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.

You want conflict?

2 thoughts on “You want conflict?

  • August 3, 2007 at 4:59 am
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    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.

  • August 6, 2007 at 5:51 pm
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    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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