Without conflict, there is no drama. Without drama, there is no story. Without a story, you have an interesting anecdote, but nothing substantial enough to captivate an audience.
Obstacles form the basis of drama. Every story is about a hero struggling to overcome obstacles in his(or her) quest to achieve a goal. Of course, not all obstacles are the same.
There’s a story about a hotshot director who showed a Hollywood executive the opening of his new film. There were car chases, gunfire, lots of explosions, and in the end, a car flies off a cliff, tumbles down the hill, and bursts into flames.
When this opening scene was over, the director turned to the Hollywood executive and said, “What do you think of that? Now that’s an exciting opening!”
Without saying a word, the Hollywood executive stood up, walked out, and before he left, turned to this film director and simply asked, “Who was in the car?”
The point the Hollywood executive was making was that lots of physical action is meaningless if we don’t care who it’s happening to. No matter how great you make your obstacles, whether they involve giant radioactive monsters the size of a skyscraper or a team of terrorists armed with lasers and atomic bombs, obstacles by themselves are meaningless unless we care about the person overcoming those obstacles.
The first part of drama is making sure we have a hero we can care about. The latest remake of “Clash of the Titans” has a hero, but do we really care about him? I didn’t. The hero seemed like a cardboard stereotype wandering through the movie. Take away the special effects and you’re left with a one-dimensional hero surrounded by one-dimensional characters, all pursuing a goal that seems relatively meaningless to everyone including the hero.
In bad movies like “Clash of the Titans,” the main obstacles are physical. Suddenly giant scorpions pop up and start attacking everyone. Huh? Why not have giant babies with pacifiers pop out of the ground and start attacking everyone. It makes just as much sense if you just want to show mindless action.
At the simplest level, you have physical obstacles like mountains, monsters, or just people who get in the way just for the sake of getting in the way. Physical obstacles are useless. Think of every B-movie ever made and it’s full of physical obstacles.
Beyond just physical obstacles, the next step up are more active obstacles. A giant scorpion that pops up and wants to kill you is definitely an obstacle, but it’s not as emotionally gripping as a warrior who has sworn revenge and chased the hero for days, only to catch up to him and fight him to the death. Now not only do we have a physical obstacle, but we have an emotional stake in the conflict, thereby heightening the obstacle’s importance.
If we know and care about the hero, physical obstacles can be interesting, but if we know and care about the hero and we know about an opponent, that combination can make conflict even stronger.
In “How to Train Your Dragon,” we care about the hero, a weak Viking who wants to win the girl. When he’s trying to hide his activities with the dragons from his father, the conflict is far less dramatic than giant scorpions popping out of the ground, but the effect is far more important. We care about the hero and we also understand his father as the opponent. We want the hero to win the conflict and overcome the obstacle of his father discovering what he’s been doing with the dragons, but the conflict is less on a physical scale and more on an emotional scale. Yet it’s far more powerful than physical obstacles alone because our emotions are linked in both characters.
Watch two strangers in public argue and you don’t really care who wins. However, if you see your own parents arguing, now you have more of an emotional stake in the outcome, even if there’s less physical action.
A third type of conflict involves the character’s own inner conflict. When the hero in “How to Train Your Dragon” faces his father and tries to hide his activities with the dragon, the hero is stuck in an inner conflict. Should he tell his father the truth and disappoint him? Or should he hide the truth and gain his father’s respect?
We can see this conflict in the hero and we aren’t sure of which choice would really be better. As a result, this inner conflict is far more important because as the audience, even we don’t know what choice might be best, so we’re fascinated to see how the hero will choose and what the eventual outcome will be.
So here are the three types of conflict: physical, outer, and inner.
- Physical conflict forces the hero to take action to get around or defeat the obstacle.
- Outer conflict involves the hero taking on another character. We may not want this other character to stop the hero, but we can understand why he wants to stop the hero.
- Inner conflict is when the hero has two choices, and they both seem equally appealing or unappealing, and we want to know which choice the hero will make.
When Luke is facing Darth Vader and learns that Darth Vader is his father, there’s physical conflict (light saver duel), outer conflict (we understand the movies of Luke and Darth Vader), and inner conflict (will Luke fight and kill his own father, or join him?).
The strongest conflict is inner conflict, but combine inner conflict with outer conflict and physical conflict and your obstacles become triple the importance to the hero and to the audience. If your story contains obstacles with two or more of those types of conflicts, your story will be much stronger than if you just randomly toss in physical obstacles for no apparent reason like “Clash of the Titans.”