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1.6: Conflict

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    Conflict is the primary ingredient of drama and without it drama ceases to exist. Conflict is when two opposing forces collide. David and Goliath, Harry Potter and Voldemort, You and Your Future are all examples of opposing forces and these forces meet within the battlefield of story. Stories were invented to help us make sense of the world and find our place in it, and the world is full of conflict. Stories are how our ancestors taught the children in the tribe how to hunt, gather, be part of the community and find their way in life. The power of story still resonates with us today. We all have goals and needs and must navigate obstacles in order to achieve them. In fact you cannot exist without encountering conflict constantly throughout your day. In stories, the greater the conflict and the more impossible the obstacle, the more legendary the hero's journey is to its audience.

    Conflict is the element that holds the audience’s attention throughout the play. The audience came to see someone deal with a problem. The conflict should build continuously throughout the play and create urgency with the characters involved. As an audience member you get to escape your reality and problems and witness another person's struggle in order to gain perspective on your current or future situations. It is for this reason that you must make sure that your conflict builds in intensity and reaches a satisfying conclusion.

    As soon as the conflict is resolved your audience will begin disengaging from your story and reentering their own lives. This is often a problem for new writers who create a conflict and then quickly resolve it thus terminating the audience's attention. It is possible to layer obstacles so that the audience stays engaged but you need to have a primary conflict for your story. Next you can have a series of smaller conflicts or obstacles that build tension as the story progresses, however you MUST introduce the next obstacle prior to the conclusion of the current obstacle. For example, if your main character needs to get to Las Vegas. Once they get to Las Vegas the audience feels that they have now completed the journey and will be furious if you introduce the new obstacle of getting to Denver once the characters have landed. Instead it is much more effective to have the characters discover while in flight that the venue they are traveling to or person they are pursuing has transferred to Denver, and they must adjust their plans. You have to stay ahead of your audience, if your audience knows what your characters are going to do, before they do it, your audience will be bored and you will lose them.

    Conflict can take many forms, but is primarily broken into two main categories and each has several subcategories. The categories are as follows:

    Internal (Human vs. Self)




    External (Human vs. Something Outside of Themselves)

    Human Vs. Human

    Human Vs. Nature

    Human Vs. Supernatural

    Human Vs. Society

    Human Vs. Science

    Internal Conflict

    Internal conflict represents the battles human beings have with themselves. Every story will contain internal conflict as it gives your character depth and instills a deeper humanity within the character. Also, every story should have internal conflict because the audience needs to see themselves as the main character and human beings are flawed. Human beings make mistakes and have character flaws and doubts along their journeys through life. Any achievement of substance by a human was met with adversity and doubt and you want your play to represent that basic human struggle.

    Human beings are constantly searching to improve themselves and improve their circumstances but often our biggest obstacle is ourselves. In storytelling internal conflict usually manifests itself in mental,emotional/ spiritual,and physical forms.

    Human vs self (mental)

    Mental conflict is where we battle our own mind. This type of conflict is usually manifested in a mental illness or disability, but it can take other forms. Stories in this category are very powerful struggles between our protagonist and their own mind, which are amplified examples of struggles we face every day. Typically, our main character struggles with mental challenges and through preserving against the challenges, accepting circumstances, and finally embracing their gifts they are able to succeed.

    Human vs self (emotional/spiritual)

    Emotional or spiritual conflict is where our main character has a crisis of faith or is emotionally torn between two impossible choices. We have all been in a situation where we had to make a choice in a lose lose situation and decide between the lesser of two evils. This conflict can also manifest itself in love stories. A lover choosing between being happy with the person they love, or placing the needs of the person they love before their own. Strong emotional conflict is why Casablanca is still one of the most treasured films in cinematic history.

    One of the most powerful examples of spiritual conflict I can think of was with a friend of mine who spent his entire childhood and young adult life preparing to become a priest. Yet before he went to take his vows the scandal of the Catholic Church hiding sexual predators within the clergy was released. My friend could not believe that God would allow this type of behavior in his establishment and because the abuse had gone on for so long and with no repercussions his crisis of faith was so intense he stopped believing in God. These types of emotional conflict happens on a small scale in our lives everyday, and at least once in our lives we have to face a major spiritual/emotional conflict and these stories are guides to help us navigate this trauma when it comes.

    Human vs self (Physical)

    Internal physical conflict can be where a character is fighting a terminal illness, physical disability, or addiction. Many times this story shows us a character who in many ways ‘has everything’ and then loses part of their identity once the physical conflict is introduced. These stories are inspiring and heartbreaking and celebrate human perseverance. Often the struggle with physical conflict is centered around sacrifice, acceptance, and redefining your identity through the trials the conflict forced you to face.

