Nobody watches a movie over and over again for the physical action. Nobody watches “Star Wars” to watch the dated special effects of X-wing fighters dogfighting with TIE fighters around the Death Star.
Likewise, nobody watches “Titanic” to see an ocean liner sink or watches “Beauty and the Beast” to see a beast roam around a castle. What people watch favorite movies for is to re-experience the emotional conflict and triumph of the hero in the end.
All the physical conflict in the world is pointless without emotional conflict tearing the hero apart. That’s because physical conflict must emphasize the emotional conflict.
Emotional conflict is always rooted directly in the story’s theme. In “Terminator 2,” the theme is that human life is precious. Thus the conflict is a constant tug of war between killing and not killing.
Think of those Saturday morning cartoons where a tiny angel and devil would appear on a character’s shoulders. The devil version would tempt the character to do something evil for selfish reasons. The angel version would implore the character to do something good for selfless reasons.
That’s exactly what all conflict in your story must do.
In “Terminator 2,” the hero is constantly forced to choose between killing and not killing. When the hero and John Connor go to rescue Sarah Connor from a psychiatric hospital, the hero rides up to the security guard and shoots him in the leg. When John Connor stares at him, the hero explains, “He’ll live.”
“Witness” is another movie where the theme is about nonviolence. So the hero is constantly torn between choosing between violence and nonviolence.
The hero in “Witness” is a tough cop who’s used to using violence in his line of work. So the conflict he faces is always choosing between violence and nonviolence until he finally embraces nonviolence in the end to defeat the villain.
That’s the whole purpose of conflict. Tear the hero apart emotionally between the negative and positive ends of the story’s theme.
In “Legally Blonde,” the theme might be that women can be strong and smart enough to live without a man. So the hero (Elle) is constantly torn between trying to remain dependent on a man and being independent of a man.
So Elle’s first conflict is that she thinks she needs her boyfriend to be happy, but then he dumps her. Her second conflict is to try and win him over by following him into law schools which still shows she’s trying to remain dependent on a man instead of standing on her own two feet.
More conflict occurs when Elle learns that her law professor only chose her to be part of a court case because he wants to have sex with her. Finally, Elle wins her first court case, proving to herself once and for all that she doesn’t need to rely on a man after all.
Emotional conflict is nothing more than identifying your story theme and constantly tearing your hero apart between the negative and positive ends of the theme.
In “Little Miss Sunshine,” the theme is about how you can still be a winner by simply trying and doing your best. So the hero (Olive) and her family must constantly face the conflict between giving up (being a loser) or continuing to fight for what they want (being a winner).
This emotional conflict plays out between Olive’s step-brother who learns he’s color blind and unable to achieve his dream of becoming a pilot. It’s also shown in Olive’s father’s dream of becoming a motivational speaker, but his inspirational program is rejected and he has no future.
Emotional conflict is always more compelling than physical conflict so make sure all conflict is rooted in emotional conflict first and physical conflict second.
In fact, physical conflict can actually be minimized just as long as you have plenty of emotional conflict because that’s what stories are really all about.