Ray Villareal

The cat sat on the mat is not a story. The cat sat on the other cat’s mat is a story.—John le Carré

Long before children enter school, they’ve been exposed to all sorts of stories, from the once-upon-a-time variety, to family history and lore. It’s natural, then, to use storytelling as a springboard to teach story writing. But to do that, teachers must first clarify what a story is.

We commonly refer to events we hear, see, and read about as a story:

I heard a story on the radio this morning.

I saw a story on the news last night.

I read a story in the paper today.

My friend told me a funny story.

So what exactly is a story?

In the early grades, students are taught that a story has five basic elements: plot, characters, setting, conflict, and a resolution. Later, they may be introduced to other literary elements, such as the exposition, the rising action, the falling action, the climax, and the denouement.

While each of these elements is essential to a story, arguably the most important one is the conflict. Conflict is the heart of a story. It’s what gives it life. Just as we can’t live without our hearts, a story can’t live without conflict. Take away the conflict, and the story dies.

Consider The Three Little Pigs, for example, and imagine how it would read without the Big Bad Wolf in it.

Once upon a time, there were three Little Pigs who lived in the woods. One day, they decided to build houses. The first Little Pig built his house out of straw. The second Little Pig built his house out of sticks. The third Little Pig built his house out of bricks. And they lived happily ever after.

The story still has a plot, characters, setting, and a resolution. But without conflict, without some type of problem, it’s like eating a piece of uncooked meat—digestible, but flavorless.

Stories aren’t about happiness. They’re about tension, threats, and fears. Happiness can be part of a story, but it’s never the story. Why? Because happiness doesn’t keep readers turning pages—adversity does.

Think of any book you’ve read, any movie you’ve seen, or any TV show you’ve watched. If it was a story, it had conflict. And the worse things got, the more you were captivated by it.

The TV series Seinfeld was jokingly promoted as “a show about nothing.” But Seinfeld was actually a show about conflict. Each episode presented multiple problems for Jerry and the gang. The wackier the situations, the funnier the episode. If you’re a Seinfeld fan, you’ll recognize these lines:

“No soup for you!”

“But we’re not gay! Not that there’s anything wrong with that!”

“I was in the pool! I was in the pool!”

Would we still have loved Lucy if she didn’t have some “’splainin’” to do? Her antics may have driven Ricky Ricardo crazy, but they also made I Love Lucy one of the most enduring and entertaining TV shows of all time.

Jerry Cleaver cautions aspiring novelists: “If the characters in your story are having a good time, your readers are not.”

One of the reasons children struggle to write stories is because they’re not aware of this basic concept, partly because their teachers don’t emphasize it.

I’ve noticed that after students finish reading a story, the first question their teachers typically ask them is, “Who are the main characters?” Followed by, “Where does the story take place?”

Having students recall the names of the characters or asking them to identify the setting doesn’t test their understanding of a story. Nor does it help them write one.

Instead of querying your students about characters and settings, the first question you should ask during the post-reading discussion is, “What are the conflicts in the story?” This will require them to think deeper about what they’ve read.

Next, ask your students, “How are the characters affected by the conflicts?” This question is equally thought-provoking because conflict changes characters—or reveals their true nature, as the case may be.

A bully discovers he’s not as tough as he thought he was. A boy finds the strength he didn’t realize he had to prevail over the obstacles he faces. A teenage girl from Kansas finally learns that “there’s no place like home.”

Look at what happened to the three Little Pigs. At the beginning of the story, they were sweet, gentle creatures, whose only intention was to build houses. But when the Big Bad Wolf tried to break into their brick home, they went from being sweet, gentle creatures, to turning downright vicious. I mean, they boiled the Wolf alive! Who would’ve thought the Pigs had a dark side? And we wouldn’t have known it if the Wolf hadn’t been part of the story.

A conversation about conflict is also an effective way to set a purpose for reading. Before your students open their books, say to them, “As you read the story, think about the problems the characters go through and what they must do to overcome them.”

This strategy works well as a comprehension skill because the one thing all children are attracted to—including struggling and reluctant readers—is trouble. By having your students focus on the conflicts, they’ll have a better grasp of what they’re reading. It will also help them when they write their stories.

“Well, my kids write lots of stories that don’t have conflict,” one teacher told me.

To which I replied, “Then they’re not writing stories. They’re writing anecdotes.”

An anecdote is a brief account of an event that may or may not have occurred. And like all types of narratives, it contains literary elements. But without conflict, the anecdote can come off as dull and uninteresting.

Another teacher said, “I tell my kids that they can add conflict to their stories to make them more exciting.”

Let me be clear. Conflict isn’t something we add to a story—it is the story.

When I decided to write My Father, the Angel of Death, a young adult novel about a 13-year-old boy whose dad is a professional wrestler, my goal was to write a book that would appeal to struggling and reluctant readers. But I didn’t have a story until I asked myself: What’s so bad about having a dad who’s a world-famous wrestler? Once I found the answer, I was able to write the book.

In your post-reading conversations, go ahead and ask your students to name the main characters, but don’t stop there. Ask them how the characters’ personalities would differ if the story didn’t have conflict. To paraphrase a familiar saying: Characters are like teabags. You never quite know how strong they are until you put them in hot water.

Discuss the setting, too. But point out that without conflict, the setting won’t keep readers hooked for long, regardless of how fascinating or exotic the location may be.

I enjoy watching reruns of the old TV western, Rawhide. Not only was Rawhide a well-written show, it had one of the coolest theme songs in television history. Nonetheless, having Trail Boss Gil Favor and Ramrod Rowdy Yates go rollin’, rollin’, rollin’ isn’t enough to keep me watchin’, watchin’, watchin’. Something intriguing needs to happen fast, because if it doesn’t, I have the remote sitting next to me, and I’m not afraid to use it. Conflict, not setting, is what made Rawhide a successful TV series.

Teach your students that stories are about conflict, and they won’t need a graphic organizer to plan their work, because conflict automatically structures a story. First, it requires a setup. What were the circumstances that led to the problems? Second, it forces the characters to take action. Third, the conflict needs a resolution. In other words, beginning + middle + end = story.

So the first rule of story writing, then, is this: No conflict, no story. Teach it! Preach it! Post it on your classroom wall—NO CONFLICT, NO STORY!