Conflict is the heart of any story. If there’s no conflict, there’s no story because there’s nothing for the characters to do. However, there are different levels of conflict. At the simplest level, conflict is anything that stops the hero from achieving a goal.
A simple conflict might be a flat tire or having trouble finding a parking spot. Yet these types of conflict are trivial. The real purpose of conflict isn’t just to interfere with the hero, but to do one or both of the following:
- Jolts the hero with a massive change in his or her life
- Force the hero to choose a dilemma related to the theme
A flat tire or a the lack of a parking spot is a minor conflict, but a life-altering conflict is getting caught in a drive-by shooting on the highway or getting to work only to find out you’ve been fired. Any conflict that drastically changes the hero’s life will force the hero to make meaningful choices, and that’s interesting and revealing.
Second, force the hero to face a dilemma related to the theme. In “Thelma and Louise,” the theme is how can a woman live in a male-dominated world. Thus every conflict forces Thelma and Louise to either be a victim of men or become stronger as a woman.
That’s why when Thelma loses their money, the two women could mope and complain and be a victim, or they can become stronger and independent by robbing a gas station.
Notice that robbing a gas station is a huge point of no return. That’s because changing for the better should always be a tough choice. No one cares if you have a choice between winning a million dollars or getting burned to death because no one will ever choose getting burned to death over winning a million dollars. That’s a choice that means nothing.
However in the “Thelma and Louise” example, a hitchhiker has just stolen the women’s money and left them. The easy choice is to complain. The hard choice is to rob a gas station, but the hard choice is what will force the two women to grow.
Put your hero in a dilemma. They can take the easy way out (and stay stuck in their old way of life) or they can take a huge risk and choose a tougher option. When the negative choice looks like the easiest way, seeing the hero choose the harder option reveals more about the character and makes a more interesting story.
Conflicts should really be about forcing the hero to choose. The harder the choice, the more interesting the story.