No Conflict, No Story
As a screenwriting instructor and consultant, I encourage writers to push the boundaries of storytelling while making sure their readers (and the audience!) don’t get lost along the way. Forget 3-act structure, let’s talk 5-act. Turn tropes inside out. Instead of leaving a Deus Ex Machina on the cutting room floor, lean into it. I mean really lean into it.
There’s just one thing: Conflict remains king, queen, the ruler of the whole shebang. It’s your driving force. Your engine. The wheels on the bus. Without conflict, you don’t have a story. You have a static picture. A photograph or a painting.
That’s not what movies are about. They’re motion pictures. Motion. Movement. In one direction or another. Either there’s a positive or negative change. In characters. Circumstances. Setting. Something CHANGES.
Conflict drives plot AND character development. Now, that doesn’t mean there’s just one kind of conflict. Your story doesn’t have to have two sides at literal war with each other. Conflict can take on so many different forms.
SIDE NOTE: Let’s not forget the hero’s journey, which gives us the very basics underlying the different stages of a story. The most fulfilling stories include a protagonist and antagonist each going through some sort of character arc, reacting (changing, growing) to actions based on dealing with conflict.
The protagonist and antagonist are constantly dealing with conflict, which is what makes for a great story.
Now, let's talk about the different kinds of conflict.
Human vs. Human Conflict
This is probably the most commonly used type of conflict, but that by no means implies that it's overdone. One of the most classic examples of this would be the film Silence of the Lambs. This adaptation is an excellent example of how conflict can be utilized effectively. It's not just the conflict between Hannibal Lecter and Clarice, but also their mutual pursuit of another serial killer. In this story, there are the broader strokes of trying to find Buffalo Bill who's out there killing people and taking their skin. But there's also the nuanced conflict that goes on when Clarice meets and talks with Hannibal Lecter. It's quiet, there's no shouting, and yet you can feel the tension between them because of the conflict of the situation.
Human vs. Nature Conflict
Also known as situational conflict aka the situation itself is causing the conflict. An example of this would be The Perfect Storm where the weather itself, human nature, and just nature itself, Mother Nature, causes great stress and raises the stakes very high.
The film's best scenes are more or less without dialogue, except for desperately shouted words. They are about men trapped in a maelstrom of overpowering forces. They respond heroically because they must, but they are not heroes; their motivation is need.
— Roger Ebert
Conflict born of nature and its tumultuous, uncontrollable ferocity, can make for some of the most relatable conflict. Jaws is always the go-to example of humanity vs. nature, of course, but if you took a minute, you could make a list of at least 20 films that fit the bill. Especially now when we’re globally dealing with snow storms in Los Angeles and sunbathing in Alaska.
Human vs. Self Conflict
Recent Oscar nominee TÁR is a perfect example. We think the source of antagonism is the world around Lydia so that human vs. human conflict takes us through the first two acts. However! as we discover in the third act, she’s been her own worst enemy all along.
Another example would be the novel and film Gone Girl. As much as the external conflict of human versus human is going on, what truly drives the story engine is Ben Affleck’s character’s internal conflict as he begins to question himself as to what had happened. In the end, it proves that his own behaviors are what caused his crazy wife to do what she did.
Human vs. Technology Conflict
While we’ve already seen several rounds of AI films, you and I both know that in the next 18 months, an entirely new slew of ‘the dangers of technology’ films will make their way to the screen. From Ex Machina to Terminator to Spielberg’s A.I., going back even further to Metropolis and any of the Jules Verne adaptations, this type of cautionary tale is particularly popular for science fiction is human versus technology. Looking back on an older example, think about the adaptation of Stephen King’s Christine, the story of the car that was possessed. It's a kind of technology, a car, and although we've come a long way as far as what technology means with computers and iPhones and all of that, and artificial intelligence now of course being the latest thing, the car is still very much present in our lives.
Another top notch version of this type of conflict is either version of Blade Runner. The original, of course, is one of the top 100 of American Film Institute films, based off Philip K. Dick’s short story Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. This story also raises questions about who is actually in control, the technology or extraordinary people in ordinary circumstances.
The Good of the Many
As in: many conflicts. While it’s absolutely advised that your main throughline focus on one central conflict, utilizing one or two additional 'side' tensions can help escalate the story’s energy/momentum, but! At the end of the day, what type of key conflict you use needs to stay front and center as much as possible in order to effectively create a compelling narrative that keeps audiences engaged and invested in the characters and their journeys. Secondary conflicts eventually must lead back to the main conflict choice you’ve made as the writer, giving your tale a cohesion that will propel the story forward. Your top priority is your reader. You want them turning pages, leaning forward, eager to know what happens next.
That’s what makes a story great.
About the Author
Screenwriting instructor Diana Dru Botsford’s credits include Star Trek: TNG, the award-winning SF web series, Epilogue, and cult favorite animated series, Spiral Zone. Ms. Botsford's TV/Film work includes projects such as Terminator 2, From Dusk 'Til Dawn, and Nightmare on Elm Street VI. She founded the critically acclaimed Missouri State University's screenwriting program in 2006 and currently serves as an instructor for the program. Botsford runs screenwriting workshops at writers' conferences across the U.S. as well as online writing workshops. She’s also an author, having written tie-in novels and short stories for Stargate SG-1 as well as the upcoming Double Trouble anthology (to be released in July 2023). For more information, you can visit her site at dianabotsford.com.