WHAT CONSTITUTES CONFLICT?
The crux of all conflict in any story line involves moving your characters from Point A to Point B. Thwarting that journey — whether it be on a physical, emotional, or spiritual plane — are the following obstacles:
- The Ticking Clock Syndrome
The protagonist has 48 hours to locate a bomb, deliver a ransom, rescue a hostage, etc. Example: Run Lola Run.
- Mistaken Identity/Identity Theft
The inability to prove one’s true identity places a character in comically compromising or life-threatening positions. Example: The Net.
- Diametrical Differences
He’s Catholic; she’s Jewish. He’s dead; she’s alive. He’s married; she’s available. Can a relationship be saved if concession isn’t an option? Example: The Age Of Innocence.
- Insufficient Resources
The protagonist is rich in idealism but light on cash, time, manpower, etc. to orchestrate a rebellion, a takeover, or preservation of the status quo. Example: Braveheart.
- Trading Places
The lead character is empathy-deficient until he/she is forced to experience life through the eyes of another. Example: Freaky Friday.
- Straying Hearts
You can love some of the people all of the time and all of the people some of the time. It just gets messy when they find out about each other. Example: Fatal Attraction.
- The Isolation Factor/Fish Out of Water
Whether the label of loneliness is self-imposed or ascribed by society, conflict is inevitable when extraordinary people attempt to function in an ordinary environment. Example: Good Will Hunting. On the flip side, ordinary individuals who are suddenly thrust into extraordinary circumstances are forced to rise to challenges that life had not previously prepared them for. Example: Star Wars.
WHAT CONFLICT ISN’T
If “The Big Problem” you have posed in your story line could be resolved in just one conversation between the characters, it’s not enough to keep a full-length script afloat. Television sitcoms are an example of this, wherein misunderstandings, missteps, and missed connections can all be fixed in the space of 22 minutes.
Nor is conflict a tableau in which your characters simply sit around Starbucks wondering whether they should be doing something different with their lives. In the absence of an inciting incident that will challenge their sensibilities, pull the rug out from under them, or threaten their existence, they are doing little more than killing time, time that could be better spent on a story line that has actual substance.
ALL CONFLICTS DERIVE FROM REWARD, REVENGE, AND/OR ESCAPE
No matter what type of problems you throw at your characters or what type of quests you have them pursue over the course of the story line they all have their root in one of three core objectives: the attainment of a reward, the fulfillment of revenge, or the accomplishment of an escape. These factors — which can manifest as abstract or concrete — are what set the plot in motion, keep it moving from start to finish…and tweak a prospective agent or producer’s interest in your writing.
Reward, revenge and escape can be defined in several different ways. Likewise, a character’s success in achieving these goals can be measured in varying degrees. A reward, for instance, can take the form of laying claim to a treasure, finding true love, or winning a tough competition. Revenge can be something as simple as payback for a school rival’s locker-room prank or something as complex as avenging one’s family honor. An escape-driven plot focuses on release from physical captivity (e.g., a prison) as well as emotional and spiritual journeys in which the characters seek to change an unsatisfactory status quo (e.g., rising above poverty or leaving a bad relationship).
Movies frequently utilize a combination of these three forces working in tandem. In The Lion King, for example:
- Young Simba evolves from a runaway juvenile to a mature adult who must face responsibility in order to earn respect. (ESCAPE)
- He avenges the murder of his father, Mufasa, by the evil Uncle Scar. (REVENGE)
- He finds friendship with Timon and Pumbaa and romance with Nala. (REWARD).
It’s when a plot is devoid of any compelling – and sustainable – conflict that you and your storyline are in trouble. Those agents and producers you’re trying to hook will quickly lose interest and start looking elsewhere for that next big idea to put in front of an audience.