The whole basis of any story is conflict. To create conflict, you need a hero so the audience has someone to cheer for. Without a hero, there’s no conflict but just someone nobody cares about doing something mildly interesting.
A hero isn’t necessarily doing something good. In “Pulp Fiction,” the heroes are organized crime members who are killing others. A hero is simply someone who has a goal.
A hero can have any goal but they also need a motive. Why do they7 want to achieve that goal. Watch any bad movie and you’ll see plenty of characters doing things simply to advance the story but their actions are totally illogical. As a result, their actions make them appear like one-dimensional characters than people who want to care about.
So conflict depends on three crucial items:
- A hero
- A goal
- Motivation within the hero to reach that goal
The clearer and more understandable the motive, the clearer and more important the goal. Weak motivation can make even the biggest goal seem unimportant.
In most cases, the hero’s goal must be emotional. In “Die Hard,” the hero’s motivation is to save his wife so he can get back together with her. Motivation always involves others rather than the hero him or herself. That’s because a selfish motivation would make the hero unsympathetic, although selfish motivations are perfect for villains.
Once it’s clear who the hero is, what the goal is, and what the hero’s motivation might be, there are three types of obstacles the hero must overcome to achieve the goal:
- Problems inherent in the goal itself
- Opposing motivation from others
Every goal is difficult to achieve. If a goal is not difficult to achieve, there’s no conflict. Look within each goal and there will always be an inherent problem.
In “Brokeback Mountain,” the hero is in love with another man. The problem is that he’s not sure this other man will love him in return. So although the two men live and work together, there’s an inherent conflict within the goal itself.
On a purely physical level, most goals simply provide obstacles to overcome. In “Star Wars,” Luke faces many physical obstacles such as getting to the spaceport without the storm troopers catching him. Another physical obstacle is getting to the Millennium Falcon without the storm troopers stopping him. Still another physical obstacle is getting to Princess Leia’s planet.
The purpose of physical obstacles isn’t just to get in the way of the hero, but to force the hero to gradually change into a better person. In “Star Wars,” Luke constantly overcomes different physical obstacles with the help of his friends, but he’s learning something new from each obstacle.
In getting to the spaceport, Luke learns more about the power of the Force when Obi-wan uses it to trick the storm troopers into letting them past. In getting to the Millennium Falcon while storm troopers are shooting at them, Luke learns more about Hans Solo.
Beyond physical obstacles, there are coincidences that interfere with the hero’s goal. In “Little Miss Sunshine,” the hero’s van breaks down, the grandfather dies, and a policeman stops them.
Like physical obstacles, coincidences serve to slow down the hero and force the hero to change into a better person. Coincidences always work against the hero but are generally set up ahead of time so when they occur, it’s no surprise.
In “Little Miss Sunshine,” the van break down is set up when the family worries that the van is old but it’s the only vehicle they have. The grandfather’s death is setup ahead of time because he’s snorting cocaine all the time. The policeman stopping them is set up when the van’s horn breaks and keeps honking, drawing attention to the van.
However, the best obstacles are those that come from someone with opposing motives. In “Star Wars,” Luke’s biggest obstacles aren’t coincidences or physical challenges, but Darth Vader actively trying to kill him. In “Die Hard,” John McClane’s biggest problem is Hans the terrorist trying to kill him.
Conflict comes from a hero pursing a goal with a motivation. What gets in the way are problems inherent in the goal, coincidences, and people with opposing motives.
Make sure every scene creates conflict because as long as each scene is interesting, the rest of your story will be interesting. Ideally, every scene should have someone opposing your hero, coincidences, and obstacles inherent in the goal because all of that makes the hero’s achievement of a goal in doubt, and that creates a compelling story.