The Screenwriter's Column

Conflict: A Writer's Best Friend

By Linda Cowgill

What are movies about really? If the question is too broad for you, this article's title should give you a hint. In a nutshell, movies are about pain and suffering. They're about conflict. Think about it. In The Dark Knight, Batman tries to rid Gotham City of the mob and encounters a nemesis bent on his destruction. In Wall-E, a lonely, trash-collecting robot falls for a sleek new model on a mission to earth who must follow directives that take her away; Wall-e gives chase, determined to be with her whatever the cost. In Casablanca, Rick refuses to get involved in the greatest conflict of the Twentieth Century, until the woman who broke his heart spurs him on to fight. Each of these films forces a real and substantial problem on the protagonist that not only develops the crises of the plot, but also defines him through how he meets the conflict. 

I've been criticized for the importance I attach to conflict by colleagues who jump to the conclusion that I must value it more than characterization. But this discussion is just a rehash of the age-old debate over which is more important -- character or plot?

In the best work, plot is character and character is plot. Plot is the way you reveal character effectively. You can't make your story interesting without increasing conflict that grabs the audience's attention and fuels the action of the story. Nor can you successfully reveal your characters without the difficulties that show them as they are or challenge and forge them into who they will become. A film might be about the selflessness of true love, but unless the characters face a strong conflict, no one's going to give a damn.

The art of plotting is all about how you manage your story's information in a way that's entertaining, moving and meaningful. A plot needs to grab our interest, move us emotionally, and effectively convey the meaning of the events. Most people understand plot as a sequence of events that tells a story. But that definition hardly does the word justice.

Let's define plot, then look more closely at one its most important attributes. Conflict.

Plot encompasses three important aspects. First, it refers to the arrangement of events to achieve a specific effect. From the moment the plot engages, it's focused on where it's going -- the climax. At the climax, it produces an intended result in the resolution of the story that is clear and emotional. 

Second, all plots are based in causally related events. You are not stringing together a sequence of actions; you are linking together points in the story. "A" happens and causes "B" to result, which in turn causes "C," and so on. There are connections between the scenes. These cause-and-effect relationships between scenes are instrumental in pushing the action forward and building momentum. This cause-and-effect momentum also develops the meaning of the story by illustrating the consequences of events -- showing how events motivate other decisions and actions by the characters.

The third feature of plot is conflict. Dramatic conflict is the struggle that grows out of the interplay of opposing forces (ideas, interests, or wills). Conflict creates the tension that awakens our instinctive desire to watch people fight it out. Implied in it is action: the characters' desires to achieve their ends, which in turn puts them at odds with the opposing forces. The conflict of a story poses gripping questions about the fates of the characters -- questions we need answered to satisfy our curiosity about who wins and who loses, so that we can enjoy the accompanying feeling of satisfaction, joy and/or Schadenfreude. While we are vicariously absorbed in the fight we also want to understand the nature of the conflict. In the end, how we understand the resolution of the conflict is what makes for a gratifying conclusion.

Plot is a series of interrelated actions that progresses through a struggle of opposing forces to a climax that defines the meaning of the work. As fundamental as this is, many writers forget these basic concepts when writing their scripts. They tell us different details about their characters' lives and/or move from incident to incident as if on a timeline instead of linking actions together or finding the heart of the conflict. But these three factors play a role in how the audience tracks and makes sense of the events of the story.

The Role of Conflict

To truly understand plot, you must understand conflict. Everything else develops from this core. Conflict incites characters to act; ignites the audience's interest; and is the ultimate revealer of the human heart. Conflict is a writer's best friend, and the sooner you embrace your comrade, the better your work will be. Here are three important ideas to remember about conflict and how to apply it to your own work.

The Main Conflict

Every plot needs a main conflict for the protagonist to face. This conflict defines the basic parameters of the plot and raises the dramatic question of the story (i.e., whether the protagonist will prevail or not) that is answered at the climax. Will Batman defeat the Joker? Will Wall-E connect with Eve? It contains the protagonist's main objective and main obstacle.

Many new writers either don't worry about this idea enough or define it too narrowly. Plots without a main conflict tend to meander, and feel slow and pointless. When the main conflict is defined too narrowly, it's set up solely as trouble to be overcome between characters -- protagonist and antagonist -- or in a predicament the protagonist must deal with. But this is only the starting point from which you develop the main conflict, not its sole incarnation. If this main problem is the only difficulty the protagonist grapples with for the entire script, the story tends to be one-dimensional and flat. Even if it's a major life threatening conflict, if it doesn¹t cause other problems for the protagonist, chances are you'll bore the audience.

