As a broad generalization, male screenwriters tend to focus on physical conflict while female screenwriters tend to focus on emotional conflict. So if you’re a male, make sure your screenplay has emotional conflict. If you’re a female, make sure your screenplay has physical conflict as well.
An example of physical conflict involves two people fighting. In an action film, that might mean hand to hand combat on the top of the Golden Gate Bridge (such as the horrible James Bond movie “A View to a Kill”). In a romance film, physical conflict is more about two people facing each other with different goals and using words and action to get what they want.
The key here is that you need action because words alone feel emptier without interesting action to go along with it. For an example of superb emotional conflict, watch “The Edge of Seventeen.”
In this movie, a 17-year old girl is dealing with what she believes is her horrible life. She’s fighting her mother, she’s fighting her brother, and her only real friend starts dating her brother, so she turns on her only friend as well. What makes “The Edge of Seventeen” so excellent is the constant emotional conflict supported by the physical conflict.
In one scene, the hero is fighting her mother by refusing to get out of the car at school so the mother punishes her by taking her to work. Once at work, they get into an argument (emotional conflict) so the hero swipes the mother’s car keys and drives off with the car (physical conflict).
In another scene, the hero argues with her best friend because her best friend is dating her brother. The hero tells her friend that she has to choose between her brother or her. This forces the friend into an emotional conflict, so then she storms off after choosing the hero’s brother (physical conflict). While the physical conflict is not the same as watching a spy fighting a villain on top of the Golden Gate Bridge, it’s far more interesting because there’s so much more emotionally at stake.
When James Bond is fighting a villain on the Golden Gate Bridge, there’s zero emotional conflict at stake. That’s what makes action movies dull because it’s all fighting and no emotion. What makes “The Edge of Seventeen” so great is that it’s mostly emotional conflict but with plenty of believable and realistic physical conflict.
The hero doesn’t fight her friend by punching her or karate kicking her in the stomach. Instead, she forces her friend into choosing her brother or her, and the friend responds by storming off, which visually tells the hero who she chose. By setting up an emotional stake, the physical conflict can be minimal but far more impactful than an empty fight scene with no emotions at stake whatsoever.
So to create great conflict in scenes, think first about creating emotional conflict and then make the physical conflict add to that emotional conflict. What made “Die Hard” so great is that the underlying emotional action is to get the hero back with his wife. When the hero is alone, pulling glass shards out of his bare feet, he finally admits to himself that he’s a jerk and needs to change. That’s when the physical conflict becomes more meaningful because the hero isn’t just fighting another action-packed terrorist battle scene again. Instead, the hero has an emotional stake in the conflict and that’s to win so he can get back with his wife again.
When male screenwriters focus on action, they create empty movies like “A View to a Kill.” When female screenwriters focus on emotion, they create chick-flicks that can be emotionally interesting but visually tedious and alienating to male viewers. To create a compelling story, you need both the male and female energy to create an emotionally charged conflict that’s highlighted by physical conflict, or physical conflict founded on an emotional foundation.
In every case, you need both the physical and emotional conflict in every scene. The more physical conflict, the more visually interesting the scene will be, but with more emotional conflict, the more impactful that physical conflict will be. You need physical and emotional conflict. Without one, your scenes risk being flat and ultimately rejected.