3 Levels Of Dramatic Conflict In Your Story


An important aspect to creating DRAMATIC CONFLICT for your screenwriting is to present a character, situation or belief that prevents the main character from achieving their goal. Pretty simple stuff.

Let’s say your main character wants to cross the street to get to the dry cleaning store before it closes. Just as they approach the lights, they turn red. And stay red for at least two three minutes. You’ve just created conflict, right?

Let’s look at three key types of conflict:

1) NUISANCE

This is an inconvenience to the main character. Something that temporarily slows them down without a major impact on the main character or the story. Although technically a nuisance does generate conflict, it’s boring and lacks real consequence. There are two possible outcomes. in this scenario. They either make it across the street just in time or they’re too late and must return the next day. Perhaps the lights change red and they run across the street regardless. Pretty exciting stuff! The type of scenes brilliant dramas are made of. But do we really care? Do we want to keep watching? Probably not.

2) OBSTACLE 

Let’s ramp things up a bit by creating a real obstacle for the main character. Something of a larger scale that will generate more than a sigh. We’ll raise the level of conflict by making the it more insurmountable. How about if a truck breaks down at the crosswalk so the main character can’t see the walk sign and cross, thereby increasing the probability of not getting to the store before closing time. They can’t jaywalk because they can’t see the cars in the opposite direction. If they try to run against red lights, they could get hit by a car, or worse still, get a ticket. Now you’re really getting the hang of this dramatic device called conflict. The outcome could still go either way for the main character. But do we really care and want to keep watching? Maybe for another minute. The overall story dynamics don’t really change. The main character will eventually get to the dry cleaners.

3) OPPOSITION

This is the highest level of dramatic conflict. The main character faces a stronger and seemingly insurmountable barrier to their goal with added danger. Let’s add some context. The main character HAS to get to the dry cleaning store across the street because he has just found out his brother who runs the store has a bomb planted behind a steam press that will go off on thirty seconds. Now we’ve raised the emotional stakes so we’re really invested in the character. We feel something and are concerned about the outcome. The outcome literally is a matter of life or death.

How about this? The lights are about to change green, but the person who planted the bomb is his brother’s arch enemy and tells the main character that if he takes one step he’ll shoot him point blank. What should the main character do? Who’s life is more important; his brother’s or his own?

Now we have a DILEMMA. If the main character runs, he risks getting shot dead. If he does nothing, his brother will die in an explosion. Both choices are terrible. The outcome could still go either way in terms of whether the main character will cross the street in time, but now we have context. We feel something and want to keep watching.

This is the difference between adding artificial barriers to your character’s goal and adding real contextual conflict.

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