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Conflict in Screenwriting: How to Use It Effectively

What’s the point of writing if you don’t have conflict in your story? As much as it's overstated, a story is nothing without enough conflict to elevate the script. Hence, knowing how to utilize conflict in your script, where to put it, and the best place is in your best interest.

This article will discuss the conflict in screenwriting, creating goals and barriers, developing emotion, letting characters fail, and exposition. By the end, you’ll better understand what to do with conflict for your script.

Still from 'Inception'. Photo credit: IndieWire

What is Conflict in Screenwriting?

Conflict in screenwriting refers to all instances of opposition between two opposing forces, physical or intellectual, and the subsequent consequences of that opposition. This conflict is observable on screen, whether it's through a movie theater, television, or device.

Unlike literary conflict, which can be conveyed through background information and inner thoughts, screenwriters must present conflict through scene descriptions, character actions and reactions, and dialogue. Hence, it’s usually more challenging to write conflict in screenwriting.

While dialogue can describe background information, history, and inner thoughts, the best scripts and films use visual cues to show rather than tell. Inadequate scripts may rely on dialogue alone to convey conflict, resulting in subpar storytelling.

Creating Goals and Barriers

Conflict arises when different individuals, groups, or forces have conflicting desires or goals or a single person is torn between opposing desires. Creating any conflict, let alone a compelling story can be challenging without clearly understanding what your characters want.

Establishing story goals for your characters is essential; it gives them a purpose and direction and is the driving force behind your plot. The plot naturally falls into place when you establish these goals and place them in opposition.

Think of it as asking yourself what your character wants. Examples could be a new job, money, saving the world, or revenge against their opposition. Even the most evil characters have a goal that isn’t there solely for the sake of being evil. The answer is up to you, but having a clear goal in mind is crucial to create engaging conflict and a satisfying story.

Developing Emotion

Some actors adhere to a method that defines a clear objective for each line of dialogue they deliver. For example, they may aim to make the other character laugh with one line and make them cry with the next. In this way, it’s about developing emotion throughout each scene.

While this approach may give the actor a precise intention for their performance, it may also limit their spontaneity. However, this method is a fantastic way for writers to infuse a story with conflict.

After establishing a story-level goal, examine your characters at different levels to determine what they want in each scene, interaction, and even dialogue. Ask yourself why they are saying these exact words at this specific time and what their objectives are.

Then, expand your scope to their life goals and values. Consider where they will be years after the story ends. By examining their wants and desires at various levels, you can build upon them and create a story continuously moving forward due to the abundance of conflict driven by characters seeking clearly-defined objectives.

Letting Characters Fail

After you choose goals for your characters, understand that if your characters quickly achieve what they want, your story becomes dull and unengaging. Instant success may be desirable in real life, but it's not the most captivating form of entertainment.

Instead, watching characters stumble, fail, and pick themselves up again keeps the audience invested. Think about your life experiences and valuable lessons that allowed you to grow. Utilize that knowledge and apply it to your characters to get the most out of the matter.

Remember that characters must not fail only at significant events in your story. They can also face obstacles in seemingly mundane situations that ultimately relate to the main plot. For instance, a character trying to attend a family party might encounter several setbacks, like running out of gas, oversleeping, or forgetting a present.

Similarly, a character preparing for a job interview might break the water fountain and have to figure out how to clean it up quickly. Such failures are an excellent source of conflict that can drive your story forward.

Utilizing Exposition

Exposition refers to the introductory information provided about the characters and setting in a story. It often includes details about past events that are relevant to the plot. In many cases, the exposition is the plot's opening part.

Exposition is necessary to provide background information on characters and setting, but delivering it without boring the audience can be challenging. Even genre stories like science fiction or fantasy require exposition, and this is where conflict can help.

Instead of having characters simply agree and accept the exposition, inject some conflict by having one character disagree or question the information. This can create a small but exciting conflict that keeps the story engaging.

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