The Power of Conflict in Storytelling

We have all heard the old saying, “You can’t have drama without conflict.” Yet the power of conflict in storytelling extends beyond merely that.

Image for post
Image for post

A few years ago, I posted this question on my blog: Why do we find conflict entertaining? The responses were fascinating and informative:

  • Conflict is interesting: In real life, we tend to socialize with likeminded people, so when we see characters in a movie who disagree, argue and fight, that is different and therefore stimulating.
  • Conflict is speaking one’s mind: In our daily lives, we often have to bite our tongue, but movie characters can give voice to things we wish we had the opportunity and courage to say.
  • Conflict involves risk: Whereas we may play it safe in our regular routines, we never know what could happen with characters involved in a conflict, an unpredictable dynamic implicit in every fight.
  • Conflict requires stakes: Characters don’t get into conflict unless there is something of importance at stake.
  • Conflict is about goals: One character wants one thing, another character wants something different.
  • Conflict is a battle of wills: There is always the question, “Who is going to win” which makes for an intriguing scenario.
  • Conflict is emotional: When characters are engaged in a struggle, it is not a mere exercise in logic, but charged up with feelings.

Conflict generates drama. Conflict is entertaining. But perhaps most important is this: Conflict concerns struggle.

One way of looking at a story is a Protagonist’s struggle to get from the beginning of their physical and psychological journey to its end. There are all sorts of ways that struggle can play out, from overcoming obstacles and roadblocks to dealing with characters who create tests of will.

But there is no struggle as visceral, identifiable and useful as the one between a Protagonist and a Nemesis. Whatever the Protagonist’s Conscious Goal is, which almost always creates the story’s end point, the Nemesis provides opposition in reaching that goal. Indeed, more often than not, the Nemesis has the same goal, only with a different purpose in mind.

The centrality of such conflict and the focus on the same goal with differing purposes creates a throughline leading directly toward the Final Struggle, the apex of Act Three. Combined with all the reasons listed above about how we find conflict entertaining, it’s easy to see why so many movies feature a Protagonist-Nemesis arrangement.

Which means there may be no better way to craft a compelling Protagonist than by writing a worthy Nemesis — and with it a story’s central conflict.

The ironic thing is most of us try to avoid conflict in our personal lives. That is precisely the opposite instinct we need to have when writing a story. We need to embrace conflict and be willing to put our character in harm’s way. With my university students, I make this point by showing them this:

Image for post
Image for post

This is an analog volume unit meter. I tell my students think of it as a Conflict-O-Meter. The more intense the conflict, the further the needle moves to the right. That red zone? That’s high-pitched conflict.

Every scene doesn’t need to hit the red. A scene which is in the black may only generate tension. But every so often — to create drama, to up the entertainment, to explore the characters’ struggles — we need to move the needle in our story’s Conflict-O-Meter into the red.

You can’t have drama without conflict. So remember the Conflict-O-Meter the next time you sit down to write.

Written by

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store