Conflict and Storytelling

Common writing advice: Stories need conflict. Every scene needs conflict. Without conflict your story will feel flat.

But what does conflict mean? It does not mean constant arguing.

Long-running TV dramas which air numerous times per week can often rely too much on scenes of conflict.
Long-running TV dramas which air numerous times per week seem to exhaust writers, who rely too heavily at times  on scenes of conflict with little in the way of tonal variation.

Tension and Conflict Are Different

Tension and conflict are two different things. However, they work together, because tension is the anticipation or potential for conflict to happen. Conflict is the actual problem happening.

Writer Unboxed

I’ve also heard it said that every story has an apparent conflict and a discovered one.

I’ve come to believe that the whole concept of conflict is unnecessary so long as you’ve mastered the art of ‘opposition’. In other words, you need a character cast which includes a variety of opponents. You might have a classic villain, a friend who is secretly against you, a parent who is lovingly stopping you from reaching your goal, a monster in the woods, a helper who at first comes across as an enemy. If all these characters are in place, you won’t need to try to drum up conflict. Conflict will organically occur.

Too much conflict kills a story

It would be a disservice to all aspiring writers to say that all scenes need to have conflict to be emotionally engaging. [It’s important to] have an ebb and flow of tense versus relaxing scenes to maintain reader interest throughout your script. After a compelling crisis, the reader needs a scene of relaxation, relief, or humour, which is devoid of conflict. Too many dramatic scenes in a row will only lead to emotional exhaustion and possible desensitisation to additional conflict. 

Granted, these types of scenes don’t have to be dramatic scenes, but you can still have a dramatic scene without conflict as long as you promise conflict through anticipation. (“Beware, the conflict will come soon” or rising tension (“Nothing is happening now, but it can come at any time, from anywhere”). Tension, especially the kind generated by dramatic irony in a previous scene, makes up for a lack of conflict. Hitchcock was the master of this, and North by Northwest is full of fascinating scenes devoid of conflict, which still could be considered dramatic, like the classic crop-duster scene. Even when Thornhill stands in the middle of nowhere, we are gripped. Why? Because the scene has dramatic irony from us knowing Eve has set him up and tension from what could happen at any time. 

Writing For Emotional Impact, Karl Iglesias

Take what is negative, disguise it with a lie

Robert McKee has a tip for pushing conflict to its limit in a story:

You take what is negative—like hate. Then you do one of two things: Either you disguise it with a lie, so it becomes hatred masquerading as love—like in great films such as Ordinary People. Or you take what is normally directed at the world and turn it inward on the character, so hatred becomes self-hate.

Those are the two techniques to take what is common, everyday antagonism and conflict and push it one step further, to the limit of things. […]

You don’t just take hate and magnify it so there’s a lot of it—a volcano of it. It changes its quality. It becomes hatred masquerading as love. It becomes self-hate.

It does magnify the power of it, but not by being more and more of it—by changing the quality.

Robert McKee in this Vice interview

The usefulness of arguments

Another tip involving dialogue: If you want to give the audience some backstory via dialogue it can feel too ‘on the nose’ (too obvious). But it almost always feels less obvious if your characters are arguing with each other. Since I had that pointed out to me, I’ve noticed it a lot. “Oh, great, so you can sleep around with the woman two doors down but I can’t have my own bank account?” In this way, we accept more specificity when dialogue is argumentative? The exception is if you’ve had this technique pointed out to you, or noticed it yourself, in which case it no longer works.

Don’t avoid the big scene

Below, Melissa Hinshaw is telling writers not to avoid the Big Struggle stage of a story, which can never be left out.

I’ve been particularly pushy about this this year, but I want to see characters actually face and work through their conflict. There are a good number of stories I remember cutting because they ended at that moment right before something big happens—and I get that, as a writer, one hundred percent! That’s the moment where there’s all this great tension and you feel so much and you don’t wanna mess with it. But guess what? You have to. Because that’s how story happens. So that’s a big reason I pass on otherwise-great stories, and the next big reason is related to the step right after that: that moment of conflict. It’s very easy to be cliché in that moment of conflict, and it’s very easy to leave it like that because, well, you finally made it happen! Good job! But let the story sit for a couple of weeks, then come back and rework it so the dialogue or narration doesn’t sound exactly like every other moment of conflict in any other story. Successful moments of conflict contain the concretely-stated heart of the matter within this particular story, not an abstract commentary on how hard things are. They literally show you what’s at stake. They’re rarely actually subtle, but they also manage to feel subtle within the pace of the story.

Melissa Hinshaw

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