November 5, 2012 • Adam Nemett
Storytellers rely on conflict. It’s the central motivator in any good plot. Without conflict people simply don’t care—readers stop reading, moviegoers stop watching (and ask for their money back), and audiences stop “Following.”
Narrative conflict is developed and identified according to certain predefined tropes, namely: Man vs. Man (Rocky), Man vs. Society (1984), Man vs. Nature (The Old Man and the Sea), and Man vs. Self (Requiem for a Dream). There are variations on these—such as Man vs. Machine (Terminator) and Man vs. Supernatural (Ghostbusters)—but for now we’ll let’s stick to those first four.
Some storytellers recommend that a hero deal with one distinct conflict, providing the audience with a single point of tension (Aristotle’s “unity of action”). However, my preference is to explore situations in which the hero grapples with multiple challenges at once, encountering conflicts in most or all of the four major categories. It’s a better mirror of reality and, usually, a lot more exciting.
For instance, in Back to the Future, our “fish out of water” hero, Marty McFly, struggles against all of the following:
1) Navigating the unfamiliar cultural customs of the 1950s (Man vs. Society)
2) Boosting his father’s self-esteem and dodging his mother’s sexual advances while butting heads (get it?) with the bully Biff Tannen (Man vs. Man)
3) Facing his own foolish pride when taunted by lines like, “Whatsamatter, McFly . . . Chicken?” (Man vs. Self)
4) Chasing down the only power source capable of generating the elusive 1.21 gigawatts of electricity needed for time travel: a bolt of lightning! (Man vs. Nature)
Aaaand…that’s why Back to the Future is such an awesome movie. The conflicts overlap and intertwine. They are micro- and macrocosms of each other. They compound. To be topical, one might refer to this as a “Superstorm” of Conflict.
Now back to real life. We are currently dealing with a similar confluence of challenges:
Organizations, too, face a near constant Superstorm of Conflict, though they rarely admit this to their stakeholders or, for that matter, to themselves. Ironically, these conflicts make their stories more compelling—and more worth telling.
Pharmaceutical companies, for instance, struggle on a daily basis with the Supervillains of disease (Man vs. Nature), the bureaucracy of regulation (Man vs. Society), the speed and cunning of their competitors (Man vs. Man) and, last, but not least, the core conflict of capitalism: profit motive vs. doing the right thing (Man vs. Self). Add in an unforeseen tragedy like 9/11 or the Global Financial Crisis and you’ve got a true Superstorm.
Sure, in a perfect world, all catastrophic diseases easily give up their secrets, all regulators and businesses work in harmony, all competition is collegial, and the best way to turn a profit is to serve the greater good. But c’mon. Such conceits are less plausible than a 1980s high school student traveling through time in a magic Delorean. To suspend disbelief in the case of one’s institutional identity is to deny thyself, and, potentially, to do irreparable harm to an organization, its employees, customers, leaders and shareholders. This struggle to be aware of the warring sides of one’s own identity is core to most great storytelling.
To illustrate the Man vs. Self conflict, John A. Stanford’s Evil: The Shadow Side of Reality uses the classic tale, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde:
Henry Jekyll’s fundamental mistake was his desire to escape the tension of opposites within him… by means of the transforming drug, so that he could be both Jekyll and Hyde and have the pleasures and benefits of living out both sides of his personality without guilt or tension.
In other words, what we reject tends to become more powerful and turn against us. But to overindulge is equally destructive. The trick may be to acknowledge the Shadow without blindly repressing it or fully giving into it, and to instead live in that tension. This carries the potential for wholeness, for greatness. Between two opposites there usually exists a tenuous yet graceful balance.
There is light and dark inside all of us—individuals and institutions alike. Ultimately, self-awareness asks us to admit this fact, and choose a side. Our corporate system—and maybe our biology—is designed to encourage survival of the fittest. But I believe that at our best and most evolved we are defined by how we treat those around us—our family, our friends, our employees, even our competitors and enemies. And most storytellers and paying audiences seem to agree. There’s a reason why “heroes” are defined and portrayed as selfless protectors of those in need. There’s a reason why “villains” typically trample the weak for personal gain.
Heroes are made when individuals and organizations choose to live within conflict: accepting the inherent tension of our capitalist system and transparently acknowledging challenges while keeping sight of “doing the right thing.” When institutions are tempted by the “dark” side or taunted by the Biff Tannens of the corporate world, they may not always respond with wisdom the first time, but there is always potential for heroic redemption. And that’s a story worth following.
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