Two hands tugging fiercely on opposite ends of a film reel strip to represent conflict between forces in a screenplay

What is Conflict in Screenwriting? Learn How to Craft Compelling Conflicts That Captivate Audiences

Conflict is the heart of dramatic storytelling. Without conflict, screenplays would simply chronicle a series of uneventful happenings without narrative momentum or audience engagement.

In screenwriting, conflict refers to a struggle between two opposing forces. This clash of forces drives the story forward, builds tension, reveals character, and creates captivating drama.

As screenwriter Robert McKee puts it:

“Conflict is the essence of fiction. Story is character overcoming conflict.”

Understanding the basics of conflict and utilizing conflict effectively is critical to writing compelling screenplays that hook readers and viewers. Let’s examine the core principles of conflict and how to master them in your own screenwriting.

Defining the Types of Conflict in Screenwriting

In the context of storytelling, conflict tends to fall into five main types:

Character vs. Character

This refers to conflict between two or more characters. For example, the conflict between the protagonist and the antagonist is central to most stories.

Other examples include conflicts between a hero and a mentor figure, two partners, a parent and child, or two potential love interests.

Character vs. Nature

This type of conflict positions a character against some natural force like the environment, weather, animals, disease, and aging. Stories like The Perfect Storm, 127 Hours, and The Revenant spotlight characters battling the merciless power of nature.

Character vs. Society

Here the protagonist comes into conflict with society and its rules, laws, social norms, or authority figures. Stories of misfits and counterculture figures often utilize this conflict between individual freedom and social conformity. Examples include Cool Hand Luke, The Truman Show, and Network.

Character vs. Technology

As technology has evolved, more screenplays have focused on conflicts arising between humans and technological forces like AI, robots, and digital realities. Examples include The Terminator, The Matrix, Ex Machina, and Her.

Character vs. Self

Internal conflict features emotional or psychological struggles within a character. The character wrestles with inner demons like addiction, mental illness, insecurity, moral dilemmas, or challenging emotions like grief and anger. Films like Good Will Hunting, Beautiful Mind, and Silver Linings Playbook shine light on internal turmoils.

Why Conflict Matters in Screenplays

These types of conflict move stories forward, engage audiences emotionally, and reveal depth of character. Specifically, effective conflict:

Drives the Narrative

Conflict propels the story beat by beat. Each scene ideally contains some form of dramatic opposition that spins the narrative ahead.

Leading film theorist Robert McKee believes every scene should ideally do three things: “turn” by moving the story in a new direction, “reveal” by showing us something new about characters and situations, and “expand” by escalating the conflict. This constant movement via conflict keeps audiences riveted.

Creates Stakes

Conflict introduces problems for the characters to solve, which creates narrative stakes. We worry about the outcome when characters we care about are locked in difficult struggles.

Will they prevail or fail? Live or die? Win the prize or lose everything? Strong stakes build suspense and emotional investment.

Reveals Character

How characters respond under pressure reveals their inner motivations, fears, flaws, and strengths. Conflict acts like a testing ground that exposes who characters really are through their actions and decisions when facing adversity.

As Kurt Vonnegut said,

“Find a character, preferably a sympathetic one, who finds himself tangled in conflict he did not anticipate.”

Builds Tension and Release

Effective conflicts create tension that rises steadily until reaching a climactic peak, then resets with moments of release. This cycle repeats, with each new conflict ramping up tension and giving satisfying resolutions.

McKee calls this “loading and release” of tension the essential rhythm of storytelling. Conflict drives these escalations and moments of relief.

Crafting Strong Conflicts in Your Screenplay

With an understanding of the pivotal role conflict plays, how can you craft compelling conflicts that propel your screenplay forward? Here are some keys:

Make it Character-Driven

The conflicts should stem clearly from the goals, motivations, and shortcomings of the characters themselves. Characters acting in service of their own objectives, flaws, and desires—rather than being forced into artificial conflicts—create believable stakes and tension.

Escalate Steadily

Build the central conflict in steps with ascending danger and difficulty. Don’t peak too soon. Allow temporary resolutions, but then throw in complications to achieve rising action right up to the climactic point.

Link Conflicts to Theme

The external conflicts between characters and situations should connect to the inner journey and transformation of the protagonist. Internal and external conflicts mirror each other.

Use Obstacles

Conflict essentially means overcoming obstacles to achieve a goal. Craft interesting hurdles specific to your characters and settings. Surprise us. Leverage setbacks, delays, complications.

Leave Out Weak Conflicts

Don’t rely on forced circumstances or clichéd conflicts. Dig deeper for originality based on your characters and world. Ask why characters must clash in this specific way.

Resolve Meaningfully

The outcome of conflicts should prompt growth and change in characters. Resolutions that tie back to the theme and open new chapters for characters create satisfying resolutions.

To see these principles in action, let’s examine conflict in one of the most acclaimed screenplays of all time – Chinatown.

