Do you remember seeing a chart like the one above when you were in eighth grade? It’s called the “story arc” or “dramatic structure” or a bunch of other things. In essence, it’s a graphic representation of the action and flow of a story from “Once upon a time…” all the way to “…happily ever after.”
I love this chart for so many reasons, mainly because I’m a story nerd. I enjoy studying stories and understanding how they work.
But I also love this chart because it’s a great indicator of the human condition.
Not sure what I mean? Allow me to explain.
Good Conflict = Good Story
Look at that story arc again. How does it start? “Well, it starts with ‘exposition.’ Whatever that it is.”1
That’s technically right, but look again. Where does the story really start? With conflict. The conflict comes, and the story takes off. It’s the conflict that gets the story going and keeps it going until it’s resolved. Good stories have good conflicts that we can readily relate to or find exciting or compelling.
The worst stories are the ones that have a bad conflict—one that’s confusing, one that can’t be related to but isn’t exciting or confusing, etc.—or no conflict at all. You know that one uncle who tells stories at Thanksgiving that have neither point nor punchline? He’s telling stories that are missing a good conflict.
But Conflicts Aren’t Good
A good conflict makes for a good story, and yet aren’t conflicts bad? Doesn’t the presence of a conflict mean the absence of peace?
Conflicts are bad. Conflicts are problems that spark the action of the story. If there are no problems, there are no conflicts, and all of the characters are at peace, enjoying their lives. Ever wonder why the filmmakers don’t include more scenes of the film where the main characters are simply hanging out for no reason, with no plot advancement? It’s because that doesn’t make for a very exciting movie, unless you’re into that.
So, all of our stories—except for those written to intentionally attempt to defy this law—begin with and are driven by conflict?
What does that say about us?
Fallen Humans, Fallen World, Fallen Stories
All of our stories begin with conflict because our lives are filled with conflict, but it’s not because the presence of conflict makes it easy for us to relate to the story because we have conflict in our lives. The presence of conflicts in stories and our lives comes from the fact that we are all characters in God’s story, a story that contains the mother of all conflicts.
In the beginning…once upon a time…God created a perfect world, free from conflict, discord, and pain. We brought conflict into this world, and thus, into our lives. The Gospel, the story of Jesus, is the story of God entering into our conflict to bring a permanent and final resolution.
We created the conflict in God’s story, and God has sent Jesus to begin the process of resolving this conflict.
But wait! When that happens, when Heaven comes to Earth and all conflict is resolved, what happens to the story?
Won’t a story without a conflict be terrible and dull?
No Conflict = Better Stories
I’ve already stated that good conflicts make for good stories and that stories without conflict are boring. So, now, we have a conflict, a contradiction, in this blog post, right? No.
Stories that are told without a conflict are pointless. We have a conflict in our story; our story has a point. When we reach that resolution, we’ll finally be living in the “happily ever after.” That doesn’t sound boring at all.
“But didn’t God plan to have a story without a conflict? And don’t stories that end with a ‘happily ever after’ often return with a sequel, conflict-driven story?”
Yes, He did. More on that in a second.
Sequels are created to bring back the characters in a new story, and they require a new conflict because we don’t want a story where the characters are merely sitting around. We can’t imagine a story without conflicting being exciting. We want to see these characters being heroic, brave, etc. We crave stories of wonder and thrill, that see characters move beyond what they know about life and themselves into a new world beyond anything they’d experienced before.
And that’s exactly the kind of story God planned for us in the first place. He planned a story that we have seen us growing closer and closer to our infinite Creator, constantly discovering more and more of who He is and being changed by it. This is the story we will have after Heaven has come to Earth. Conflict resolved, but discovery, adventure, and excitement brought to their highest peaks, beyond anything imagined in this life, each and every moment that we live in the perfect presence of God.
This isn’t an easy topic. It’s very conceptual and abstract, but let me close by summarizing as simply as possible. Before that, however, let me suggest the CS Lewis book The Great Divorce. While it’s a highly speculative and metaphorical book, it presents a view of Heaven that lines up with a lot of what I’m trying to say.
God started a story without a conflict, but we introduced a conflict through sin. God sent Jesus to live, die, and be resurrected to remove our sin and restore our relationship with Him, beginning the process of resolving the conflict. We living in a world of conflict and seek to entertain ourselves with stories that are driven by conflict. And yet, part of us desires a compelling story full excitement and yet devoid of conflict.
And that’s the story that God is going to inaugurate as soon as this one is fully resolved, when Heaven comes to Earth.
[Featured Image Via Ms. Snowden’s English Blog]
‘Exposition’ is the background of a story—the introduction of characters, setting, etc. It gives the reader some context that helps the reader understand the rest of the story. ↩