In great films, the climax of the first act usually declares the main conflict. The movie opens with a problem, but it's not the real problem, or only part of it. This trouble for protagonist must expand, get bigger, and have consequences as the plot progresses. At the start of The Dark Knight, Batman thinks his problem is the mob. Only later does he realize the Joker is his true nemesis. At the beginning of Wall-E, Wall-e lives a solitary life rife with physical hardships. Once Eve arrives and he befriends her, his goal is to win this sleek new robot's love. His real problem, however, emerges once he shows her the plant, which sets in motion a series of directives that take Eve away from him.

As the main conflict develops, it thrusts upon the protagonist more obstacles, both inner and outer. As the hero proceeds towards his goals, he meets with complications. These additional conflicts build tension that keeps the audience attentive and less able to predict where things are headed. But these conflicts also help flesh out the characters and themes, through the characters' reactions to the pressures they encounter. In The Dark Knight, we understand Batman and the Joker's natures -- the heroic avenger and the psychotic destroyer -- through their actions and reactions.

When defining your main conflict, make sure you can state it clearly and simply. Be sure to understand the dramatic question it poses for the characters because your audience needs it answered by the end. Then look at how you will develop the conflict through your plot. You want it to increase the further into the story you go. Understanding how the conflict, especially the unresolved problems the hero encounters, affects the protagonist can increase the stakes for him, and the audience's involvement.

Characters in Conflict

When we analyze a great movie, we find simplicity in the juxtaposition of its main oppositions. The characters (specifically in the protagonist/antagonist axis, but in other character relationships, too) aren¹t just people on different sides of a problem. Most of the time they are rival characters used to contrast each other. One character is "good" and the other is "evil." This is, of course, obvious in the case of The Dark Knight. Batman represents the forces of law and reason, the good. The Joker represents forces for anarchy and evil. One has the dominant positive value and the other the negative.

Opposing characters aren't understood solely as antagonists; they represent opposing ideas. These opposing characters make the meaning of the story clearer because they reveal contradictory traits and values. These characters may have similarities, but there are fundamental differences, too.

In The Break-Up, Gary and Brooke are opposites just because one's a man and the other's a woman. Fun loving Gary is the archetypal male who's never grown up -- immature, narcissistic and insensitive. He's used to getting his way and having things done for him. Brooke is the reliable female, ready to shoulder running the home, but winding up resenting Gary when he just won't help with daily household responsibilities. When she reaches her limit and explodes, breaking up with him, Gary goes into power mode. He takes the offensive, trying to drive her out of the condo and keep the spoils of their relationship for himself. Brooke, on the other hand, still wants Gary. But she wants him to change and value what they have together. This is their basic conflict: Can Brooke make Gary change and grow up or not? The story isn't just about "men and women" per se. Ultimately, it's about maturity and responsibility in relationships. It's shown in the contrast of the immature male and the more responsible female who loves but conflicts with him.

In thrillers, horror and most action movies, villains define the main problem for protagonists. But in dramas, comedies and other genres, antagonists aren't always the main conflict; they're often only part of it. Take Jerry Maguire. The main conflict for Jerry isn't vis-a-vis Bob Sugar, his competition at the agency. The real conflict for Jerry stems from his struggle to be a successful sports agent and lead a meaningful life. Jerry opposes Bob Sugar, Dorothy, Rod Tidwell, and his clients at various points in the plot. Bob Sugar is used as an antagonist for certain parts of the movie, but he is really there more for contrast. Jerry is caught in a crisis of conscience and Bob probably wasn't born with one. 

When creating your characters, clearly define for yourself their opposing characteristics and values, especially for the protagonist and antagonist. Contrast them not only in their goals, but in their psychological makeup, too. Then you need to create way to lock these conflicting characters into the plot.

Unity of Opposites 

Once the conflict has been conceived, you need to find the clear reason why the opposing characters can't just pack it in and quits when the going gets tough. This bond connecting the opposing forces, the protagonist and antagonist, is called unity of opposites. Unity of opposites is whatever binds the opposing characters together and compels them to interact and clash. A relationship can keep opposing characters connected, as with Lester and Carolyn in American Beauty or Warren and Jeannie in About Schmidt. Only an underlying change in the dramatic situation or in one of the characters can stop the conflict, and this shift generally comes at the climax.

When the unity of opposites is clear and specific -- the treasure map in National Treasure, the Letters of Transit in Casablanca, the condo in The Break-Up -- it strengthens the plot in showing why these conflicting characters must interact with each other. In great films, the unity of opposites is unambiguous, clarifying what fuels the conflict and what characters must surrender in order for a resolution to be found.

Conflict is key to plotting a great script. It defines the parameters of the story, helps to generate tension and suspense, and shapes your audience's experience of the characters. When conflict is properly conceived and handled, the story has the best chance of fulfilling the audience's expectations, not because they're able to predict what's going to happen and how the story will end, but because they've been in doubt about it throughout the film.