CONFLICT: The Stuff Stories are Made of

Conflicts are the problems and headaches we strive to avoid: a flat tire, a layoff, a break-up, and of course, Killer Klowns from Outer Space (yes, that is a real movie!).  The many instances of conflict have different names: tension,  rivalry, struggle, obstacle, clash, etc.

Sadly for humans, society overflows with them.  But for filmmakers, these “situations” propel the plot in the movies and serve as inspirations! One needs only to open the newspaper to find some real-life examples. Here are some of the headlines in Los Angeles as of this writing:

  • “‘Nobody Wins,’ Prosecutor Says of Conviction of 2 Women in Death of Kim Pham”
  • “LAPD Seeks Help Solving ‘Tragic’ Death of Good Samaritan Who Came to Aid of 3-Year-Old Child”
  • “UC Irvine Police Looking for Man Who Asked Female Students if He Could Massage, Photograph Their Feet”
from KTLA News

Of course, the news tends to focus on the nastiest cases, but deaths, assaults, and any other kind of crime are only one extreme of the spectrum. Towards the other end of the continuum there are the more down-to-earth frustrations we experience on a daily basis like having to do overtime at work when you already made plans to meet with that old flame from college who stood you up many years ago to go meet with the president of the Chess Club.

That’s what screenwriters do: when designing stories,  writers have to frame conflict into relevant context, which usually means amping the problem: a flat tire on the way to work, a layoff when your kids just started college, a break-up right before the prom, and Killer Klowns from Outer Space when, well, pretty much anytime.

As Seen at the Movies: Shawshank Redemption  (1994)

220px-ShawshankRedemptionMoviePosterIn the prison drama Shawshank Redemption, the protagonist Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) is a banker convicted of murdering his wife and her lover.

Can you grasp how powerful this conflict is?

This is the kind of situation that affects every cell in someone’s body (pardon the exaggeration but think about it.) Not only does Andy have an external conflict (going to jail) but also an internal conflict (losing someone he loved). Andy spends the rest of the film trying to convince everyone that he is innocent, but how easy is that to do from prison?

If you haven’t seen this film yet, I highly recommended it. It is a master piece from top to bottom.

Types of Conflict

Here’s a couple of terminology that helps us define and classify the various kinds of conflict:

External vs. Internal

An external conflict is a physical obstacle that exists in the world of the story and prevents a character from achieving a goal, such as your computer crashing minutes before the deadline to upload your final exam.

In Little Miss Sunshine (2006), one external conflict the family has to overcome is the distance. They have to travel from Albuquerque, New Mexico to Redondo Beach, California.  But as a screenwriter,  what do you do? You throw even more obstacles their way:


On the other hand, an internal conflict is a psychological barrier or doubt that exists inside the character’s head that also prevents him or her from comfortably achieving a goal: Should I pursue the career of my dreams as a painter or obtain a more secure occupation doing something boring but that pays better like real estate? This is a dilemma many of us face.

It is worth noting that an internal conflict is not a mental issue (though it certainly can be). Many beginning screenwriters sometimes think erroneously that the internal conflict has to be some ailment like schizophrenia or depression. No so. All you need is a character torn between two impulses.

2) Source of Conflict

Another category for conflict is based on where the conflict stems from. Does it come from nature, society, a villain, or the protagonist himself? The writer has to know this from the get-go because the answer will be the primary driving conflict of the movie. I think these are self-explanatory, but here are some movie examples to help you understand this:

  • Man against Another Man (or a Monster/Villain)
    • High Noon
    • Any James Bond film
    • The Mummy
    • Silence of the Lambs
  • Man against Society:
    • The People vs. Larry Flynt
    • The Shawshank Redemption
    • 12 Angry Men
    • Gladiator
  • Man against Nature:
    • Jaws
    • Dante’s Peak
    • The Perfect Storm
    • Titanic
    • Gravity
  • Man against Himself
    • A Beautiful Mind
    • Good Will Hunting
    • The Lost Weekend

If these categorizations are not clear to you, or if you don’t know these movies too well and want me to elaborate more, let me know in the comments below this post, and I will try to make sense for you.

Bear in mind that these categories are not exclusive. You can mix and match them in anyway you think is suitable to your story. However, more often than not, one of these types will be more predominant. For instance: although I listed Gladiator under Man Against Society, I can definitely make an argument for Man Against Another Man as well. In fact, I think Man Against Another Man is more of the case for this film since the Emperor provokes most of the misfortunes in the protagonist’s life.

Compounded Conflict

It is your job as a screenwriter to create what I call Compounded Conflict, which is a simple nickname for conflict on top of conflict on top of conflict.

Why stop at Man Against Nature when you can have Man Against Society as well? It’s these combinations that make amazingly dramatic situations.

For example, the main conflict in Jaws is killing the shark (Man Against Nature). But how does that goal come about? Sheriff Brody merely wants to protect the citizens in his town. The easy solution would be to simply close the beach, but the Mayor is worried that reports of a shark attack would ruin the summer tourist season, so the Mayor overrules the Sheriff (Man Against Society and Another Man). Brody still wants to protect the townspeople, but the solution to hunt the beast himself is not an easy decision because he’s aqua-phobic  (Man Against Himself). When his son nearly escapes a shark attack, Brody finally decides to take matters in his own hand, finally placing the Man Against Nature front and center.

Look for it, and you will see Compounded Conflict in most movies. It does wonders for your story.

Conflict According to Irwin R. Blacker

I have this little book titled the Elements of Screenwriting, which I really like for its simple, unpretentious writing. The book itself is kinda small, which makes it great for writers learning the craft or anyone who wants a quick crash course. It was written by Irwin R. Blacker, a screenwriting professor at the University of Southern California, and here’s what Mr. Blacker has to say about conflict:

  • The premise is the basis of the conflict: The premise must be clear to the writer before he begins to write the script, although it will not be stated in the script
    • What is the premise in King Lear? Blind trust leads to destruction.
    • What is the premise in Macbeth? Ambition leads to its own destruction.
  • Locking conflict into a time frame heightens tension: The time lock adds suspense to the basic conflict by adding a fight against time.
    • The bomb will explode at six tonight.
    • Unless the carrier is found by two o’clock, the plague will spread.
    • Unless he is proven innocent by midnight, he will be executed.
  • Conflict need not be locked by violent action: The details of the conflict need not be stated, but the viewer must know there there’s a conflict and have some idea of its nature.
    • A boy asks if anyone knows where his father can be found and gets only shrugs and sneers.
    • A girl in worn clothes stares at a “Help Wanted” sign.
  • Domestic conflict is the most universal of conflicts: Tragic action is often not against enemy, or among neutrals, but among friends or family.
    • Oedipus kills his father and marries his mother.
    • Blanche du Bois (A Streetcar Named Desire) is raped by her brother-in-law and goes mad.
  • Conflict in drama is not necessarily violent: while violence makes for good scripts, a script need not be violent, not even emotionally violent to work
    • The failure of the father and daughter to understand each other On Golden Pond.
    • The inability of Marty, an ugly, 36-year-old butcher, to get a date.

-Irwin R. Blacker

These are just short citations from Mr. Blacker’s book. If you are interested in screenwriting, I highly recommend the Elements of Screenwriting. Obviously, Conflict is just one of the many elements featured in the book. To be honest with everyone, I think the retail price of $16 is a little too much. Unless you are buying it as a gift for a friend, I’d just buy an used copy from Amazon (costs 1 cent plus shipping and handling).

And don’t forget, conflict is the root of all comedy:

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