Stories are about something happening. It’s a pretty simple concept. The normal world is overthrown and the heroes are forced to go on an adventure to return things to the way they were, or make them better, and in the process they discover something about themselves. There’s a reason that they all end with the happily ever after, right? Once there’s no conflict, there’s nothing left to tell. For a story to be a story, whether it’s about something mundane or completely fantastical, whether there is external or internal drama, conflict is mandatory.
Conflict can take many forms too. Every story doesn’t have to be a fight to the death, or a quest to keep the world from imploding, although those are certainly more fun and infinitely more popular.
Conflict can come from inside, for example. A character’s own thoughts and feelings and need for change or self-discovery could be plenty to propel the story forward. Yes, it can come from outside too. It can even be a combination. But it cannot be absent. Sure, your dialogue can be amazing and your settings so epically described that it makes you want to live in that world, but without conflict, it’s just a bunch of well-written scenes strung together that amount to basically nothing.
It should be easy, actually, because we all face conflict in our daily lives. It’s not often exciting enough to write about, but it’s still there. A heated debate about what to have for dinner or a teenager whining about homework isn’t going to make a great story, but the trick to writing is finding a conflict big enough to carry an entire narrative. Or about turning a small conflict into something much, much bigger. Conflict makes the reader want to do their job and it’s what makes your story matter. If the reader doesn’t care about what’s happening to your characters, what good is the rest of it? They have to connect and conflict is your key to that feeling. It’s how you get your audience invested. Basically, conflict equals investment.
Investment is mandatory.
And it’s not that happiness is unrealistic, or even boring, especially to the person in that situation. It’s just that happy people don’t make big changes or go on grand adventures. Happy people are content. Content people don’t make for good storytelling, unfortunately. Your characters can certainly start off that way, but you better have a conflict so big and so awful and so terrifying that it jolts them out of their rose-colored glasses and into the real world. Otherwise, what’s the point?