So what the hell is conflict in a story?
Conflict is the one component of your screenplay or novel that you must get right above all others. Character, structure, plot and theme are all meaningless if your story does not have conflict, because conflict is integral to all of these fiction writing elements, and more.
So why is conflict so important in story? Because as humans we are drawn to it. It excites and engages us, and because of that, conflict is what hooks your reader, holds them to the story and keeps them turning the pages. It is what keeps the audience on their bums in the cinema until the end credits role. It is the be-all and end-all of your story, no matter what medium you write in.
Conflict is the engine of every story, of every sequence and of every scene. Without it your story is dead.
Therefore, we cannot overestimate enough how important conflict is to your narrative – conflict is the engine of every story, every sequence and every scene. Without it your story is dead. So, to fully understand what conflict is and how it works in a story, you need to understand how character works, how structure works, how theme works, and how conflict is connected to and affects them all. Yet many writers do not, and as a consequence their stories end up being flat and two dimensional. This is because the conflict has just been added in a slapdash manner – characters arguing here, a car chase there, a gun battle over here, believing that this is adequate to make character struggles entertaining enough to satisfy an audience. In some genres, maybe it is, but conflict is far more sophisticated than this.
But fear not, because here at the Film Rave we’re going to explain everything you need to know about conflict, and we’re sure that if you take our guidance on board, you’ll be developing conflict rich, three dimensional stories within no time.
But first, we have to start with basics, so let’s define the different types of conflict that exist within fiction:
- Outer Conflict 1– Individual against individual, which encompasses personal struggles with other characters
- Outer Conflict 2 – individual against environment, which could be anything from struggles with the forces of nature to more abstract conflicts, such as family values, social constraints etc.,
- Inner Conflict – individual against self, which is conflict within the character from something that they have not or dare not acknowledge; perhaps they are insecure, lazy or selfish, for example
All good stories usually employ conflict types 1 and 3, because they are the most important. A great story weaves all three of these conflict types into its narrative.
So what is conflict?
At it’s most basic level conflict is about opposition – the cop wants to catch the serial killer, but the serial killer doesn’t want to be caught; the man wants to ask his work colleague out on a date, but she doesn’t want to go.
Conflict works best when a character in a scene or sequence wants something, known as the character goal (more on that shortly), and something creates an obstacle that stops him or her from achieving that goal. That ‘something’ can be another person (outer conflict 1), some environmental element (outer conflict 2), or something about their own character that stops them, such as fear of heights, selfishness etc., (inner conflict). Remember, the greatest stories use all three types of conflict.
The premise of any story contains the overall goal of the main character, and they cannot simply be passionate about achieving their goal, they must be obsessed by it. In fact, as a writer you should develop the structure of your story to give your protagonist no choice but to go after their goal with every ounce of energy and skill they have (but that’s another post).
In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) must find the Lost Ark of the Covenant before the Nazis do. So, the main story conflict will see Indy battling the German army in order to obtain the Ark.
In The Revenant, Hugh Glass’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) goal is to get back to civilisation to take revenge on the man who left him for dead. So, the main conflict will see Glass battling nature and its savage environment to return to civilisation.
In John Wick, Wick’s (Keanu Reeves) goal is to hunt down the gangster who stole his car and killed his dog. So, the main conflict here actually sees Wick battling the city’s most notorious gangland leader, who happens to be culprit’s father, as well as Wick’s old employer. Oh, the irony (check out our article on how to inject irony into your stories).
So your character needs to achieve this goal by the end of the story. You can then break down your story into sequences, usually between eight and twelve, with each sequence containing it’s own individual goal that, once achieved, will get the protagonist closer (or further away) from achieving their main overall goal (check out our article about Character Goals and Goal Obstacles in The Revenant).
For example, the first goal Indiana Jones needs to achieve before he can get his hands on the Ark of the Covenant is to find the headpiece to the Staff of Ra. How does this create conflict? Well, Indy knows that the father of his ex-girlfriend Marion has the headpiece, but he soon discovers that he’s died and Marion now owns it, but because of their turbulent past (he dumped her), she’s not willing to give him what he wants (obstacle). To add even more conflict, the Nazis show up looking for the headpiece (obstacle), and because Indy must get the headpiece before the Nazis, well, all kinds of entertaining hell breaks out.
the goals and obstacles must be purposefully designed to challenge your character’s inner conflict
But conflict is yet even more complicated and sophisticated than this, as the goals and obstacles must be purposefully designed to challenge your character’s inner conflict (insecurity, selfishness etc.,). Also, the manner in which the protagonist chooses to overcome that obstacle must reveal a specific aspect of their character, and show growth, i.e. that the character is overcoming that inner conflict.
Let us explain with a basic example:
Romeo wants to date Juliette (character goal/outer conflict type 1), but he’s too shy, too insecure (inner conflict). His giggling friends encourage him to make the first move. Afraid of looking meek in front of them (outer conflict type 2), Romeo moves to talk to Juliette (this is his attempt to achieve his overall goal and overcome the obstacle that is his insecurity). He fails, his insecurity making him fluff his words, and Juliette rejects him. He’s lost face in front of his friends, but worse, he’s blown his chances with the love of his life. But more importantly, seeing him attempting to overcome that inner conflict, and failing, shows us that he’s insecure – the audience now knows something about his character.
Each scene of your story must be constructed around a nucleus of conflict, and the scene must begin and end at the exact moments that the conflict begins and ends respectively. Conflict should also rise throughout your story so that each scene of conflict is greater than the previous. So, let’s see what Romeo does next:
Romeo really likes Juliette, so he’s not going to give up (your main character should never give up chasing their goal until they’ve achieved it). Romeo now has to try to overcome the obstacle of his insecurity (inner conflict) again, but it will be more difficult because of his failed first attempt – Juliette will not entertain him (a new outer conflict). How will he overcome this new obstacle? This is more difficult for him because he has more to loose this time, there’s more at stake. The first attempt saw him loose face, but this time, if he fails, she may never even look at him again, let alone talk to him.
Stakes are the key, here. The main character must have more to lose in each sequence of your story. As the conflict rises, so do the stakes for you characters.
What to take away from all of this:
- Ensure your protagonist has a clear and specific goal to achieve by the end of the story
- Ensure that the story contains an antagonist that is in direct opposition to your protagonist’s goal
- Use all three types of conflict
- Ensure that every scene is constructed around a nucleus of conflict, and that the scene begins and ends at the exact moments that the conflict begins and ends respectively
- Ensure that the scene/sequence goals and consequent obstacles are constructed in a way that reveals the character flaw that the protagonist need to get over in order to grow and achieve their overall goal
- Ensure that the conflict and stakes become more severe as the story progresses
- Lastly, ensure that the conflict is entertaining
Remember, conflict IS story. If you have no conflict, you have no story.