Conflict Must Involve People

Imagine watching a movie where two rocks are fighting each other, but because they’re actual rocks and not animated rocks, the two rocks just sit there expressing no emotion whatsoever. Would you want to watch two rocks fighting if neither shows any human type emotions?

Stories work best when they end with a conclusive, exciting climax and every climax involves a battle of some kind. The typical types of conflict can be categorized as:

  • Man vs. man
  • Man vs. nature
  • Man vs. himself

The most basic battle is between two people. That’s what makes sports so exciting because when two athletes compete, one must lose. By pitting equally skilled athletes against each other, the outcome is in doubt and exciting to watch. When one athletes far outshines the other, the conflict is far less interesting. Imagine Mike Tyson boxing against a paraplegic 97-year old grandmother whose blind. That wouldn’t be exciting or interesting.

Perhaps the least interesting conflict is man vs. nature. That’s when a person must overcome external obstacles like mountains, rivers, or deserts. This type of conflict is weak simply because there’s no emotion involved. Watching someone struggle to survive in the desert can be interesting, but it’s far less interesting than watching someone struggle to survive in the desert while an enemy is also hunting them down. Conflicts against nature work best when combined with conflicts between others or even between the person.

In “127 Hours,” the hero is a hiker trapped by a rock in a canyon. His whole goal is to survive and escape from the rock pinning him to the side of a canyon. Although he’s battling against nature, his real battle is against himself. He must cut his own arm off with a pocket knife to escape and survive. If he fails to do that, he’ll inevitably die. So the battle against nature (the rock) is secondary to his own internal struggle to cut off his arm to save his own life.

In “Wild,” a woman goes hiking alone to discover who she is. Despite struggling against boots that don’t fit and overcoming her own inexperience with hiking, her real struggle isn’t against nature but herself with secondary struggles against male hikers who might possibly attack her.

Ultimately, the conflict between man vs. nature only works when paired with man vs. man or man vs. himself. To see how a conflict between man vs. nature fails, just watch “Passengers.”

“Passengers” is a science fiction movie about two people who wake up too early in a starship and find themselves alone. That premise is interesting, but the ending is simply boring. The starship is falling apart due to damage and if the hero doesn’t open a door to allow heat to escape, the reactor will blow up and destroy the hero and the entire starship as well. The entire conflict in the end is nothing more than the hero trying to open a door to allow the reactor heat to escape. Other than physical obstacles, that’s all the final conflict in the end is about, which makes the ending boring and unsatisfying.

When the hero battles against inanimate objects, there’s nothing exciting if the hero isn’t also battling another person or struggling to overcome some dilemma within himself. “Passengers” is the perfect example on why an ending must involve a conflict of emotions (man vs. man or man vs. himself) or else the ending will simply be dull that no amount of special effects can ever overcome.

When creating your story, make sure the conflict is more than just the hero overcoming external obstacles that have no emotion. External obstacles are meant to make the hero’s task harder, but without conflicting emotions, those external obstacles become as boring as watching two rocks fight.

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