So as you know, I was reading Magic Mike earlier this week and I had a big problem with the lack of conflict. Then came The Insane Laws, which also seemed to miss out on a big opportunity for conflict when it made the competing families too chummy with each other. It reminded me that so few writers remember to add a sufficient amount of conflict or even know how to generate enough conflict in the first place.
That’s partly because the definition of conflict as it pertains to storytelling is misunderstood. Many people think it means two people arguing with each other. That’s one form of conflict. But conflict comes in many shapes and sizes. Skepticism is a form of conflict. Secrets are a form of conflict. Passive aggressiveness is a form of conflict. Differing philosophies is a form of conflict. The definition of conflict in the dictionary is “to come into collision or disagreement; be contradictory, at variance, or in opposition; clash.”
I would expand that to include two opposing forces clashing with one another, trying to resolve themselves. The idea then, is to look for as many places in your script as you can to add those clashing forces. There are three areas where you should be focusing. The first is within the character. Every character becomes more interesting if they’re battling something from within. The second is an interpersonal conflict – a conflict going on between the main two characters in the story. The third is external conflict. That would be any conflict pressuring your character from the outside. So what I decided to do was look at 10 movies, and see how they incorporated these types of conflict. Let’s get started.
Inner Conflict: Rose’s inner conflict is that she hates the life she’s living. She feels trapped. She wants out. This conflict is what drives her to Jack, and ultimately what drives her to change.
Interpersonal conflict: There are several layers of conflict in the central relationship here. The first is class. The two characters belong to different classes, which makes being together impossible. This alone would be sufficient enough conflict, but James Cameron doesn’t stop there. The next element is a difference in philosophies. Jack believes in living in the moment. Rose believes in being prudent and careful about her choices. The next element of conflict is that Rose is engaged. She’s getting married and her husband is right there on the ship. This means that every moment the two characters share with each other must be in secret.
External Conflict: Obviously, you have a ship that’s going to sink. You also have the fiancé constantly trying to separate them. And depending on how you look at it, you can also say that class is an external conflict.
Movie: The King’s Speech
Inner Conflict: The King here doesn’t want to be King. He’s scared of it. He doesn’t believe he’s worthy of wearing the crown.
Interpersonal Conflict: Just like Titanic, the first element of conflict is class. Lionel is just a peasant. The King is, well, the King of England. The reason this conflict is so interesting is because the peasant, in this case, is in charge, the exact opposite of the way this relationship would normally work. On top of that, The King is very regimented and uptight whereas Lionel is relaxed and unorthodox. And finally, The King doesn’t trust Lionel’s methods. So the two are constantly butting heads about his teaching philosophy.
External Conflict: The external conflict here is Hitler threatening to wage war on Europe. This is what forces our main character to act. He has to learn how to speak without a stutter, so he can convince his people as well as the rest of the world to stand up to Germany. Also, there’s the ongoing uncertainty about the throne that’s constantly weighing on our hero.
Inner Conflict: Driver doesn’t get close to anybody. He always keeps his distance. You can see this just in the way he operates his getaways. He doesn’t get to know the people. He only drives them. And after that, they never talk again. But where this really starts to affect him is when he starts his relationship with Irene. Caring about somebody is not something he’s used to, so he’s constantly waging a battle within himself.
Interpersonal Conflict: The first element of conflict is that Irene is married. As I’ve already mentioned, this is a common and easy way to add conflict to a relationship. Another element of conflict is that she has a kid. This complicates every decision she makes. If she was alone, she could run off with Driver. But she’s forced to be more prudent, and respect the fact that her child has a father.
External Conflict: The central source of external conflict is the mob, specifically once he obtains the money.
Movie: The Social Network
Inner Conflict: Mark has an unhealthy desire to be liked. This is why he gets jealous when Eduardo gets invited into a fraternity. This is why he’s so conflicted about the breakup with his girlfriend. And this is eventually why he starts Facebook.
Interpersonal Conflict: Mark is unpredictable. Eduardo is practical. Mark wants to do something revolutionary. Eduardo wants to experience college and live life. Mark can be mean. Eduardo is nice. Mark doesn’t want to monetize Facebook. Eduardo thinks it’s essential. Eduardo’s money is what’s funding the operation, causing a slow build of tension beneath the relationship (money owed between friends is always a good source of conflict). Mark wants to move the operation to California. Eduardo doesn’t think it’s a good idea. As you can see, there’s a ton of conflict here.
External Conflict: The duo also has to deal with the Winkelvoss twins suing them, Sean Parker coming between them, and the out-of-control growth of the site.
Movie: The Hangover
Inner Conflict: This is really a three headed protagonist but I would say Stu has the most going on. So for him, his inner conflict is one that’s very familiar in comedies. He doesn’t stand up for himself. He always looks for the path of least resistance. So he’s constantly battling that when everything that happens in this movie pulls him in the opposite direction (getting married to a stripper for example).
Interpersonal Conflict: As a straight comedy, it’s practically required that you make all of your characters different in a way where they conflict with one another. So you have Stu, who’s super careful and practical. You have Phil, who’s reckless and has no morals. And you have the wildcard character, Alan, who’s socially unaware to the point where he’s a danger to both characters. This is also a good time to bring up that conflict is one of the most important components for creating good dialogue. So the reason the dialogue is so fun here is that each character’s personality conflicts with the other characters. This makes every conversation a battle – nothing is easy. If the conversation between characters is too easy for too long in any movie, there’s a good chance that that dialogue is boring.
