Every story needs conflict. Sometimes that conflict can be life and death struggles such as James Bond trying to survive against multiple assassins, but sometimes the conflict is more mundane, such as a student trying to pass a note to a friend without the teacher catching him.
Although the intensity of conflict can change, the purpose of that conflict should never change. Conflict always arises out of hopes and fears, and those hopes and fears revolve solely around the hero’s physical and emotional goals.
Every hero needs to pursue a physical goal, but every hero also needs to achieve a hidden emotional goal as well. In “Little Miss Sunshine,” the hero’s physical goal is to get to the beauty pageant on time so she can compete in it. The hero’s emotional goal is to bring her family together.
So all conflict must give us hope that the hero will achieve one or both of those goals, while also making us fear that the hero will fail to achieve one or both of these goals.
That’s why conflict must be specific to the hero’s goals. In “Little Miss Sunshine,” the hero must get to the beauty pageant on time, so some of the physical obstacles blocking this physical goal involve the car breaking down and a police officer stopping the car. Each obstacle plays on our fears that she might not achieve her physical goal.
Conflict also arises from the emotional goal. In an early scene, the whole family decides to ride in the car to bring the hero to the beauty pageant and this initially helps bring all family members together.
The hero’s brother has taken a vow of silence so his refusal to speak creates conflict among the other family members and threatens to drive the family apart.
So every physical obstacle threatens to block the hero from the physical goal and every emotional obstacle threatens to block the hero from the emotional goal.
That’s the purpose of conflict, blocking the hero from achieving the physical and/or emotional goal.
Watch a mediocre movie where there’s conflict but the outcome of that conflict has little bearing on the hero’s goals. This type of conflict just creates meaningless action because someone thought that explosions, gunfire, and special effects could make a story more interesting even if it has nothing to do with the story. This is a recipe for failure every time.
So clearly identify your hero’s physical and emotional goals, then make sure all conflict threatens these physical and emotional goals. If you come up with conflict that doesn’t threaten these two goals, then your conflict has no purpose and needs to be tossed. It’s that simple; conflict is nothing more than constantly trying to stop the hero from achieving a physical and emotional goal.