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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The Inciting Incident and the First Turning Point: what are they?

The first significant incident in any story (from a structural point of view), is the initial disturbance that sets everything in motion. In his book, Story, Robert McKee reminds us that this disturbance, usually referred to as the inciting incident (in relation to the main plot of your story), is an event that upsets the balance in the protagonist’s world. In seeking to restore the balance, he (or she) is forced to respond to the challenge, creating a domino effect, which culminates in the story’s first major turning point.

Magnitude and Direction

While the inciting incident and the first turning point are distinct entities, there exists a strong relationship between them — one of direction and magnitude, mediated by the injection of new information. The inciting incident is a result of the protagonist’s response to an outer (or inner) event, but the respose is either misdirected, or not strong enough to solve the problem or grasp the opportunity at hand. Indeed, the forces that have caused the disturbance, now regather to confront the protagonist more powerfully than before. In the light of additional information, this causes the protagonist to rethink the old goal, or to seek a new one. In this way, the story moves from lower to higher stakes to the first major turning point, the mid-point, the second turning point, and finally, on to the climax and resolution (the subjects of future blogs).

In The Matrix, for example, the inciting incident occurs when Neo meets Trinity in the club. Trinity surprises Neo by pinpointing the foremost question in his mind: what is the Matrix? This question is answered when Morpheus asks Neo to choose between the blue and red pills – essentially to choose between continuing to live a life of illusion or waking up to the truth in “the desert of the real”. Neo, of course, chooses the red pill. This choice/action bundle constitutes the first major turning point and leads directly to the end of the first act: Neo’s connection to the Matrix is broken and his body and mind are jettisoned into the real world. The question raised by the inciting incident – what is the Matrix – now becomes, how does Neo defeat the agent Smith and machines? These questions frame the dramatic context of future events and help to keep the story on track.

In Summary

The relationship between the inciting incident and the first tuning point is one of magnitude and direction. The inciting incident introduces the initial disturbance and asks an early version of the dramatic question, while the first turning point increases the stakes and reframes the question in the light of new information – a question answered only at the story’s climax and resolution. Mastering the use of these two important structural entities will help you launch your stories and keep them on track.