The import­ance of conflict

A simple way of looking at a film story is to see it as a sequence of changes. This is what struc­tural units are all about.

The film itself is a “big change,” a progres­sion from point A to B; within it are smaller but still, signi­ficant changes called Acts and nested within those even smaller changes called Scenes. Finally, down at the coal-face of dramatic writing, we have the smal­lest signi­ficant changes of all, named Beats.

What causes change to happen in a story? Conflict.

It is the factors that block and deflect the path upon which the action is proceeding that gives the story interest; in partic­ular, those forces opposing the goals of the prot­ag­onist. Conflict makes us care about a char­acter. In fact, as Robert Mckee, reminds us: “a char­acter can only be as inter­esting as the forces which oppose it”.

A familiar device, often used in action and thriller movies, is to ramp up the oppos­i­tion facing the prot­ag­onist during the course of a film until it reaches tsunami propor­tions. Even­tu­ally, there is a massive, seem­ingly insur­mount­able, weight of oppos­i­tion hanging over the protagonist’s head and threat­ening to engulf them.

It seems completely impossible for them to succeed in reaching their goals – and yet somehow they do and the audi­ence loves it.

Energy flow

Change for change’s sake is not enough by itself. You have to make your audi­ence care what happens.

At the ‘quantum physics’ level of story struc­ture, there is a very simple event taking place which is never­the­less crucial to the impact of the story upon its audi­ence. This is similar to that old party game in which the players have to tell a story by begin­ning every sentence with the phrase ‘fortu­nately‘ or ‘unfor­tu­nately‘:

Fortu­nately, he finds a treasure map … unfor­tu­nately, there is a piece missing … fortu­nately, he learns who has the missing piece … and so on.

What is happening here, in story terms, is a change from the positive to the negative (and of course from the negative to the positive). Each time this happens an energy is gener­ated that sweeps an audi­ence along and involves them: i.e. ‘He is rich but he loses all his money …

Once the trans­ition is completed however that energy dies.  Also, the same kind of trans­ition repeated will tend to have dimin­ishing returns: i.e. ‘He is poor but he becomes rich again… ‘

These trans­itions from one polarity to another that occur within a story are what involves an audi­ence with it, whether or not they are consciously aware of what is causing that involve­ment. Some­times the changes are subtle, some­times more obvious, but the mech­anism basic­ally works the same way.

Levels of conflict

There are three basic levels upon which Conflict can occur:

The Inner Level: Things that conflict with the character’s inner motiv­a­tion – usually a desire for a feeling of self-worth – ie. fear, insec­urity, self-hatred.

The Inter-Personal Level: Conflicts that occur in rela­tion­ships and between people.

The Extra-Personal Level: Conflicts that occur between indi­viduals and society or the world at large. ie. polit­ical, legal, profes­sional and ideo­lo­gical.

Often, whether you are aware of it or not, it is these layers of conflict that add depth to a scene and give it a ‘three-dimensional’ quality. Look for the oppor­tunity to add them whenever you can.

Prob­ably the most common fault committed by new writers is to explore only one level of conflict; adding complic­a­tions in an effort to try and keep us interested.

It is much better to aim for a strong and simple central conflict which relates to, and is explored, on all of the three levels. In other words: to aim for complexity rather than complic­a­tion.

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Related posts on this site

If you are unsure about how to explore the different levels of conflict in your scene, read the following pages on this site:

Screen­writing tech­nique: Writing Scenes

Case study: Network

Screen­writing tech­nique: Power and status

The Prin­ciple of Displacement

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