You want conflict? 2


I’m mapping out a new story and was trying to figure out the external conflict that moves the story and motivates my heroine/hero. In a discussion about conflict with my eldest son, he brought out a book he studied in college: The Art of Moviemaking: Script to Screen by Richard Beck Peacock. It’s $85 US on Amazon.com, so it’s not an inexpensive book – textbooks rarely are – though you can get cheaper used copies. (I’d hoped those years he spent in college might pay off somehow … though I’d thought it would be for more than a textbook.)

Lo and behold, there’s actually a section in Chapter 9 called ‘External Conflict.’ Yay! So, there are various types of conflict a writer (screenwriter or otherwise) can use to drive their story:

1. An Extraordinary or Random circumstance: Catastrophes that can change the path of the protagonists’s life. In Jumanji, an enchanted boardgame that “pits two kids against a series of vengeful forces of nature.” Think of “the shocking loss of a job, the announcement of a fatal illness, or a miscalculated scientific experiment.”

2. An Individual: Think In the Line of Fire where Clint Eastwood is a Secret Service Agent who must stop John Malkovich from assassinating the president.

3. A Group: The author mentions The Rock with Nicolas Cage and Sean Connery where the ‘good guys’ must face off with a group of disgruntled Marines led by Ed Harris.

4. An Institution: In this case, the organization is thought to be a legitimate bureaucracy – “the CIA, hospitals, corporations, or prisons. Wall Street, schools, the military, the IRS, etc.” Think of The Shawshank Redemption – Tim Robbin’s character Andy must work around the corruption of the prison he’s been placed in after the brutal murder of his wife and her lover.

5. Society: This one runs a whole gamut – ever seen October Sky – a true story about a young lad stuck in a Pennsylvania coal mining town in the 1950s with no hope of ever escaping the fate of becoming a miner. (If you haven’t seen this lovely movie with Jake Gyllenhaal, Laura Dern and Chris Cooper, go rent it this weekend, it’s wonderful.) In a sci-fi society, see Blade Runner, or even The Matrix.

6. Forces of Nature: Fire – like Backdraft, or other natural disasters such as Twister, Dante’s Peak, Volcano, or The Perfect Storm.

Hmm, so where does The Firm fall? Is Tom Cruise facing a group or an institution? Or Signs? Is the alien invasion in that movie a Group? Or an Extraordinary Circumstance? In either case, there is definitely an external conflict moving the storyline along.

For my story, I’ve done a bit of brainstorming with Sue, and I’ve decided to use an individual to make it more personal. Now I just have to figure out the heroine’s Internal Conflict – which perhaps will be tomorrow’s blog.


2 thoughts on “You want conflict?

  • Christine d'Abo

    This is great! I’m cleaning up the external conflict in my current story, so I’ll have to review these again.

    And isn’t it sad how expensive text books are.

  • Sue L

    It took me a long time to really wrap my head around how much conflict drives a story.

    I remember at a local meeting, we were talking about it and how you could provide conflict and deepen characterization at the same time by giving your protag a choice between a bad thing and a really bad thing.

    But it all really clicked when one of the members argued that wasn’t good enough – the protag had to be faced with two – equally – really bad choices. It started to come together for me at that point and the longer I write the more true I find it to be.

    Sue L

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