In every story, there’s really only one core conflict that drives the story from beginning to end. Identify that core conflict and you can create a rich, complex, compelling story using that one core conflict as your story’s foundation.
This core conflict has both a physical and an emotional component. The physical component is a concrete, visible goal that the hero wants to achieve. The emotional component is a vague, abstract idea that can only be achieved when the hero achieves the physical goal, or at least tries to achieve that physical goal.
For example, great action thrillers are more than just physical battles but emotional battles as well. In “Terminator 2” the core conflict is the hero (the good Terminator) struggling to determine whether it’s right or wrong to kill. That’s it.
Once you notice this core conflict, you can recognize how every scene in “Terminator 2” forces the hero to constantly choose between killing or not killing. The good Terminator learns early the importance of not killing, and that decision gets justified near the end when the hero blasts away at all the police officers surrounding the SkyNet building, and then gets rewarded to see that there were no casualties.
When Sarah Connors rushes out to kill the inventor of SkyNet, the hero and John Connor rush to stop her. Here gain the decision is about killing the SkyNet inventor or not. In the end, Sarah Connor chooses not to kill him.
Now take “Terminator 3” and what is the core conflict? Nothing, which is why it’s such an inferior movie compared to “Terminator 2.”
In “Jaws,” the physical component of the core conflict is hunting and killing a shark. That’s all the bad “Jaws” sequels have to offer, which is what makes them so ludicrous and awful. However in the original “Jaws,” the hero (the sheriff) is trying to redeem himself for letting a shark kill a little boy. Now the only way he can redeem himself is to kill the shark.
Just by adding an emotional component to a story makes the core conflict far more meaningful. Strip away this emotional component and you get bad sequels like “Jaws 4.” Add an emotional component and you get the original, classic “Jaws.”
Conflict is more than just action. It’s the emotion behind the action. Why is the action important? Because of an emotional component.
Why does the hero want to kill the shark in “Jaws”? Because he wants to redeem himself for letting the shark kill a little boy.
Why does the hero want to kill the liquid metal Terminator in “Terminator 2”? Because he finally learned the value of human life and wants to save all the people in the world from dying needlessly if SkyNet were to get activated.
Why does the hero in your story want to achieve a physical goal? Answer that with an emotional component and you can build a great story from there.