The Nature Of Conflict (Part 1)

This entry is part 1 of 2 in the series Conflict

Everyone knows conflict. It’s the drum beat of our lives many day and the lifeblood of our writing always. Audiences are a hundred times more interested in any work of fiction if there’s conflict. Even most non-fiction pieces revolve around interesting, read as conflict-filled, moments.

But how do we set up and maximize conflict in our stories?

There are some techniques and strategies that can help.


Diametric opposition is the term used primarily for mostly external conflict. It means someone has something that someone else wants, or wants to prevent someone from having or gaining.

Any superhero movie where the antagonist wants to say, conquer the world, is an example. Of course, the protagonist can’t allow that. They are diametrically opposed. Any detective film or series whether it’s a private detective like Jack Taylor or a cop like Joe Mantegna’s Rossi from Criminal Minds has something to solve that will lead to the arrest of the criminal. The cop and the criminal are diametrically opposed in that one wants to keep on breaking the law or not get caught and the other wants to bring the criminal to justice. 

In House, M.D. Gregory House is a medical detective who wants to solve the mystery of a disease that doesn’t want to be solved. He also has other antagonists who are diametrically opposed to his medical and personal hijinks like his team, his friend Wilson, and hospital administrator Lisa Cuddy.

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Dr. Gregory House (Hugh Laurie) Photo courtesy FOX Networks

Sometimes the diametric opposition is more complicated. Ocean’s 11 and subsequent franchise sequels has the George Clooney character, Danny Ocean, wanting to do a heist usually of casinos, the Fort Knoxes of the business world. His goal is money. But his financier’s motive for the heist in the first film is revenge. Both have reasons to do the heist, but there’s only one real diametric opposition – the casinos don’t want to be robbed.

Internal Conflict is just that. It’s what is driving the characters internally to do what they’re doing. This applies to both protagonist and antagonist.

In The Guilty, Jake Gyllenhaal plays a cop who has been re-assigned to the L.A.P.D. call center until his court case is heard. Jake’s character, Joe Baylor, is under tremendous strain. The title, The Guilty, has to do more with his internal demons than trying to save an abduction victim. The abduction is external, the demons which drive this taut story are internal.

Joe is filled with guilt for the shooting he did of a suspect and it’s eating him alive. We don’t find out all the details immediately but it’s clear that Joe isn’t having a normal life at this point of his career as a cop. 

His internal conflict is shown in panic attacks, asthma attacks, explosive anger, and a lack of patience with anything that doesn’t go his way. 911 centers are supposed to move the call along to street patrol, Highway Patrol, Fire, etc. But not in this case because of several factors all of which are internalized. This internal conflict is what causes him to obsess about the abduction rather than do the normal call center thing which is to pass the call on and go home.


Beside internal vs external conflict, there are driving factors that will keep your work flowing. Like water, conflict seeks balance (resolution) by its nature. But too quickly resolved and you lose forward momentum. The way to keep it moving is to use various type of conflict to keep filling the well.


In Five Corners the Tim Robbins character is conflicted by his newly found enlightened sensibilities which are inspired by Martin Luther King. It causes him not to want to violently confront John Turturro who is terrorizing the neighborhood after his release from prison. In the recent past, Robbins’ character would have thrown down with Heinz (Turturro) but now he seeks a more peaceful resolution to the problem because of his newfound philosophy of non-violence. This puts him into a moral conflict that he will have to resolve both internally and externally.

In Training Day, Ethan Hawke’s character is shown some challenging behavior by his veteran partner played by Denzel Washington. It’s obvious this behavior bothers him and this forms the spine of the story. Cops don’t act like criminals. Hawke’s character is terribly conflicted because he is loyal to his brother cops but can’t abide Washington’s character’s behavior.

Serpico, that classic of the cop genre, details a detective who won’t take an illegal money payout which puts him at odds with his fellow officers who don’t trust him. The entire film deals with this idea and it puts Serpico in constant danger.

All these characters have a moral conflict with their situations.

In contrast, are the characters who have no moral conflicts. They are both more interesting at times, and lend themselves to very compelling drama. 

The characters from Rake, The Heart Guy, The Sopranos, Dexter, and Ray Donovan for example don’t have many issues with acting against society’s rules. They range from a complete lack of a moral compass to that of some situational ethics that creates plot and conflict over the course of time.

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Ray Donovan (Liev Schreiber) Photo by Patrick Wymore/ SHOWTIME

Breaking Bad’s Walter White character is initially in the drug business to provide for his family after he dies. He has a conscience about what he’s doing and justifies his illegal behavior with his situation. It reminds me of the David Bowie song “God Knows I’m Good.” But once he’s no longer in danger and becomes Heisenberg, his moral conflict disappears. An interesting arc for any long-running character; heading into darkness rather than away from it. Corrupting a character’s moral center is a great way to create conflict.


In A Marriage Story conflict abounds in just about every situation because of the characters. The Adam Driver character, Charlie, is a stage director of note in New York. His wife played by Scarlett Johansson, Nicole, is an actress. She’s a west coast person, Charlie is east coast. He’s stage plays, she’s sitcoms. They’re on different career paths and at this point in their marriage have little in common as Charlie emotionally deserts the relationship for career considerations and Nicole deserts him by moving to L.A.

Chemical Hearts features Austin Abrams’ Henry and Lili Reinhart’s Grace who are about as different as possible. She is worldly, has been involved in a committed and intense relationship, and Henry is naive and has never been involved romantically. They begin a relationship that’s doomed to failure as the strains show up almost immediately when they get together. He does a Japanese form of art called kintsugi and she gives his work lip service but ultimately demeans it. The conflicts inherent in their relationship tears it apart almost as soon as it is established.

In Remington Steele, Stephanie Zimbalist’s character Laura Holt has to constantly navigate Pierce Brosnan’s faux persona. But it’s the conflict-filled emotional connections that play out over the length of the series that’s even more interesting.

Many, many telenovelas – all, in fact – show conflict via relationships romantic or otherwise. Putting two people at odds with each no matter the circumstances but especially romantically is a surefire way to create conflict.

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Mark Sevi

Contributing Writer

Mark Sevi is a professional screenwriter (34 scripts sold, 19 movies done as a writer, and 16 credits as a producer of other projects). He lectures and teaches scriptwriting in Southern California. He is also the founder of the OC Screenwriters Association. His book, "Quantum Scriptwriting: Informed Structure" is available on Amazon in ebook or print. His bi-monthly podcast on scriptwriters and scriptwriting (plotpointspodcast) is available on Apple Podcasts and others. He is repped by Wayne Alexander of Alexander, Lawrence, Frumes & Labowitz, LLP in Beverly Hills.

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