Chinatown: Conflict Analysis

  • Jake vs. Noah – Right away we see the central conflict between protagonist J.J. Gittes and antagonist Noah Cross when Cross hires Gittes under false pretenses to expose Mulwray’s infidelity. This plants the seed that blossoms into the driving character vs. character conflict.
  • Jake vs. Authority – When the police intervene in Gittes’ investigation, he channels his defiance of authority into trying to crack an even bigger hidden conspiracy. His distrust of authority figures provides inner motivation.
  • Jake vs. Mystery – The cryptic mystery around Mulwray’s murder and managing LA’s water supply intrigues Gittes and makes him determined to uncover the real truth, even as the danger escalates and he is discouraged from digging deeper. His resolve vs. the deepening mystery pulls us through each revelation.
  • Jake vs. Himself – Internally, Gittes grapples with his own failure surrounding the woman who gets away with deceiving him early on. He blames himself. This self-blame makes him more driven to redeem himself by getting to the bottom of Chinatown’s web of deceit.

Chinatown stacks different types of conflict that all tie back to Jake Gittes’ flaws, motivations, and hidden wounds. This interplay creates an intricate tapestry of external mystery and inner turmoil.

The conflicts escalate seamlessly to the tragic climax in Chinatown where Jake’s hopes are crushed, and the mystery comes full circle in brutal fashion. Chinatown stands as a masterclass in multi-layered narrative conflict.

Resolving Conflicts Meaningfully

As Chinatown poignantly illustrates, the climax and resolution of your screenplay’s central conflicts should tie up story threads without being too pat. Pursue meaningful resolutions that have consequences and leave characters forever changed.

Here are techniques to resolve conflicts in a resonant way:

  • Show internal and external changes – The conflict’s outcome should change something tangible in the external world and prompt inner growth in the protagonist.
  • Link to the theme – The way conflicts get resolved should echo the central theme. Revisit important symbols and motifs.
  • Surprise us – Avoid neat, predictable resolutions. Give us fresh twists.
  • Leave some threads open – Real life is messy. Consider ending with some conflicts unresolved or new questions raised to haunt characters.
  • Bring protagonist full circle – Show how they are different at the end compared to the start around the theme.
  • Satisfy – Provide emotional release. The struggle should feel worthwhile.

When your protagonist emerges on the other side of the crucible of escalating conflicts, they should be transformed forever through their journey of overcoming opposition. That metamorphosis gives your story meaning that resonates.

Unleashing the Power of Conflict in Screenwriting

Conflict truly sits at the heart of cinematic storytelling. Mastering the intricacies of crafting complex conflict gives your screenplay momentum, tension and purpose.

Use the ingredients of characterization, escalation, stakes and meaningful resolution to create a compelling tapestry of conflict tailored to your narrative.

Remember that the most enduring stories across all of fiction contain multi-layered conflicts and dimensional characters. Dig deep.

Keep asking why characters clash in the specific ways they do and what inner wounds and shortcomings drive them. Complex conflicts woven with mastery will spellbind audiences and bring your imaginary world to life.

As you revision drafts during the challenging screenwriting process, continually evaluate if your conflicts are hitting the right notes.

Do they flow organically from defined characters? Does each interaction twist the story in new directions? Are the stakes rising steadily to culminate at a peak? Does the resolution ring true to growth and change? Is the theme reflected through the struggle?

While conflict provides the engine for driving your story forward, humanizing characters that audiences care about provides the soul.

When carefully crafted conflict interacts with resonant characterization, you have the pieces for cinematic magic. Mastering this potent blend of complex conflicts and compelling characters is the artistry that separates gripping dramas from flat ones. Embrace the possibilities.

Frequently Asked Questions

How do you describe conflict in writing?

Conflict in writing refers to a struggle between two opposing forces, such as a character and an adversary, nature, society, or an internal struggle within oneself. It drives the plot and suspense as the reader wonders how the conflict will be resolved.

What is an example of a conflict?

Common examples of conflict include man vs. man (protagonist vs. antagonist), man vs. nature (struggling to survive a natural disaster), man vs. society (fighting against unjust laws), and man vs. self (battling addiction, fear, etc).

What is conflict in film production?

In films, conflict provides the central tension that moves the story forward. It appears in scenes as clashes between characters, internal emotional struggles, threats posed by antagonists or the environment, moral dilemmas, obstacles that delay goals, and more.

What is the conflict in a storyline?

The central conflict in a storyline involves the main character pursuing a goal or desire and confronting opposition to achieving that goal. The obstacles, setbacks, and stakes rise as the story progresses, building to a climactic struggle where the conflict is resolved.

What are the different types of conflict in scriptwriting?

Common script writing conflicts include character vs. character (protagonist vs. antagonist), character vs. nature (battling the elements), character vs. society (individual vs. unjust laws), character vs. technology (humans fighting AI), and character vs. self (battling inner demons).

What is an example of a conflict in text?

Text examples of conflict include a character arguing with a parent over a curfew, an athlete failing a drug test and battling addiction, or a protagonist facing a corrupt politician abusing power. The key is a clash between two forces.

What is an example of a conflict in a narrative?

Narrative conflicts include a detective pursuing a murderer despite police opposition, a boy struggling to fit in at a new school, or an employee fighting corporate corruption and greed. The conflict creates obstacles to goals.

What are the 5 main types of conflict in writing?

The 5 main types of conflict in writing are 1) character vs. character 2) character vs. nature 3) character vs. society 4) character vs. technology and 5) character vs. self. Most stories have conflicts spanning multiple types.

What is an example of a conflict in a movie?

Movie conflicts include Luke Skywalker vs. Darth Vader in Star Wars, Ellen Ripley vs. the aliens in Aliens, Erin Brockovich vs. the corrupt PG&E in Erin Brockovich, and Mrs. Doubtfire’s internal struggles with identity in Mrs. Doubtfire.

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