A Great Story Arc Needs Conflict
Every great story has a beginning, middle, and end, also known as a story arc. In order to keep your audience engaged, your story should have a clear story arc with a conflict that is resolved by the end. Le duh!
But what is a story arc? As you may guess, it’s the narrative structure of a story.
How that story arc works will depend on the story being told. Characters may deal with problems – aka conflict – in order to make changes in their lives or important realisations.
The most common of these story arcs is of course The Hero’s Journey. I’ve written about that arc A LOT on this blog, but even if you’ve never read any of those articles you will no doubt recognise that holistic arc by instinct.
The conflict in The Hero’s Journey is obvious and can be summed up as ‘zero to hero’. In other words, a nobody is plucked from obscurity to go up against a big bad villain for some reason. Along the way they find allies to stand with them. They train and gp into battle, taking on the villain and usually win. The end. (Other plotting archetypes are available however!).
As you can see, there is a clear progression from the beginning to the end of the holistic story arc. This is important because it keeps your audience engaged. They want to know what happens next and how the conflict will be resolved.
Drama is Conflict
Lots of writers know the writing adage ‘drama is conflict’ … but get confused about what this really means.
They may also think the notion of ‘story arc’ only refers to where the character starts (set up) and ends up (pay off). The reality is, every scene should have its own arc or internal logic that adds up to that whole.
Another very common misconception amongst writers is that conflict equals lots of arguing, crying, shouting in every scene.
Whether looking at arcs holistically or scene by scene, conflict relates to the SITUATION characters find themselves in. In other words, the characters are in the midst of a PROBLEM they must solve, like this …
These problems may be LITERAL life n’ death stuff, or they may be metaphysical issues in relationships. Sometimes, it will be a mixture of both.
Now, it may be realistic for characters to shout, yell and cry when dealing with big problems. However, not every story will – or should! – involve this. Even if your script does have a big confrontation amongst characters, you definitely don’t want every scene to be like this as it gets melodramatic very quickly.
Types of Conflict
We’re drilling down from holistic arcs into individual scene arcs now. Screenwriting maestro Scott Myers makes the excellent point there are ‘types’ of conflict in scenes. In his blog post about this topic, he breaks them down as follows …
- Open Conflict: Verbal argument, a fight which plays ‘up top’ in the scene
- Underlying Tension: More subtextual in nature, bubbling below the scene’s surface
- Action Conflict: Events in the External World which generate stress in the characters’ Internal World
As mentioned already, writers are usually well-versed in the first type when it comes to arguing. What’s frequently missing in spec screenplays are the other two. More, after the jump.
Underlying Tension Example
One of my favourite examples of number 2) on the list is the gas station scene in No Country For Old Men (2007). In the scene, our antagonist Anton Chigurh is engaged in conversation by an old man behind the till.
One of the reasons Chigurh is one of the best villains of all time in my opinion is that he’s both totally ruthless and an utter psychopath. Scarily, he is not what we expect: he doesn’t seem unhinged, can hold a conversation and maybe well-educated. Even so, from his previous actions we already know Chigurh is dangerous AF and could kill this man at any point.
As the scene progresses, it becomes clear Chigurh is weighing up whether he wants to or not. The old man is not oblivious, but he’s not sure what’s going on and is very uneasy.
It’s an absolutely excruciating watch and not only a brilliant use of conflict, but also dramatic irony.
Action Conflict Example
It’s the era of big budget blockbusters, so finding examples of this is not hard to do. One of my favourite examples is Gravity (2013) because it clearly links the internal and external worlds of Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock). It’s also one of the few blockbusters in the last ten years that ISN’T a ‘hero’s journey’.
Gravity is about adversity and Stone is alone for about 80% of the film. She is met with obstacle after obstacle in space but most work tirelessly to get home (external).
In contrast, she goes from a grief-struck woman who doesn’t really care if she lives or dies, to someone who CHOOSES life (internal world).
Yes, grief-ridden female leads and dead daughters are a little overdone – especially in the 2020s – but it gets the job done! We can follow Stone’s arc very easily from start to finish, with bagfuls of conflict.
Every good story has some kind of conflict or problem that needs to be resolved. This is what makes stories interesting and engaging. Without conflict, there is no stakes and no reason for your audience to care about what happens in your story. We do this by investing in character arc and contrasting between their internal and external worlds.
Yup it’s that simple … but THAT hard to do!