Most writing teachers will tell you that stories and their scenes need to contain conflict. Most people have heard that an understand it. The problem is how they understand it. To most novice writers it means an argument. So I read scripts all the time with people fighting, but with no underlying conflict.
Conflict comes in a few forms. There is a kind of “super-conflict” which is related to the super objective—to borrow from Constantin Stanislavski.
Super objective, meaning that the story’s protagonist has a goal or objective that she wants and is after the entire time. This is what moves the story forward. The “super-conflict” is the big obstacle that keeps her from that goal. So this is one kind of conflict.
But as the story progresses, related objectives arise, as do their obstacles. For instance, the super objective may be to steal a billion dollars and run off to Acapulco. But along the way, the protagonist may need to get the combination to a vault or acquire a key from a guard. Or find a way into the bank after closing. These obstacles are conflicts, but they do not necessarily require that two or more characters have a screaming match.
In fact, our protagonist may smile and flirt with the bank guard to gain his trust and get close to the key she needs. There would be conflict in such a scene because there is a goal and obstacle.
There is internal conflict that can work very well. This kind of scene requires very little of a writer.
In the movie Fatal Attraction, Michael Douglas plays a man who has had an adulterous affair, but begins to regret the consequences. So the storytellers put Michael’s character in happy family scenes. While he is out for a night of bowling with his family, they are having fun and he is lost in thought and regret, but tries to put on a happy face. The conflict is internal. You can get a lot of mileage out of this kind of conflict.
Internal conflict is the most powerful form. Hamlet’s To-be-or-not-to-be soliloquy is testament to the power of a character in conflict with himself.
If you have a character who is a recovering alcoholic and has decided not to drink, find a reason to get her in a bar with people laughing, drinking and having a good time. Boom. Conflict. Internal conflict. After that you can write a pretty straightforward scene.
There is a great scene in Disney’s The Jungle Book where Baloo has to break it to the boy Mowgli that he needs to go back to the “Man-Village” to be safe from the bloodthirsty tiger Shere Khan.
This is a great scene because there is Baloo’s internal conflict, but the two characters also have different objectives. In the scene, the boy wants to play and Baloo has something serious to say. These are characters at cross-purposes and that is a perfect ingredient for dramatic or comedic conflict.
This is conflict, but not arguing. You could, for instance, have one character embarrassed by the behavior of a friend. But no one needs to argue. Not necessarily.
Another reason to use internal conflict is that a character may be uncomfortable in his or her skin—they could embarrass themselves. You could have a flabby guy at his first day at the gym surrounded by muscular men with perfect physiques and—to top it off—fill the place with beautiful women.
Or you could go the other way and put an overweight woman in a room full of wafer-thin super models and handsome eligible men.
Same thing. Put a poor person in a swanky country club. You get the idea.
There is also practical conflict, by which I mean physical barriers that must be overcome. The hero must defuse a bomb is a practical conflict. But if you throw in that this is his first day on the job and he’s nervous, you now have internal conflict, too.
Sometimes conflict is in the form of an argument, but often it can take other more interesting and nuanced forms. If you apply these forms your stories will take on added dimension.
It’s true—don’t argue with me.