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Life imitates art. Or does art imitate life?
Whichever way you may look at it, you can’t get away from the fact that in life and in art, there is conflict.
While in real life you do your best to avoid conflict, if you did the same in your writing, your story would be dull, drab and downright unreadable or unwatchable.
Imagine a movie where all characters live happily and there is no conflict. Or a novel where page after page is a no-conflict-zone? Boring, right?
Conflict in your story ENGAGES your reader/viewer. That’s the top reason why you need conflict in your story. It keeps them watching the movie or turning the pages. It gives them reason to root for your hero, fear for him and hope that he will be able to bring down the villain or triumph over the obstacles.
Different types of conflict
Having conflict however does not mean that every scene needs to be a ‘fight’ scene. Conflict can be about one person against another. But it may also be about man/woman vs nature or man/woman vs self.
While external conflict (man vs man) often is more visual; internal conflict (man vs self) is also needed to help build character arc.
When you think about your story, make sure you have conflicts of both types—external and internal. If you are writing a superhero story or a Wonder Woman kind of movie, there will be big-bang conflict scenes. Keeping the readers on the edge of their seat. Will she save the world?
A romance will have external conflict as well as internal conflict and that’s where reader engagement will happen. Will they be able to get over their differences and live happily ever after?
Building conflict into scenes
Design your scenes so that that you can play with the dynamics of “tension”. Because conflict creates tension. And tension leads to the interplay of hope and fear.
The best scenes are always those that have an underlying sense of tension. For instance, your scene may be about a girl leaving her office and taking the bus home. But if you introduce a small bit of external conflict (example: her interaction with a co-passenger who knocks against her) or you have her struggling with a decision—aka internal conflict—(example: should she tell her sister that she lost her favourite pen?) the scene becomes more interesting.
Layering of conflict
Conflict also plays a critical role in the story’s ‘plot progression’ and the hero’s character arc. For instance if your story revolves around a man hunting down his wife’s killer (like in the movie The Fugitive), you would see him face obstacles at every level. As his hunt takes him closer to the villain the obstacles that he has to overcome become more and more difficult. That is plot progression. The impact that these events/obstacles have on the hero and how he changes (or not) is his character arc.
And you have your reader/viewer asking: what happens next?
Ultimately then, story is conflict.
Here’s what Robert McKee, screenwriting guru says: Story is the fundamental conflict between subjective expectation and cruel reality. Story is about an imbalance and opposing forces (a problem that must be worked out, etc.). A good storyteller describes what it's like to deal with these opposing forces ...calling on the protagonist to dig deeper, work with scarce resources, make difficult decisions...and ultimately discover the truth.
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