Most writers will tell you that conflict is essential to a story. Some would even go so far as to say a story can’t exist without conflict. And sure, depending on the medium involved, conflict is pretty crucial to a story. But is it essential to a story? Short answer: nope. The longer answer is a bit more involved.
There are several major exceptions to this rule. The most prominent examples I can think of would be humour and slice of life. In both instances, something else takes the place of conflict. For humour it’s the concept of set up and pay off, using jokes and crazy situations to propel the story. And for slice of life it’s having stellar characters the reader will fall in love with and simply enjoy watching or reading about in fairly normal (and occasionally fantastical) situations.
Often the above two categories of story will coincide, of course. Slice of life thrives on ordinary situations made humorous by putting a new slant on them. Something like GJ-bu is a great example of this. Likewise, Aria’s various seasons are all heavily focused on what we in the business like to call ‘cute girls doing cute things’, and is what you might call a healing show.
But Freia, those are both anime, you say? Indeed they are! So how does this work with, let’s say, a book? Can slice of life work in something as tightly written as a novel? Where every word counts and there’s no room for fluff? Why, yes, yes it can. I point you towards my own Aida series as Exhibit A, which is a combination not only of lesbian romance, but also slice of life and humour/shenanigans.
There is some conflict in Book 2 onwards as the main characters start settling into their lives and going for auditions, in some cases against each other, but at the heart of the story? It’s slice of life, through and through. Humour and great characters can effectively replace conflict in a story, to put it simply.
So is conflict essential to a story? The short answer was no. The longer answer is also no, but while it’s true that a story doesn’t always need conflict, it does need direction. Even a slice of life story has a direction, with each episode focusing on a specific circumstance or series of events, and a novel is no different.
Each book in the Aida saga focuses heavily on one group of meticulously crafted characters (excuse me while I blow my own trumpet), and follows them through a specific set of events with well-defined arcs and acts, which don’t necessarily follow the traditional structure (acts 1-3, rising and falling action, etc., though they do always have appropriate denouement).
Times change and new genres emerge, or old ones are tweaked for modern audiences. In Ye Olden Greek Times, a lot of stories ended with an intervention from God (which is where we get the term Deus Ex Machina from), but modern stories are considered extremely negatively if you pull a stunt like that. Likewise, the popular belief that ‘all stories require conflict’ isn’t necessarily true any more either.