Deepen a Story with Three Levels of Conflict

Every story is about conflict 65because struggling to achieve a goal is what makes stories fun and interesting to watch. The reason people watch sports is because each team has a goal and struggles to achieve that goal. The same formula works in stories as well.

The first and most superficial level of conflict is physical conflict. This occurs when a character runs, fights, or struggles to achieve a goal. This is the most obvious type of conflict and the easiest to create, but it also creates the shallowest experience for the audience.

After all, watching endless amounts of fights, car crashes, explosions, and gunfire can be entertaining for only so long. Watch mediocre movies like “The 355” to see lots of people fighting but without any real meaning or purpose behind all this frenetic action.

The second level of conflict occurs with relationships between the hero and the other characters. Imagine “Die Hard” being nothing more than one man fighting a bunch of terrorists. That’s essentially the thin plot of every “Die Hard” sequel and clone, which makes them emotionally uninteresting.

The second level of conflict occurs between the hero and the people around him or her. Even though these people are on the same side as the hero, there’s still conflict. Instead of the hero hitting or shooting at these other characters, the hero must fight over ideas and beliefs.

For example, in “Die Hard,” the hero wants to get back with his wife, but still fights with her anyways. This type of conflict can’t be resolved with force, by through the actions of the hero to achieve his goal to get back with his wife. That means the hero must learn to make different choices about his actions.

In “Die Hard,” this occurs when the hero realizes his arrogance and stubbornness is what really broke him up from his wife, not her desire to have a career. Until the hero realizes this, he can never get back with his wife.

So the second level of conflict focuses on relationships, which forces the hero to change into a better person. The first level of conflict (fighting, shooting, car crashes) simply focuses on the hero surviving but does not force the hero to change in any meaningful way.

The third level of conflict is inner conflict where the hero must fight him or herself. This occurs through the hero struggling to overcome his or her old belief. In “Die Hard,” the hero’s old belief is that his wife desire for a career is to blame for them breaking up. Only when the hero realizes he is to blame does he understand why he almost lost his wife.

Notice mediocre movies focus on the first level of conflict (fighting others) and rarely focus on the second level of conflict (relationships with the people they care about). Great movies go one step further to the third level of conflict (inner conflict) and that’s what makes stories far more interesting.

So think about how to add all three levels of conflict in your stories. The deeper you go, the more interesting your story will become.

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