The Art Of Creating Conflict In Story

ART OF CONFLICTDrama is conflict. Conflict is the heart and soul of screenwriting.

By Daniel Dercksen

In real life we try to avoid conflict, but in a fictional reality the writer feeds of conflict that fuels the internal and external  action of the characters and creates tension and suspense.

The Art of Conflict forms part of our Signature Course, The Write Journey

Revenant 3The Revenant is a spiritual odyssey into humanity and a man’s soul. What begins as a relentless quest for revenge becomes a heroic saga against all odds towards home and redemption. That emotionally charged confrontation with mortality also becomes entwined with an unusual father-son love story: that of a man who in his moment of loss becomes more devoted to life than ever.

What is Conflict?

Think of the latest film that you saw, book that you read, or play that you saw, and you will find that what kept you involved in what happened, and offered load of suspense, was conflict: there was a problem that needed to be solved and ultimately resolved, obstacles that had to be overcome, threats to be handled, decisions that needed to be made, and challenges confronted and overcome.

Abraham2Abraham is a dreamer who wishes to rise above his station in life and make his mark on the world, but the harsh realities of his dire circumstances becomes the deterrent to his happiness. Jans Rautenbach takes us into the intimate spaces of these derelict lives, where happiness and love blossom and combat the harsh reality of outsiders who have no understanding of how difficult it is to be dirt poor.


The conflict your hero faces must be unique, powerful and emotionally compelling.

Danish-Girl-Movie-2015-PosterAlthough The Danish Girl is set in 1926, nothing has really changed in our world where transgender people are still frowned upon, and where those who want to celebrate their unique individualism are regarded as outcasts whose outcry for compassion is severely ignored. The Danish Girl boldly celebrates the valour of those who embrace their true identity and are not shamed of who they are, and salutes those whose kind-heartedness makes the world a place everyone wants to share equally.

The ultimate test of all conflicts thrown at the character is whether they require courage. If the character is scared to death to achieve his ultimate desire, then the conflict isn’t big enough, and the audience will be watching the film rather than feeling it.

batman-v-superman-fightBatman and Superman.  Gotham and Metropolis.  Lex Luthor, Doomsday and—for the first time ever on the big screen—Wonder Woman.  With its stellar lineup of heroes and villains and bigger and better battles with even more at stake than the destruction of the Earth, Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is an epic Super Hero journey like no other. Pit the two greatest heroes in the world against each other and the unthinkable becomes inevitable in the form of a truly seismic clash: Batman, the underground vigilante, a knight in the darkness, and Superman, the unbeatable alien in the sky—who can possibly win such a war?

It is out of the struggle to find courage that characters grow, and that films develop its underlying, universal themes.

Left to right: Pablo Schreiber plays Kris "Tanto" Paronto and David Denman plays Dave "Boon" Benton in 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi from Paramount Pictures and 3 Arts Entertainment / Bay Films in theatres January 15, 2016.

The heated fury of fictional reality explodes dramatically in 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, Michael Bay’s profound exploration of warfare that is a brutal and hard-core assault on the senses. Loaded with suspense, Bay intimately takes us behind the headlines of what happened on the 1st Anniversary of 9/11 in Benghazi, when Libyan militants attacked six American CIA contractors who defended a U.S. diplomatic outpost.


The anticipation of conflict accounts for even more involvement from the audience.

Fear and suspense grow out of anticipation and danger, worry is the anticipation of loss, and hope is the anticipation of success.

  • Action films and thrillers require physical courage.
  • In comedies, romance and dramas the heroes must find emotional courage.

It is out of the struggle to find courage that characters grow, and that films develop its underlying, universal themes.

room-anatomy-facebookJumboBoth highly suspenseful and deeply emotional, Room is a unique and touching exploration of the boundless love between a mother and her child. After 5-year- old Jack (Jacob Tremblay) and his Ma (Brie Larson) escape from the solitary, locked, 10”x10” room that Jack has known his entire life, the boy makes a thrilling discovery: the outside world. As he experiences all the joy, excitement, and fear that this new adventure brings, he holds tight to the one thing that matters most of all—his special bond with his loving and devoted Ma.

Different types of conflict

When you create conflict in your story, it’s like throwing a pebble into a pond, a ripple effect that sets causality (case and effect) into motion.

  • Inner Conflict: when characters are unsure of themselves, or their action, or even their desire, they are suffering from inner conflict. In a  novel a character can confide in the reader, sharing insecurities and uncertainties. In the screenplay the writer uses a voice-over or a power speech (monologue) to express inner conflict; they can also confide feelings to another character.
  • Relational Conflict: this is founding conflict between two characters (mostly the protagonist and antagonist), where they express different opinions, or how to solve a situation.
  • Societal Conflict: The conflict between a person and a group; this could be a bureaucracy, a government, a gang, a family, an agency, a corporation, an army, or even a country. You pit your character against a larger system. It happens mostly when the theme deals with justice, or corruption, or oppression. The character usually represents a larger group.
  • Situational Conflict: Here you pit your character against an event, particularly in diaster films or stories dealing with themes of man versus nature. The conflict needs to be individualised; family members will have to make an important decision, or children can rebel against parents. It needs to be personal and rational to keep the audience involved.
  • Cosmic Conflict: This is conflict between a character and God, the devil, an invisible entity, or a supernatural force. The conflict needs to be projected onto a human being; we need to see the character project his problems with an invisible force onto a human being who just happens to be in the way .

