This is a rule I struggle with regularly. I have still yet to meet a critic or receive a critique that didn’t include “every story needs conflict to run throughout the story.”
This is also a rule I refuse to abide by. The reason? It’s not freaking true.
For argument’s sake, lets ignore the pre-2000’s novels and stories. Before this spastic schism between storytelling and !EXPLOSIONS AND ACTION AND CONFLICT AND EXPLOSIONS! novels seemed to be riddled with info dumps, to be verbs, and “bland exposition” that puts to sleep most unmedicated adults with ADHD. Though I still fail to see how Pride and Prejudice would be better with war scenes or lots of slapping, or heaven forbid a lack of exposition.
One of the main arguments I hear against my “No, not every story needs conflict” is that “just because it’s not fight scene conflict doesn’t mean there isn’t conflict.” Yes, this is true. Conflict can be emotion, internal, (Hamlet, most Romance, Moby Dick). But it’s also true that requiring conflict to move a story is both a new concept and a VERY Eurocentric story structure.
Eurocentric story structure comes in 3 Acts: setup with inciting incident (problem), confrontation of problem with conflict, and resolution of that conflict and finality of the problem through solution. But that’s not the only option.
For instance, the Japanese story structure does not include the typical story structure you and I know and are taught. It’s called Kishōtenketsu and comes in 4 Acts: introduction, development, twist, and resolution. Instead of conflict and action, Kishōtenketsu relies on exposition and contrasts to maintain interest in the reader. It’s why you might like Murakami but can’t explain what the book’s about without sounding like a raving loon. It’s also the reason why the average American reader gets bored with Murakami.
The article linked above includes my favorite representation of just such a story:
Here we see an entire story knocked out without conflict. There’s no struggle for either character. There’s an implied emotion in both the boy and the girl, both in their separate and individual lives and also once they connect and share a moment. But conflict is not present in this story.
And Japan isn’t the only culture with this sort of story structure. I haven’t found a confirmation yet, but the few Nigerian novels I’ve read have the same Japanese structure to stories with a lack of conflict.
So, take a deep breath. Conflict is not an absolute necessity. However, this does mean, if you play this card and set conflict on a back burner, you’ve got to step up your A Game and really hammer home the prose, exposition, and plot.