clean versus dirty - you name it. You can make it quite binary, adding the shades of grey later. This conflict can also happen within your characters of course, making them more complicated, and thus, more believable and recognizable, since life is more complicated. Just think of often-used paradoxes like the 'dirty cop' or the 'friendly vampire', or the 'insecure but beautiful woman': opposing value states that need to be resolved in a meaningful way.


And you can go really, really far in this, building a vast network of all kinds of value states into one character in their so-called backstory, that will determine how they react to very specific certain actions and environments. In fact, the more you add, the more conflict and friction will likely start to occur once you get your story moving, and the character needs to make choices. Incredibly, the same kind of thinking can be let loose on real-life organizations too: the more complicated they are, the more interesting frictions they will show, the more people will follow and like them.


This is something that a lot of organizations shy away from, in an effort to avoid conflict. To many, it will feel as if they are showing their 'bad' side, which could harm the image or brand. However, that is only the sender of the message that feels this way, who then loses an opportunity to learn and innovate. The receiver of the 'flawed organization' story is a human being who is biologically build to recognize and acknowledge frictions, and will perceive honest-about-their-challenges-organizations as believable. And even as much, much more likeable and reacheable.


Just think of the practical implications of a 'green' message. The vast majority of brands that tell you they are green, are not trusted. However, the brands that show the enormous - and very challenging - effort that goes into becoming green (aka The Journey), are trusted and bought into. Show your vulnerabilities, your trials and tribulations, and people will connect with you.


Always embrace friction in storytelling

It's scary I know. Yet as a practical exercise, that's the lesson from this article: don't shy away from the frictions. Write them down and map them out, whether you are building a Hero's Journey or a Customer Journey or a Corporate Journey or fine art with a societal message, it does not matter: understanding and mapping out where the conflict points are is one of the best practical practices I can give you.


Of course, artists have known this friction-principle for a long time. There is a reason why The Guernica or The Scream are more famous paintings than that fruit-bouquet hanging on your wall. Or why the Greek tragedies taught us so many lessons on how to behave by letting their gods do all the dirty work. Yet, still many of us - including many artists - can struggle with adding conflict to our stories. It's for the same reason we usually answer that we are 'doing great' when asked 'how we are', even if it rains, the dog pees everywhere, the coffee machine broke down and our neck hurts: we like to avoid conflict most of the time.


Most of us are just, you know, nice people.


That's okay of course. Nothing wrong with that. Embrace thankfulness every day, I say. Just remember however, that when you wish to tell a story, a little roughness never hurts.


It's simple human nature.


Love, as always,

Rogier





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