Mastering Conflict In Screenwriting


Conflict is something many writers understand intuitively. Or we think we do. This article isn’t about the craft of writing conflict, but rather the writer’s approach to it. It describes how the writer can leverage conflict to maximize audience engagement. Much of this article will no doubt be familiar to the experienced screenwriter, but they too should keep an open mind. A different perspective might trip a light switch, illuminating an aspect of conflict that even they hadn’t considered.

Conflict is King

More so than a clever premise or a twisting, turning plot, conflict drives audience engagement. It is the audience’s desire for the resolution of conflict that demands that they turn page after page or keep their eyes glued to the screen. 

While the premise may hook an audience, it will not describe the conflict. The premise merely describes the potential for conflict. It does this without the specifics of character or plot. Based on the premise alone, a potential reader may crack open a script, but if the conflict is not immediately clear in the story, then even the brilliant premise will be wasted.

Likewise, a step-by-step recounting of a plot may be intriguing to a potential reader, but without understanding why things are happening, the audience may be left thinking about all the other stuff they have to do with their time. The plot is always better described through conflict. When the conflict is clear, the audience actively roots for the characters to endure or succeed – no matter how dire their situation. 

As we start our journey towards mastering conflict we will explore how conflict is used in a story, and why it’s important for the writer to understand it. It may sound obvious that a story must have conflict. However, we need to be more precise. A story must have narrative conflict. This is different from the conflict which people experience in the course of their lives, which we might simply call “opposition.” Narrative conflict requires more. Things like goals and stakes. 

Even within a story, narrative conflict functions differently depending whether it’s at the story level or the scene & sequence level. This is an important distinction. At the story level, there is the “central conflict”, which resolves in the climax. Relative to the story level, the conflicts at the scene & sequence level are “minor conflicts,” signposts that lead towards the resolution of the central conflict. 

Defining conflict at the scene and sequence level in this way also helps the writer to understand what belongs, and what doesn’t. Once one character or another “wins” the scene or sequence is effectively over. The resolution of minor conflicts lets the audience know if the character is moving closer to their goal, or farther from it. If a minor conflict doesn’t do one or the other, then the writer might question whether it belongs in the story at all.

Perhaps the compelling reason why the writer must understand narrative conflict becomes evident when describing the conflict. This is done through the story’s logline, which is at its core, a description of the central conflict. The logline is one way a potential reader is motivated to engage with a story. Crafting a clear and concise logline is made much easier when the elements of narrative conflict are understood. The stakes for the writer could not be higher!

Defining Narrative Conflict

In a very basic sense, narrative conflict is when one character wants something and another character doesn’t want them to have it. If only it were that simple. We must immediately ask, “Why do they want it? Why does the opposition not want them to have it? What happens if they don’t get it?” To answer these questions, let’s take a look at the elements of a story that make up the narrative conflict.

Setting & Context – Show, Don’t Explain

Sometimes simply knowing the setting will help to clarify the conflict. The setting will serve as a visual anchor. An example can be found in any war film. The audience conjures different images of war depending on whether it is set in ancient Greece, the American Civil War, or Vietnam.

There is an implicit question in every conflict, “Why must the character engage in the conflict in the first place?” To rephrase this, “Why can’t they simply walk away?” It is because the character has something that they must achieve. But why? The simple answer is that the consequences of inaction are too great. Again, why? To answer this may require providing additional context. In the end, ideally, the writer will convey context through a compelling “why” for all characters in the conflict dynamic. The reader that fully understands the characters’ motivations loses track of their own reality.

Although context is often provided through expositional dialog, it can be more powerful when the writer describes it viscerally, visually. In some cases, such as in a thriller or mystery, context may necessarily come after the conflict plays out. In countless horror movies, for example, we see the characters arriving at an isolated cabin in the woods. The setting sets the stage for the conflict.

Main Character & Opposition

In the most basic of stories, at the macro level, conflict is created when the protagonist has been triggered to form a goal and the antagonist rises to oppose them. This is a very different dynamic from the hero and villain, where the villain has a nefarious goal and the hero must maintain or restore the status quo. Regardless of who or what is driving the narrative, the dynamics of conflict do not change: one character wants something, and another character or force doesn’t want them to have it. 

Naming the specific character types may only be necessary when describing the central conflict. For the scene and sequence level conflicts it is even more basic. It could be any character, not just the story-level protagonist or villain, who drives the scene with the need to achieve or obtain something. It could be any other character, not just the antagonist or hero, who opposes them. Think of any Bond movie: sometimes 007 drives the narrative as an active goal seeking character. In other scenes, our hero is reactive, forced to endure and escape some torture devised by the villain. These are always resolved in the pursuit of the story level goal. 

Goal – Show, Don’t Tell

As writers, our power comes from the ability to use simple words to guide the reader to both empathize with our characters and to visualize our story. Conflict is better when it is external to the character. Internal conflicts are vital to storytelling, but they require the character to inform the audience whether or not the conflict has been resolved. Therefore, it is always preferable for an internal conflict to be externalized in some way so that the audience can witness the resolution.

The best way to externalize the conflict is to have an external goal, allowing the audience to track the character’s progress. This is true at the scene, sequence, and story levels. The clearer the external goal is defined, the easier it is for the audience to comprehend the conflict. The goal must also be achievable within the scene, or sequence, or story. If it is impossible to achieve within the level, the conflict will dissolve into mush.

Stakes & Consequences – Don’t Be Boring

For an audience to truly empathize with the character, they must understand not only why it’s important for the character to succeed, but what happens if they fail. While necessary context explains why a character is motivated to seek a goal, the consequences for failure explain why they must not give up. These two ideas are linked. A properly motivated character will endure much much more, and will risk greater consequences in order to achieve their desired outcome. 

Stakes are the potential outcomes of a conflict. The character risks meaningful consequences so that they may achieve their desired outcome. While the stakes for the protagonist are personal, the stakes for the hero are for others. This doesn’t mean they are any less meaningful to the character or audience. The hero willingly risks their life and reputation for the benefit of society at large. The character must care about avoiding potential consequences. Without meaningful consequences there is no reason for the audience to continue to engage with the story. As Andrew Stanton famously said, “Make me care.” 

Perhaps the most underrated aspect of stakes is immediacy. If the character fails to achieve their desired outcome, the consequences must be immediate. As soon as the character runs out of time or options, as soon as they lose the battle, be it at the story level, the sequence level, or the scene level, the consequences must rush in like a tsunami.

Wrap Up

Let’s be honest, there’s no way to master conflict in such a short article. The best we can do here is give the reader a bird’s eye view. For a deep dive into the elements of story, check out my book Mastering the Logline, How To Excite Hollywood In a Single Sentence, with a foreword by Christopher Lockhart.



James "Doc" Mason is the father of four, a career ad exec, screenwriter, producer, and consultant. He is the co-writer of the 2021 feature thriller "Caged" starring Edi Gathegi and Melora Hardin. Doc is the author of Mastering the Logline, How to Excite Hollywood In A Single Sentence, with a foreword by Christopher Lockhart, story editor at WME.

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