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:
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.
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.
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
- High Noon
- Man against Society:
- The People vs. Larry Flynt
- The Shawshank Redemption
- 12 Angry Men
- Man against Nature:
- Dante’s Peak
- The Perfect Storm
- 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.
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.
And don’t forget, conflict is the root of all comedy: