Tag Archives: Dramatic conflict

How to Develop Conflict in your Stories

Conflict

Conflict

We’ve often heard that conflict is the fuel that powers your story — and rightly so. Without conflict between characters, as well as warring elements within a single character, your stories are bound to appear staid and static — lacking dramatic impact and interest.

Internal Vs. External Conflict

There are two main types of conflict — internal and external. Internal conflict arises from warring elements within a character’s psyche. In The Matrix, for example, Neo’s (Keanu Reeves) lack of belief in himself as the chosen one is in conflict with his duty to rescue mankind from the agents and the machines. But this inner conflict echoes the external one: He has to believe that he is ‘The One’ in order to defeat the agents and machines and thus rescue mankind from perpetual slumber. This is an example of how synchronising the internal conflict of a character, especially a protagonist, to the external conflict makes for a gripping tale that stays on track.

Mounting Conflict

Conflict, however, is not simply distributed in equal measure along the spine of your story. Each obstacle faced, each new conflict which arises, should build on the previous one in terms of danger and intensity — both internally and externally. This means that the conflict is adjusted to suit — as the physical stakes change, so does the character’s internal response — fear/prejudice/courage/etc. The internal and external journeys continuously track each other, like partners in a dance. Additionally, obstacles which gives rise to conflict differ from previous ones in order to avoid monotony and repetition.

Structuring Conflict

What follows a scene, or scenes containing mounting conflict? Typically, a setback, leading to a deepening of the conflict. In Unforgiven, for example, Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) decides to walk away from the job, which involves killing the men who cut up the face of a prostitute. This leaves William Manny (Clint Eastwood) and the myopic ‘Schofield Kid’ (Jaimz Woolvett) to carry out the deed without him. The situation is further aggravated in the last act when Manny faces, on his own, an entire saloon filled with men out to kill him. This situation has arisen as a result of a setback — the murder of his friend, Ned Logan who, himself, has been unjustly accused of murder — and Manny’s pledge to revenge Ned’s death.

Lastly, it is important to note that each conflict has a definite climax, leading directly to the setback: Manny’s shooting of one of the cowboys leads directly to the setback — Ned Logan’s death.

In Summary

Conflict between characters, as well as conflict within a single character, is essential in stories. Positioning and pacing mounting conflict through a skillful use of setbacks is an effective way of structuring this all important narrative element.

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How to Create Dramatic Conflict in Your Stories

Conflict is the driving force behind every story. It supports narrative causality and provides the juice of the tale. Conflict derives from forces that oppose each other and operates on multiple levels. There are three main types of conflict: external, internal, and internal/external.

Understanding Conflict Types

External conflict is typically represented through protagonist/antagonist interaction, but it can also take the form of environmental opposition such as a threat presented by a volcano, or a cyclone.

Internal conflict pits the protagonist against himself, in effect, turning him into the story’s antagonist — as in Fight Club (conflict between the character’s wishes, goals and desires, and between defining traits).

Internal/external conflict is the most common form. Here the protagonist is confronted by a mixture of inner and outer obstacles.

The Matrix

The film The Matrix is a good example of how conflict is distributed amongst the three types. At an internal level, the protagonist, Neo (Keanu Reeves), experiences tension between his belief that his current existence is real, and his growing conviction that the world as he knows it is an illusion. It is only when he comes to accept he is “The One” that he is able to resolve this conflict and defeat the antagonist, agent Smith. His inner journey, therefore, is to accept the truth by choosing to believe. By contrast, Neo’s fight with Smith and the machines represents the story’s external conflict. Although this conflict is ostensibly inside the matrix, it does spill over into the real world, with real world consequences. Lastly, the internal/external conflict is a combination of the aforementioned.

At each stage of the journey, the two conflicting strands impede and deflect each other in a causal way, until the resolution. In The Matrix, Neo’s inner struggle to believe interacts with his outer struggle to defeat agent Smith, creating the internal/external conflict through-line. It is only when he syncs up his inner and outer life that he is able to achieve success. This through-line is the chief driver of the story.

In Summary

Conflict is the fuel that powers your story. There are three main types of conflict: external, internal, and internal/external. The last combines the inner and outer journey of the protagonist and constitutes the most important through-line of your story.

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