Conflict Exists Solely to Force the Hero to Choose

Watch a bad movie and you’ll see lots of conflict involving physical fighting, car crashes, explosions, and gunfire. Yet, you may sill feel bored because all of this conflict ultimately means nothing. The real purpose of conflict isn’t just to block the hero from achieving a goal, but to force the hero to make a choice. This choice always revolves around the theme.

When a story has a strong theme, the hero starts at one extreme of the theme and gradually changes into the opposite extreme. In “Liar Liar,” the hero is a lawyer who constantly lies about everything. Then his son makes a magical wish that forces the hero to tell the truth for a day. By the end of the story, the hero learns that telling the truth, willingly, is a better way to live.

So the theme in “Liar Liar” might be “Honesty is the best policy.” If you watch this movie, you’ll notice that every conflict in every scene revolves around forcing the hero to choose between lying or telling the truth. Even when he’s forced to tell the truth, we can see that he’d much rather be lying instead. The story’s theme defines the two choices all conflict in the story forces the hero to choose.

When we know the two choices tearing the hero apart, conflict becomes far more interesting because we want to know which choice the hero will make, based on the conflict.

In “Terminator 2,” the theme is that “Life is precious” so the hero (the good Terminator) is constantly torn between killing or not killing. This thematic choice also drives every character’s choices as well. In the following scene, Sarah Connor has a nightmare about Los Angeles disappearing in a nuclear holocaust. This motivates her to find and kill the inventor of SkyNet, the artificial intelligence network that starts World War III.

When Sarah Connor takes off on her own to kill SkyNet’s inventor, John Connor and the hero (the good Terminator) take off to stop her. However, notice that the hero makes a comment that perhaps killing SkyNet’s creator will stop the nuclear war from ever starting. We might thinking killing SkyNet’s inventor is wrong, but when we consider that killing him could save the world, suddenly we might be tempted that killing could be justified in this case. It’s this type of thematic dilemma that makes the physical conflict meaningful.

One way to immediately elevate the quality of your writing is to infuse every scene with conflict and make sure all conflict revolves around forcing the hero to choose between the two opposite extremes of the theme. Conflict by itself is meaningless but conflict that forces the hero to choose keeps us engaged because a person’s actions (choices) define who they are, and we want to see what type of person the hero (and other characters) truly are.

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