Conflict or Curiosity: What drives a story forward?

Does a story need conflict? We’re taught that the standard story structure is Situation – Conflict – Resolution. And Hollywood has made good use of this story format.

But it’s not the only story format, and indeed, conflict is not even a necessary component. For example, I love this commercial, which I discovered over the Christmas holidays in Canada. It’s a good example of storytelling, not because it has conflict, but because it has curiosity.

Curiosity means raising a question for the audience and keeping them hooked: “Will these two people ever get together?”

Conflict doesn’t necessarily hook the audience. The Seattle Seahawks pounding the Denver Broncos 43-8 in the 2014 Super Bowl has conflict. But it doesn’t have much curiosity. We know how this story will end – the Hawks will win the game. And so it doesn’t hold our attention to the end.

Curiosity drives many stories, more so than conflict. Think about the great Hollywood movies of our time and you will see they are driven forward by an overall question:

Rocky: Will Rocky beat Apollo Creed?
Castaway: Will Tom Hanks ever get off the island?
Life of Pi: Will Pi and the tiger learn to get along, and eventually be rescued?
Bridges of Madison County: Will Francesca leave her husband?

We hear a lot about conflict in storytelling. Conflict is just a way to spark curiosity. But it’s not the only way to drive curiosity.

The Twilight Zone television series is a good example of how a story can be spurred forward by curiosity. Think of the typical Twilight Zone story: a man wakes up and finds his entire town deserted. Where did everyone go? Are they coming back? What’s happening? Not conflict, but curiosity.

Watch the first minute of this video. Are you hooked, even though there’s no conflict? What question is raised in your mind?

So keep that in mind as you’re building a story. What question will keep the audience hooked and drive the story forward to its ultimate conclusion?

About the author: Bruce Gabrielle is author of Speaking PowerPoint: the New Language of Business, showing a 12-step method for creating clearer and more persuasive PowerPoint slides for boardroom presentations. Subscribe to this blog or join my LinkedIn group to get new posts sent to your inbox.