The Basics of Screenplay Conflict

Every great film is steeped in conflict. Every bad film lacks conflict. The difference is easy to spot, as the only way to move a story forward in film is through conflict. Or more simply put, conflict is to film what sound is to music. Without it, there is no story worth watching.

When a film uses conflict to grab our thoughts and emotions, we lose track of time during the journey that we’ve been placed in through story. When conflict is not present, it doesn’t take long to realize we’re sitting in a theater and waiting for the movie to revive itself.

Writer Robert McKee once said, “Story is metaphor for life, and to be alive is to be in seemingly perpetual conflict.” For a film to demonstrate an honest moment between characters, it must reflect that basic element of being alive. Conflict must be present to some extent in order for the characters to banter about their topic, or dive more deeply into the unspoken or sub-textual topics presented.

There are three main levels of conflict within a character’s life: Inner, personal, and extra-personal.

INNER CONFLICT – This conflict is built within the character’s consciousness. The battle takes place in the mind or the spiritual realm. It can be motivated by love or pain, and it must drive visible actions for the viewing audience to understand the character’s plight.

INTRA-CONFLICT – This conflict is more dramatic and resides within the relationships of each character and how he or she plays off of the protagonist. It is born out of the inner circle of the protagonist’s relationships. The focus rests on the more outward expressions of the relationships and how they unfold within the story.

INTER-CONFLICT – This conflict is made up of everything that is outside of the character’s soul and relationships. It encompasses the entire world surrounding the character including circumstances and outward interference.

Based on the three above forms of conflict, every scene can explore one or more of the categories. Each conflict can include shifts in power, which might play out as a change in attitude or an exchange of which character is driving the conversation. In the case of inner conflict, the power exchange may show up in the character’s actions not matching up with his words – Saying one thing, while doing another.

It’s my belief that the stronger the conflict, the more interested the viewer is in finding out what the ramifications are of the exchange. This drive to understand how it will resolve builds the desire within the audience to watch the next scene in hopes of learning the answer. Therefore, the greater the conflict the greater the need for resolve, causing the viewer to be engaged in the story, losing track of time.

Stories that do not have good conflict are dead and tend to bore the audience during the second act. Those who have watched such films and voiced their like for the story are typically individuals who actually tolerated the poor story in the name of a cause or something higher than themselves. They are typically speaking to the concept or the idea the film held, not the quality of the production or performance.

Conflict is a must in every great story. Without it the stories lack honesty and integrity. For instance, a story of redemption will not work if the protagonist is a good person who gets better. It is only an honest portrayal of redemption if the protagonist starts out marred by his bad choices, which would be demonstrated on screen.

Unfortunately, many Christian moviegoers have adverse reactions to films with a flawed protagonist, which thereby forces Christian filmmakers to tell weaker stories. The opposite is also true. The secular or general moviegoer can’t stand films that are about good people who get better because it is not natural or realistic in life. They see it as a false appearance of life and every message within those films are immediately discounted for lack of an honest portrayal.

The only course a Christian filmmaker has to get a healthy message to a general audience is to make a secular film with an honest moral message at the heart of it. However, it would be very hard to find investors for such a story, as the film would feel foreign to believing investors and questionable to secular investors. But, it would make for the best crossover film.

What type of film would you want to see, or make?

© 2012 By CJ Powers
Photo © auremar –




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