Pride-and-Prejudice-Zombies-Poster-2Written and directed by Burr Steers (Igby Goes Down, Charlie St Cloud), and based on the best-selling novel by Seth Grahame-Smith, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is a fresh twist on Jane Austen’s classic novel Pride and Prejudice. A mysterious plague has fallen upon 19th century England. The land is overrun with the undead, upending genteel Victorian mores and turning the bucolic English countryside into a war zone. No one is safe and friends can instantly turn into ravenous and wild foes. Enter feisty heroine Elizabeth Bennet, a master of martial arts and weaponry, independent, clear-eyed and strong-willed.  The deadly circumstances of the day force her into an alliance with Mr. Darcy, a handsome but arrogant gentleman whom she dislikes intensely but has grudging respect for his prodigious skills as a zombie killer.

Problems of conflict

  • If there are too many conflicts, it becomes unclear what the main issue is.
  • If there are too many antagonists, the protagonist will be battling too many opponents and will not have a clear focus.
  • If the conflict changes from one section of the script to the next.
  • If the story lacks conflict.

freeheld.w750.h560.2xIn the masterful Freeheld, decorated New Jersey police detective, Laurel (Julianne Moore) is diagnosed with cancer and wants to leave her hard-earned pension to her domestic partner, Stacie (Ellen Page). However the county officials, Freeholders, prevent Laurel from doing this. Hard-nosed detective Dane Wells (Michael Shannon), and activist Steven Goldstein (Steve Carell) unite in Laurel and Stacie’s defense, rallying police officers and ordinary citizens to support their struggle for equality. This vitally relevant and endearing story is brought to life as both a riveting board-room procedural and a nuanced story of unanticipated, irresistible love overcoming intolerance, directed by Peter Sollett (Raising Victor Vargas), based on the Oscar-winning short documentary and adapted by the writer of Philadelphia, Ron Nyswaner.

Tips on creating conflict

  1. Confront the Dramatic Need: Once you have established your character’s dramatic need/ desire/ mission – what your character want to win, gain, get, or achieve during the course of the story –  you must create obstacles to that need and do everything in your power to prevent your character from achieving his or her goal.
  2. Confront Point Of View: Take closer look at your character’s point of view, this means, what’s inside the head of your characters; their thoughts, feelings, emotions, and memories are reflected outside in their everyday experience. It is their mind, their point of view, how they see the world that determines their experience. A good character will always express a definite point of view.  Everyone has an individual point of view that expresses the way they see the world. When you understand and define your character’s point of view, you have a tool to use in creating character.  Such a character is active and will act from his or her point of view, and not simply react.  Point of view creates conflict.
  3. Confront Objectives: Have a look your character’s objectives in each scene, sequence, act and overall story. Objectives are always expressed as verbs. They are always active and imply an action that needs to be taken: to convince, to find, to change, to persuade, to seduce, to hurt, to heal, to blame, to discourage, to attack, to threaten, to empower, to destroy, etc.
  4. Confront Obstacles: What obstacles have you created to make it impossible for your characters to achieve their goals?  Now create obstacles to that need. Then the story becomes the character overcoming, or not overcoming their dramatic need. This generates conflict, and conflict is essential to your story line. Drama is conflict. The obstacles that prevent the protagonist from achieving his or her mission make up the bulk of the story material. What tactics the character uses to overcome obstacles amplifies the action.
  5. Confront Transformation: Look at the change and transformation characters undergo in your story.  The character must undergo a change during the story. The character becomes transformed in the process of living out the story.The best-crafted major characters change as they move through obstacles to accomplish their missions. Dramatic change is at its most compelling when the writer places two strong dimensions of the character’s motivation at war with each other and allows the stronger force to win. At the moment of victory, the transformation is complete.
  6. Confront the Motivational Action: Motivation is the mechanism that makes the character tick. Love, hate, greed, despair, or anxiety can motivate the character. The writer can use any recognisable emotion. To sustain interest, the writer will usually write a combination of two emotions. Greed and love within the protagonist automatically provides both internal and external tensions. Your characters are forced by their motivational mechanism to act the way they do and create external and internal conflict.
  7. Confront Secrets: Give your character a secret that will only be revealed during the resolution of your story.  This will create immense suspense.  Think of the old Rose in Titanic. It is her secret to return the Heart of the Ocean to where it belongs; this motivates her through the entire story and is only revealed in the last minutes of the screenplay.

The Art of Conflict forms part of our upcoming Bootcamp For Screenwriters as well as our correspondence courses.   Send Us An Email

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