Last night I watched a new faith based film that will release next week. It had a great cast, yet fell flat. While some of the film’s problems are attributed to the low budget and low production values, the most notable issue was the film’s lack of conflict. Conflict is the core element of drama. Without it, the film is merely a narrative with no power, traction or energy.
Conflict occurs when two characters (the protagonist and the antagonist) have mutually exclusive, contrasting objectives simultaneously. Only one character can win and the conflict comes when each character does what it takes to make sure they succeed at accomplishing their objective.
There are five types of conflict that can be played visually:
INTERNAL CONFLICT: Any form of story that touches on the character’s self-esteem creates an inner conflict. This can be in the form of the character second-guessing himself. It can be played out as insecurity, him being unsure of himself, or second-guessing his actions. Many times it is revealed through a conversation with a confidant.
RELATIONAL CONFLICT: The most used form of conflict is reflected in the struggles of the protagonist and antagonist attempting to achieve his goals, which typically rises from their relationship as they attack their mutually exclusive objectives. The protagonist and the antagonist can both be good people, but their separate objectives contrast each other and therefore only one can win.
SOCIETAL CONFLICT: This is like the David versus Goliath type story with a character battling against the government, a group, or a system.
NATURAL CONFLICT: Characters are typically thrust into this type of conflict through natural disasters and they find themselves battling the elements. These types of man against “nature” films require large physical or CGI effects. The greatest concern with this type of conflict is that most stories need a secondary relationship based conflict to cause the audience to care about the outcome.
SUPERNATURAL CONFLICT: This conflict is also known as man against god. It is all about the protagonist battling against an invisible being like the devil or some other supernatural force. To make this type of conflict more visual, stories tend to show the protagonist projecting his problems onto another character.
For these types of conflict to work, the protagonist must have an opposing character or force that is an equal opponent or adversary. The more clearly this relationship between the protagonist and antagonist is displayed, the stronger the conflict will be – Driving the drama to its highest level.
The conflict must also be visual and can’t be avoided. For Hitchcock’s knife scene in Psycho to work, the audience had to see the knife coming down into the shower curtain. However, they didn’t need to see it pierce the woman, but they did need to see the blood going down the drain.
In the film I watched last night, a man lost his loving wife to a car accident that the audience didn’t see. The scene was not emotionally charged or dramatic in any sense of the matter. This was due to the scene not being visual.
Conflict can’t be avoided in a drama, but it can be off screen if the audience can see the reaction to the situation through the eyes of another character. Last night’s film could have been very dramatic had the husband heard screeching tires, turned to look, and then recoiled in shock as the audience heard the thud of a body hitting the car hood.
The visual tells us how dramatic the moment is and how it should impact our emotions. If the visual is not present in some form, there is no drama. This is of course why there are many problems translating a good book to the screen. It also explains why many faith based films fall flat, when the filmmaker tries to avoid the visible conflict in order to keep the film “clean” for all ages.