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

Think like a wise man but commu­nicate in the language of the people.

William Butler Yeats

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 – from a plot­ting view­point – relat­ively uncom­plic­ated central conflict which never­the­less reson­ates on all of the three levels.

In other words: aim for complexity rather than complic­a­tion. This is, without doubt, the most important piece of advice you will find on this website.

I spend more time trying to simplify and distill what I am writing than doing anything else. I have an inventive mind and can always think of detail to add to my story and so I have to fight the urge to complicate all the time.


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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