Thursday, January 16, 2014

Story Beyond Conflict - Part 1 of 4 - Conflict and the Hero’s Journey

Ki-Shō-Ten-KetsuEast Meets West in A New Story for Humanity Beyond Conflict

Part 1 of 4 - Ki (起)

“The essence of story is conflict. That principle is so well understood, so often espoused and so universally taught, it is easily the underlying and fundamental component of plot, wouldn’t you agree?” 
~ Donald Mass, Writing the Breakout Novel1

Um no, I don't think I agree, at least when it comes to creating a new story for humanity. Does this sound a bit like flat-earth fundamentalism?

Great thinkers such as David Korten2, Charles Eisenstein, and many others, are suggesting that what humanity needs now is a “New Story”, or narrative, to navigate us through the transformation that is currently required of humanity. Eisenstein, for example, suggests in his book The Ascent of Humanity3 that we are currently facing a convergence of crisis, where we are being called upon to move beyond the “Old Story”, which he suggests has led to our current “Age of Separation” and all the problems resulting from it. The “New Story” he says we are entering into will hopefully bring about an “Age of Reunion”, when we begin to realize the interconnected nature of all things and that “we are fundamentally unseparate from each other, from all beings, and from the universe”.

Other luminaries such as Joseph Campbell4, have written extensively about the importance of the narrative structure that makes up the stories we have told ourselves for many millennium. Indeed Campbell argues that the heroic mono-myth, or “Hero’s Journey”, is a basic pattern found in narratives from around the world. It is a tried-and-true plot structure that has been the basis of many epic stories and movies such as Star Wars and Avatar.

And anyone who has ever seriously entertained the notion of crafting the next great American novel or blockbuster Hollywood screenplay should know that perhaps the most critical element in the Hero’s Journey, as preached by almost all contemporary story guru’s is “Conflict”, with a capital “C”. Conflict is used to create reader/audience involvement, escalate the drama, and set things up for a monumental, cathartic climax. The formula seems to be: more and more conflict, plus higher and higher stakes, equals a bigger and bigger blockbuster story.

Maybe you too have noticed in our books and movies the presence of ever-intensifying plots, with more disturbing conflicts, filled with more and more violence. The movie Hunger Games, in which kids are pitted against each other in a fight to the death for entertainment purposes, is in my mind the penultimate of conflict. (I think the author is actually making some social commentary which many may not fully appreciate…yet.)

Are the increasing levels of conflict in our stories a reflection of a sick society, or a cause of it? Which comes first, the society that creates the story, or as the aforementioned thinkers suggest, it’s the story that creates the society? I think it is a both/and proposition. But just as we’ve created dominator hierarchical structures in our societies that have come to dominate us, perhaps we’ve also created a literary monster within our story structures that has come to dominate our cultural conditioning, our worldviews, and our visions of how to live successfully on this planet. So I agree with those proposing that we desperately need a new story.

However, what I see overlooked in almost all discussions of the “New Story” we need to tell ourselves is this: What shall the narrative structure of the new story be? Will it be the same old story involving monumental conflict, which automatically translates into the mentality of war, of conquest over something or someone? Will it be the same old story of good versus evil, in which it’s all about the good “us” versus some evil “other” person or thing? This worldview has formed the basis of much of our separation, from ourselves, from our world, and from nature itself. Is it possible that instead we should occupy a more systemic perspective on not only the institutions we’ve created that seem to be based upon inherent conflict and separation, but also the stories we tell ourselves? Systemically speaking, our blockbuster stories have conflict and separation baked right into their plot structures.

And on a more subtle level, do we really believe that for our stories, our lives, or our world to be interesting that we must have conflict? More and more research is showing that conflict and competition and violence are not intrinsic aspects of our so-called “human nature”. Indeed evolution itself seems to be the story of "holonic progression to ever-larger scales of cooperation"5.  So, must our stories be based upon conflict, and do these stories reinforce false notions of human’s higher traits and aspirations? If we believe that yes, conflict is part of the human experience, than because conflict is inherently about separation, does that mean we will always have conflict? Is “the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible”6 a utopian dream that can never overcome the force of dualities and dialectics?

Perhaps any discussion on creating “a new story” for humanity is incomplete unless it provides an alternative to the narrative plot structure we’ve taken for granted, as a given. I wonder if there are other ways to create a compelling grand narrative or story of humanity that will help us envision and call forward a new earth. As it turns out, there is.

As Charles Eisenstein discusses in his book The More Beautiful World our Hearts Tell us is Possible, “Western notions of story and plot have a kind of war built in to them as part of the standard three-act or five-act narrative structure, in which a conflict arises and is resolved. Is any other structure possible that isn’t dull, that still qualifies as a plot? Yes…the East Asian story structure called Kishōtenketsu (Ki-Shō-Ten-Ketsu) in Japanese is not based on conflict. But we in the West almost universally experience a story as something in which someone or something must be overcome. This surely colors our worldview, making “evil”— the essence of that which must be overcome— seem quite natural a basis for the stories we construct to understand the world and its problems. Our political discourse, our media, our scientific paradigms, even our very language predisposes us to seeing change as the result of struggle, conflict, and force. To act from a new story, and to build a society upon it, requires a wholesale transformation.”

Perhaps this transformation can be precipitated by the narrative structure Kishōtenketsu, or some altogether new form of story structure which better narrates the story of the more beautiful, non-hierarchical, decentralized, open-sourced, and globally connected  world that wants to be born. I will be exploring these ideas further in parts 2, 3 & 4, but for now it is hopeful to know that we are not necessarily locked into a western-centric, culturally-created model of story telling that no longer serves us, and that there are no natural laws that prevent us from adopting radically different narrative structures which can bring about our much needed transformation.

(A great follow-up article on Kishōtenketsu is referenced below.)7


1. Donald Maass Literary Agency - Books on Writing

2. David Korten on Yes Magazine - It’s a “Story Problem”
3. Charles Eisenstein, Ascent of Humanity
4. Joseph Campbell, Hero with a Thousand Faces
5. John M. Bunzl, "Evolutionary Biology and the Simultaneous Policy". "An important theory underlying the view that cooperation plays just as important a role as competition is Koestler’s concept of holons and holarchies; the idea that reality is composed of holons or "whole/parts": wholes that are simultaneously composed of smaller parts and are themselves also parts of larger wholes."
6. Charles Eisenstein, The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible
7. still eating oranges blog, The significance of plot without conflict

I have a conflict with the word conflict (screenshot from the article below)

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