The Definitive Guide to Conflict in Storytelling

The Avengers
What is conflict in storytelling? And why do I need it? 

Today I'm going to talk to you about conflict, so if you have a problem with that you can shove it straight up your ass! Yes, that was aggressive, but I wanted to give you all a sense of the very conflict we're talking about today. 

See, all movies and TV shows are based around some kind of inherent conflict. 

These conflicts help you determine the genre of the story and also the kinds of drama you can pull out to make things compelling. Since the dawn of time, all storytelling has relied on the idea of conflict. 

As the old adage goes, "No one wants to hear a story about the village of happy people..." 

So let's dive into the very idea and execution of narrative conflict in storytelling. 

The Definitive Guide to Conflict in Storytelling 

We have written about this topic a lot, so I have made every distinct article on conflict a hyperlink within this article. Feel free to use it as a portal to take you into all sorts of angles and nuances of the debate. 

What is conflict in a story? 

Conflict Definition 

In film and TV, conflict is the result of competing desires from characters or the presence of obstacles that said characters need to be overcome. The very idea of conflict is necessary to propel the narrative forward. The absence of conflict in a screenplay means that there is no story.

What is the Purpose of Conflict in Storytelling? 

We know that conflict is a struggle between opposing forces. When you're writing a story, your characters confront those forces. When they do, that  pushes the plot forward. 

The more conflict you have in every scene, the more we can see your characters grow. You want them to arc and you want people to pay attention. If you inject conflict in o your story, you v=crwtae a proving ground. People will be invested in the hurdles and dynamic issues they see characters go up against in conflicting situations.  

Conflict in the story makes things happen, and things happening make for an enticing tail. You want to entertain the audience, so make sure conflict is present. 

What are some Conflict Examples? 

There are two main types of conflict we will go into below; they are internal and external. It might seem simplistic, but really all of the problems in films and TV boil down to these major headings. So if you want conflict in story, think about what can affect your characters internally and externally. 

What is Internal Conflict? 

A writer can define this as the struggles going on within their characters. A few classic examples could be depression, alcoholism, fear of commitment, or even the evolving personality like the James McAvoy character in Split

What is External Conflict?

This one is going to be a bit easier to define. Think of it as the physical struggle between your character and outside forces, even including other characters. These are the outside pressures slowly crushing your character. Things like maybe being stuck in a trash compactor, or the impending attack of a star destroyer, or being hunted by the Sith.

Deeper Examples of Conflict 

Now that we have covered internal and external, let's look at some other uses of conflict in story. Within the main two headings are many subheadings that really dig into what the look and feel of problems can be for your characters. 

Within all of the topics of conflict, there are a few subsets that help us narrow the definition. 

  • Man versus man: A situation in which two characters have opposing desires or interests and they go head to head on it. Think James Bond versus Blofeld or Captain America against the Nazis. 
  • Man versus nature: This involves a character tormented by natural forces such as storms or animals. We see it again and again in things like Gozilla, Crawl, and even All is Lost
  • Man versus self: This conflict develops from a protagonist’s inner struggles, like the one mentioned above in Split. Another popular one would be in Frozen, when Elsa is dealing with a power that alienates her. 
  • Man versus machine: We see this in futuristic movies like The Matrix and Terminator series. This is what it sounds like: characters fighting machinery to get their way. 
  • Man versus society: A character must take on society itself, and not a single person that is representative of it. Think about movies like Selma, Malcolm X, and even something like Soylent Green, where there's a huge coverup going on. 
  • Man versus fate: Here's where we get a little existential. This situation results from a protagonist working against something prophetic. It could be death, like in the Final Destination series, or in the fifth Harry Potter movie. This also could be more supernatural, say in something where gods could control fate, such as in ancient Greek dramas like Hercules...or even in addition to Man versus Man like in The Passion

How do screenwriters use these types of conflict in story? 

There are lots of ways conflict in storytelling can amp up whaty you're writing. No matter the genre or scene, think about what could go wrong. Maybe a door won't open for a character right away, or they have trouble finding the right key for the lock, maybe they have to do something embarasdding in front of someone they like or even hate. Conflict can make things funny or sad or somewhere in between. 

Screenwriters use conflict to find drama in the story. Drama is what makes a screenplay entertaining. The more things that go wrong, the more the audience will love you. Think about your favorite movies and TV shows, they thrive on things going wrong, because we love seeing smart characters face off against the world and win, or even mlose. We love going on emotional journeys with them through conflict in the story. 

Summing up narrative conflict

I think we can all agree that the best-written film and television takes characters on multiple journeys. We need to see what they’re going to physically surmount on the outside to know how it will reflect on the inside. And vice-versa.

The best uses of conflict work in tandem to create gripping drama. Or gripping comedy.

Just make it gripping!

If you think about how these types of conflict work in everything you watch, and then start to apply those principles to your own work, suddenly you'll unlock the ability to push your stories to more dynamic places. 

So keep the forum going!

Do you have some amazing examples? Do you have some ideas about types of conflict we didn't mention?

Let us know!

I look forward to hearing your thoughts!

So much of what we're talking about on No Film School when it comes to screenwriting is summarized in our new eBook. It also helps guide you through a 10-week writing plan that will get your script actually finished.     

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