    External Conflict

    External conflict is where the obstacles and trials the protagonist is forced to encounter are coming for external or exterior sources. Most of the stories we read and see fall into these categories, but remember that each story should retain elements of internal conflict in order for the protagonist to grow and develop into the hero. External conflict has 5 sub categories: Human vs. Human, Human vs. Nature, Human vs. Supernatural, Human vs. Society, and Human vs. Science.

    Human vs. Human

    Human vs. Human conflict is where you have a protagonist and an antagonist of equal abilities who square off against each other in the conflict of the story. This could be a romance in which a lover has a rival, it could be a crime drama where the anti-hero has a nemesis, but it can also be an animal vs. another animal, or wizard vs. wizard, or even someone with a super power vs. another supernatural entity. What matters in this conflict is that both the protagonist and the antagonist are equally matched. This does not mean that they are equally matched at the beginning of the story. There is a stronger payoff if the protagonist must grow and develop through the trials and conflict to unlock hidden potential to become the antagonists equal.

    In this type of conflict remember that the protagonist or hero is only as strong as the antagonist or villain they are pitted against. The key to this conflict is establishing and developing a strong antagonist. Create a rival who has a flaw and let the protagonist share this flaw and overcome it.

    Human vs. Nature

    Human vs. Nature is the conflict between humans and elements of nature. This antagonist can be an animal, human nature, or an environment. Usually a character is placed in an unfamiliar and dangerous setting which creates the need for survival. These stories focus on a human being’s ability to be resourceful, deal with trauma, and endure trauma.

    On a side note, since zombie stories are very popular I feel the need to point out that if the zombie virus is a natural pathogen it can fit in this category. There are some stories where the zombie pathogen is rabies or some other variant and in these situations it causes human beings to revert to their most primal urges and the conflict is really stemming from human nature.

    Human vs. SuperNatural

    Human vs. Supernatural conflict is where the antagonist is something powerful and outside of nature. Many entities fall into this category such as ghosts, monsters, angels and demons, gods, time, and fate. In each story the supernatural entity is usually a metaphor for a problem most humans face. For example, ghost stories are all about secrets. Information is hidden and torments all those around it. It is only when the truth is exposed that the ghost can be confronted and defeated.

    Monsters are metaphors for choices or systems we allow to consume or destroy our lives, angels/demons and gods represent our struggle to battle corruption within ourselves and society, and time and fate is a metaphor for the battle to create a legacy or impact within our short time on this earth. Each of these elements are big philosophical ideas that humans have struggled with since the beginning of time, condensing them into a story and masking them in metaphor allows your audience to digest the information and work out an answer for themselves.

    Human vs. Society

    Human vs. Society is a conflict between the protagonist and a group. This group can be an institution, a small group within the setting, or a full scale society. In this conflict however there will usually be a figurehead who will become the mouthpiece for the collective group.

    Societal conflict is often a battle for justice. The protagonist usually begins the story as part of the group they will later fight. The conflict emerges when an event causes the protagonist to be introduced into the world of the oppressed group and in that world the protagonist sees the beauty of the group and finds that their true place is within that society. The protagonist must then come into conflict with the larger group they were once a part of and with the knowledge and experience gained from both groups they are able to achieve justice and a new order is established.

    Human vs. Science

    Human vs. Science is the battle between humans and the things we create. This type of conflict often allows you to explore hypothetical ideas, worries, and philosophies in order to create a dialogue with your audience. Think of this conflict as a modern rendition of Pandora’s Box. Something is created and its power unleashed within the world.

    Playwriting Activity 1: Finding Conflict in Film
    • Choose 2 films and identify the conflict. How does the conflict drive the actions of the characters? How does the conflict build? How does the conflict support the theme?
    • Find a friend or partner and discuss your findings. Do you both agree with your findings? If not discuss and see if you can discover a conflict you can agree on.
    Playwriting Activity 2: Finding Conflict in Plays
    • Choose 2 plays and identify the conflict. How does the conflict drive the actions of the characters? How does the conflict build? How does the conflict support the theme?
    • Find a friend or partner and discuss your findings. Do you both agree with your findings? If not discuss and see if you can discover a conflict you can agree on.
    Playwriting Activity 3: Developing Conflict Through Your Ideas
    • Go to the list of themes you created in the chapter on Theme, choose 2 themes and pair them with a type of conflict. Select a conflict that can be the driving force of your story and identify how it will support your theme. Simplify conflict into one sentence.
    • Mix and match and see how the theme and conflict pairing transforms the way in which you deliver your story.
    • Pick your 2 favorite pairings. Once selected, find a friend or partner and share your ideas.
    • See how your partner responds to the themes. Discuss.

    This page titled 1.6: Conflict is shared under a CC BY 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Nick Garcia.

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