External Conflict: Needing to find their friend in time for his wedding. Trying to escape a killer who they owe money to. Not being able to remember anything.
Movie: Source Code
Inner Conflict: Colter’s inner conflict is trying to find out what’s happened to him. That’s the unresolved issue here. He needs to find out why he’s on this train.
Interpersonal Conflict: The interpersonal conflict here is pretty unique. Colter is inadvertently impersonating someone Christina knows. This means she’s talking to him as if he’s a good friend of hers, whereas he’s talking to her like he’s never seen her in his life. But the cool thing about Source Code is that the conflict keeps changing every time the train sequence resets. For example, in the next round, he might not bother explaining who he is, since it wastes time. That’s why I love this script so much. The relationship is always out of balance due to how Ben Ripley constructed the conflict.
External conflict: They’re on a train that’s going to blow up in 8 minutes. Colter has to find the bomber. He needs to find out what this mysterious chamber he keeps ending up in is. Tons of conflict in this one.
Inner Conflict: Jake is in a constant tug of war with which side he’s on. Is his alliance to the humans or the Na’vi?
Interpersonal Conflict: Jake is lying to the woman he’s falling for, secretly learning about her people to help the Marines attack them. Jake is dumb and takes everything at face value whereas Neytiri is smart and has a deep understanding of the world around her. Jake is attracted to Neytiri but Neytiri is not attracted to him (at first). Jake is a human and Neytiri is a Na’vi. There’s a tribe member who likes Neytiri, and is jealous of her relationship with Jake. Neytiri is only around Jake because she’s ordered to by her mother. This is why this movie rises above your typical summer action fare. There’s a lot going on with the characters.
External Conflict: The impending war between the humans and the Na’vi. The Marines’ constant pressure to speed up the diplomatic approach. And there’s the planet itself, which is quite dangerous.
Movie: Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind
Inner Conflict: Joel has ongoing issues with self-doubt and self-worth.
Interpersonal Conflict: Joel is reserved and rational. Clementine is impulsive and a little nuts. Joel wants a stable relationship. Clementine is terrified of stability. The most interesting element of conflict, though, is the one that’s unique to this premise. That comes when Clementine doesn’t know who Joel is anymore. Or when Joel doesn’t know who Clementine is. Or when they don’t know who each other are. This is why this movie is beloved by so many people. Because of its unique and ever-changing conflict (similar in some ways to the way the conflict keeps changing in Source Code).
External Conflict: The interpersonal conflict bleeds into the external conflict here (which as you can see from other examples, sometimes happens) in that the external conflict is each other. Because they’re trying to forget one another, they’re the main exterior antagonizing force. Then later, their fading memories become the main source of external conflict, as they race through their own experiences to try and remember each other.
Inner Conflict: Unless I’m missing something, Juno doesn’t have a very strong inner conflict. There are times when she struggles with what she wants to do with the baby, but for the majority of the film, she knows exactly what she wants to do. Maybe this is why some people don’t like this character, because she’s so simplistic.
Interpersonal Conflict: There are a couple of relationships you could choose from here, but I think the most interesting one is Juno and Mark (Jason Bateman). First of all, he’s married. Second of all, he’s twice her age (not to mention she’s underage). She’s naïve whereas he knows what he’s doing. She wishes she were older. He wishes he were younger. She wishes she had his stability He wishes he didn’t have any responsibility. All these tentacles sort of overlap with one another to create an interesting dynamic between the two.
External conflict: The main external source of conflict comes from being a pregnant teenager. Teenagers aren’t supposed to be pregnant. It forces a child to make an adult decision. And because of that, the entire world judges you. Therefore, Juno encounters conflict at almost every turn, albeit through the quirky harmless sensibilities of Diablo Cody.
Movie: Meet The Parents
Inner Conflict: Most of Greg’s internal struggle revolves around honesty – determining whether to tell the truth or not. It’s funny because no matter which route he takes, he always seems to get into more trouble. And because the man he’s trying to impress puts honesty above everything, the stakes of that inner struggle are extremely high.
Interpersonal Conflict: The main relationship here is Greg and Jack. The biggest element of conflict is that Jack doesn’t think Greg is good enough for his daughter. He will go to any length to prove this. Greg, on the other hand, loves Jack’s daughter more than anything. So he will go to any length to make Jack like him. This is the best way to create conflict in a relationship. You put two forces on opposite ends of the spectrum, then have them go at each other. The more in contrast they are, the more entertaining their relationship tends to be.
External conflict: The external conflict is the wedding. That’s what puts Greg in a variety of situations he doesn’t want to be in, which makes achieving his goal that much more difficult.
What I’ve listed for these films aren’t the only forces of conflict – they’re just the most obvious ones. You can find conflict anywhere. For example, you don’t just look to create conflict in the main relationship. You want to create conflict in every relationship the main character has. In Titanic, for example, Rose has a whole different set of conflicts going on with her fiancé. And I didn’t even get into how each scene should have its own element of conflict. The idea is that whatever situation your characters are put in, there needs to be something that’s unresolved – there needs to be two things that are fighting against each other. If you set that up correctly, we’ll be eager to see that sequence get resolved. In the end, it’s important to remember that conflict is a huge part of what keeps a story interesting. Without it, you don’t have much of a shot at entertaining your audience.