8 ways Screenwriters Should Use Conflict To Improve Their Writing

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Conflict is the essential spice of every great story. One of the key things that I look for in each scene of a screenplay is the way the writer has used conflict to propel the story forward. Conflict can take on many forms, internal, external, subconscious, etc. I always look at conflict in terms of the ways it creates and releases tension. I think of a toothpaste tube and how the story slowly needs to squeeze the story out bit by bit.

1.  Clarifying Character Goals

Most of the time, we watch films from one person’s point of view. The way the storyteller reveals things to us helps put us more fully into the mind of the protagonist and feel what they feel. Therefore, it is important early on in your screenplay to understand the character’s goals. This needs to be a rather simple and clear idea as we will need to jump on board as soon as possible. Once we understand the goal of our lead character, then we will empathize when there are obstacles placed in the way.

One of the best and funniest examples of character’s in conflict happens during this scene in Bridesmaids. Two characters in conflict over the same goal.

It is also important to understand the goals of supporting characters, especially any antagonists. Again, the more visceral and simple this goal is, the more effective it will be in connecting with an audience. And, of course the most important aspect of a character’s goals is when they conflict with the goals of another character.


2.  Build Tension

In Lajos Egri’s landmark book The Art of Dramatic Writing, he describes three kinds of conflict. Static conflict, leaping conflict and rising conflict. Static conflict is typically when 2 characters are constantly bugging each other, but nothing ever really comes out of it. In contrast, leaping conflict is when 2 characters seem to go at it almost immediately. The key to successfully creating conflict in a scene is what Ergi referred to as “rising conflict”. We start with static conflict between characters, but this slowly escalates until we reach leaping conflict.

For a great explanation of this, check out Michael Levin’s video below.


3.  Building Empathy With Everyday Struggle

Every day life is a struggle for most of us. Most of us gather with friends and family to share stories about struggles they went through during the day. This conflict can be used on the comic end. Mr. Bean is the perfect example of someone who is in constant conflict with the world around him. And it’s funny in it’s own way. But taken down a few notches we can see what connects for an audience. Most of us struggle, and when one thing goes wrong it seems like everything goes wrong. So if you character is having a bad day, it can help amplify it with a physical incarnation of that struggle. For example, a Mom burns breakfast for her kids or a single guy accidentally pours his food on a girl he likes. It’s very easy to go overboard with this, but done right it can add a little seasoning to a scene.

This sort of conflict with the physical world can also be a great opportunity to move the plot forward. For example, I once wrote a scene where a single mom got a flat tire. This was the perfect excuse to meet someone new and also show how out of control her life was.

4.  Hiding Exposition

“Exposition is a pill that has to be sugar coated.” – Alfred Hitchcock

One key skill screenwriters need to learn is how to hide exposition. Although exposition is necessary, it can often sink the energy of a scene. Therefore, much like putting a dog’s pill in cheese to hide it, we have to find ways to hide exposition in an interesting way. A great way to to this is by bringing key information out in a conflict. For example, let’s say we want to know that one of the characters (Bob) blames his wife (Sue) for not taking his dream job 10 years ago. If he just casually mentions this, it feels like exposition and the reality of the scene falls apart. But, if we see Bob annoyed by his wife and then in the heat of an argument he tells her “I hate you, if it wasn’t for you I would be making 200k a year and I wouldn’t have to worry about dishes!” Of course, this is still a little raw and direct. You may even want to have the wife say “I know why you’re mad…”

But this is still much better than 2 people sitting at a table and Bob saying “If I had only taken that job.”


5.  Generate Comedy

Conflict is the key ingredient in comedy. This can take on a number of forms. First, your characters can be in over their heads. If you look at most comedies, the lead characters are usually put into situations that they are in no way equipped to deal with. Amy Schumer in the film Trainwreck is the worst person to be given a Sports assignment, Seth Rogan is the least equipped person to suddenly be a new father, etc.

On the other hand, conflict is also the key way to create comedy between characters. Without getting too lofty into the conceptual ideas as to “What is comedy” in this simple clip from the show Curb Your Enthusiasm, a show built on conflict between characters, we can see why it is so important to not show the times when characters are getting along.



6. Uncomfortable Situations

Another great way to get that sweet nectar out of boring story is to put a character in a situation they don’t want to be in. For example, a character must get some information but in order to do that he must go to a dentist…Or, in order for a guy to impress the girl he likes, he must get in good with her parents. This kind of conflict is not only a great way to hide exposition, but also a great way to show certain aspects of your character without simply spelling them out.

Although not a great film, Yes Man’s entire comic premise is on the idea of someone putting themselves into uncomfortable situations.




7.  Satisfying Second Act Resolution

In my discussion with Alan Watt about screenwriting we discussed the idea of a protagonists inner conflict between what they want and what they need. As we discussed above, it is important to understand the protagonists goal. However, at some point in most screenplays there is a moment when this character will realize that there is conflict between their want and their need. It is the realization of this conflict that allows the protagonist to truly overcome the main conflict of the story.

So it’s kind of a double conflict whammy. By resolving the inner conflict, the character is able to resolve the outer conflict. Let me point out, this is a conflict that is seen in many stories, but it’s not something that absolutely has to be in every story.

Here is my discussion with Alan Watt, author of “The 90-Day Screenplay”.



8. Ticking Time Bombs

Not technically conflict, but extremely important. This actually could be categorized as conflict in the viewer watching a scene. A lot of credit for this concept goes to Hitchcock. However Hitchcock primarily saw the ticking time bomb as a way to build tension in a given scene. The idea is, we see a crowd of people sitting on bleachers. This doesn’t really have any tension. However, put a scene before this where we see someone put a bomb under the bleachers. Suddenly the same exact scene becomes very tense. Later, John Carpenter would use Hitchcock’s theory to create the modern slasher film. According to Carpenter, he took this concept of a ticking bomb and stretched it out from just one scene to the entire movie…which is why Halloween was so effective. The entire movie there is a ticking time bomb that could go off at any moment.



Other episodes you may enjoy.

Rob Edwards  Alex Dinelaris, Birdman

Corey Mandell  sell your screenplay ashley scott meyers


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Showing 2 comments
  • Wade198807@Gmail.com'/
    Jessie B. Wade

    10k a year. What was the dream job, Burger King? LOL

  • Antonio@antoniopantoja.com'/
    Antonio Pantoja

    So, SO good! Thank you for putting this together! This was insanely helpful!

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