Conflict is the cornerstone of compelling drama. We might have engaging characters, imaginative locations, and dialogue that crunches in the actor’s mouths. However, if everything goes right for every character in our story, if no one ever does anything to upset anyone else, or if every decision the characters choose represents the pinnacle of wisdom, audiences will be left bored, convinced the story was unrealistic. It takes time for some writers to learn to be mean to their characters, putting them in the most diabolical of circumstances. Yet, only when we learn to trap our heroes and heroines in impossible predicaments can we know the satisfaction of seeing an audience that can’t stop watching what we’ve created.
While conflict is universal to story, the way it should be executed in a given medium is not. Both books and screenplays originate on the page, but scriptwriters know that their work will ideally transcend the written word and become an experience for a viewer’s eyes and ears. The conflict created must be visual – something the audience can see. Those whose stories are written for books, on the other hand, know that their medium gives them the capacity to explore more deeply a character’s inner world and what that character is actually thinking, as well as the external conflicts common to both literature and film.
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Regardless of what medium you are working in, here are three ways to increase the conflict in your story, with specific examples of how writers of both film and books have used these motifs.
1. LIMIT TIME
The stakes of a story always feel higher if the characters are working against a deadline that must be met. Stories set in high schools often include goals that must be accomplished before the last day of school or the prom. In some stories, a time limitation involves a character trying to get their hands on a sacred object before their enemy does. In others, there is a variation on the classic scenario of a character trying to defuse a bomb before it explodes. Knowing that a story has a definitive finish line is comforting to audiences.
In the cinematic realm, we see Miguel face the sand in the hourglass in Coco, where he must return to the Land of the Living before sunrise or he will become one of the dead. Similarly, if Cinderella doesn’t accomplish her goal and make it home before midnight, her disguise and royal ruse will disappear. Marty McFly is also racing against a literal ticking clock in Back to the Future. If he doesn’t reconnect his parents, get his time machine working, and hit an electric wire going 88 MPH at the exact moment the clock strikes 10:04, he will be stuck in 1955 forever. More recently, we’ve seen Ron Stallworth race against the moment that the KKK will figure out he is actually an undercover African American police officer in BlacKkKlansman. In this film, the impending revelation is the clock being raced against.
In Michael Connelly’s best-selling book, The Black Box, homicide detective Harry Bosch battles his own 48-hour rule. Most homicides are solved in the first 48 hours, according to Harry. Cases not solved in that window usually aren’t solved at all – something he cannot abide. In George Barr McCutcheon’s Brewster’s Millions, Montgomery Brewster must spend one million dollars, with tight restrictions on just how the money can be spent, in thirty days in order to inherit seven million dollars. If he fails, he loses everything. In a similar bet, Phileas Fogg must circumnavigate the globe in eighty days in the appropriately titled Jules Verne classic, Around the World in Eighty Days.
2. LIMIT SPACE
Constructing a story where the protagonist and antagonist never have to be in the same room can make the stakes feel low. Forcing the central characters into the same realm leads to imminent conflict, especially if we know only one character can emerge. Conflict also rises whenever the physical, relational, or emotional space a character can accomplish her or his goal in is compressed.
In film, we see Owen and Claire, in Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, tasked with rescuing the remaining dinosaurs on a small island before a volcano destroys everything on it – a key to the conflict being the small island. Icebergs are used to similar effect in Ice Age. Like with many prison movies, the walls of an institution close in around Andy Dufresne, where his physical and emotional safety are at growing risk in The Shawshank Redemption. The films in The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise use pirate ships in the same fashion, limiting the amount of space characters have to escape their archenemies and accomplish their goals.
On the page, Edgar Allen Poe’s classic The Pit and the Pendulum uses physical space to inch the protagonist closer and closer to a deep pit, combining the aforementioned element of a time limit in the form of a pendulum. David Schickler uses an elevator to enclose the space around one of his characters, trapping them physically and emotionally in Kissing in Manhattan. William Mumford more dramatically encloses space with the use of an imperceptibly contracting iron torture chamber in his short story, The Iron Shroud. Of course, no mention of compressed space in literature would be complete without mentioning Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, where Ishmael confines himself to the tight quarters of a fishing ship after becoming bored with the space on the shore.
3. LIMIT PATHS FORWARD
Perhaps the most powerful tool we can use to raise the stakes of a story is limiting a character’s options. The more a character feels trapped, the more we as the audience clench the edges of our chair. Limiting the options that allow the character to move forward is one effective way of accomplishing this. Many stories begin with a character having an unlimited number of options. As the narrative progresses, those options begin to be quickly and methodically be removed. Finally, the character is left with two options that both feel like losing propositions in some respect. Sometimes, even one of those options is then also removed. When faced with two difficult choices, clever writers should find a way to provide the character with a third path that had not been clear before.
Determining a character’s choice, in the end, can be as difficult for the writer as it would be for the character making that choice in real life. Of course, few of us make these choices alone. We rely on wise mentors and allies. But what happens when we remove these resources for our character as well? Most of us can face life’s troubles more easily if we know we have friends and family standing by to walk through suffering with us. Removing these aids can raise the stakes significantly. Allies can be eliminated through death. Other times they are jettisoned through betrayal. Seeing a protagonist move forward on their journey after losing those they are closest to can be a harrowing experience for the character and audience alike.
On screen, Rachel Chu slowly and methodically loses her allies and the options she has for making her relationship with her fiancé work in Crazy Rich Asians. In The Revenant, Hugh Glass quickly loses all his allies. He moves through the entire story in isolation and loneliness. The more characters seem to lose, the higher the stakes seem as well. The character of Ma begins with no allies and few options in Room. As her son gets older, her options narrow even further.
Literary classics also offer no shortage of characters whose paths to proceed become problematic. Stag Preston singlehandedly eliminates his allies and eventually his possibilities when his megalomania gets out of control in Harlan Ellison’s Spider’s Kiss. Faust’s options to move forward slowly disintegrate after he makes a deal with the devil in Goethe’s classic of the same name. In John Updike’s Rabbit, Run, Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom seems to exhaust all his options over the course of the narrative, leaving him with an uncertain fate at the novel’s end.
The key to creating conflict in your story, regardless of medium, is limitations. Knowing where to limit time, space, allies, and options takes trial and error. Eventually, you will find the right mix of boundaries and restraints for your character that will cause your audience to feel the reality of just what’s at stake in the story.
John Bucher is a mythologist, story strategist, and writer based out of Hollywood, California. He is the author of six books including the best-selling Storytelling for Virtual Reality. He has worked with companies including HBO, DC Comics, The History Channel, A24 Films and served as a consultant and writer for numerous film, television, and Virtual Reality projects. Currently, he teaches writing and story courses as part of the Joseph Campbell Writers Room at Studio School in Los Angeles and at the LA Film Studies Center.