Updated: Mar 3, 2019
An idea, a situation or a character should all be based on a conflict in order to be suitable material for a screenplay. Conflict lies in between opposite emotional stands and it is basically the heart of dramaturgy, something you have to have in mind at the very beginning when creating a story.
As you may have already noticed, one of the main purposes of this blog is to examine every screenwriting truth, which we have read or heard in theory repeatedly, with the goal of answering the question – why? I believe that this is the right way to integrate knowledge, not only as an imposed rule but also as a lived law. I also believe that this is the way to turn off rational mind (control) and turn on an intuitive mind (play) in any process of creation.
So, therefore, we ask not just how to incorporate conflict into a film, but why is conflict the basis of every story, every character, and every situation?
At the very beginning it’s important to say that when we talk about conflict, we are not talking about a quarrel, although a dispute is often a result of a conflict. Conflict is expressed in a story or a film as duality, paradox, tension, opposition, incompatibility, moral dilemma, fear, etc.
Conflict is the basis of the architecture of the Universe.
We live in a four-dimensional Universe which functions on the principle of opposite forces. If we didn’t know what ‘soft’ is, we would not know what ‘hard’ is. If we don’t know how to define ‘white’ or ‘pure’ or ‘light,’ it's hard to define ‘black’ or ‘dark.’ If we didn’t feel satisfied with love or happiness, suffering, pain, and dissatisfaction would not be such a problem.
Living on the spectrum between the two opposites on every level of existence is the basis of human life and thus an integral part of our knowledge of everything that surrounds us. Birth/death, inhale/exhale, contraction/expansion.
Conflict is the basis of creation.
Do opposites attract or repel each other? I would say, they are complementary, they complement each other in dramaturgy. Take ‘male’ and ‘female’: The archetype of male energy and archetype of female energy, Yin and Yang. (We all have one and the other within us, and one or the other prevails in certain periods of our lives or in certain situations).
Male energy is assertive, penetrating, deciding, creating in action, outside of self, giving - female energy surrenders, protects, creates in peace, inside of self, receives.
Both energies are necessary for the creation of life and only in the process of merging is there possibility for new life.
Conflict emerges between those who are different but close.
For conflict to appear it is important to start from a common ground, on the same thematic axis. You can’t really have a passionate conflict with someone who thinks the sky is gray or blue or pink while you think people are honest.
That's why conflict is most powerful with those who are closest to us, with parents, children, lovers, friends, business partners, neighbors. What is near and incompatible is even more important than what is distant and common.
Conflict is an integral part of the human psyche and the basis of psychological transformation.
“True psychoanalysis is not a science… it is an art. In this sense, psychoanalysis and screenwriting are two sides of the same coin. They are both creative arts aimed at the investigation and understanding of the human character, mind, and soul. They are both intrinsically engaged in the personality and personal development of their subject. They are both immersed in the world of archetypal symbols and mythological figures. And they both are rooted firmly in the unconscious realm of human experience. - Psychology for Screenwriters by William Indick
UNCONSCIOUS – FREUDIAN ANALYSIS
According to Freud's theory, our lives are primarily dependent on what we are not aware of. All our problems and struggles, repressed feelings, hidden memories, habits, thoughts, desires, and reactions come out of the unconscious.
The internal, neurotic dynamics of conflict occurs on three levels of the psyche: the primordial level of libido, ego (self), and superego (the part of us that represents the outside authority).
Theorists claim that the two most exploited motifs in film both come from the Oedipus complex (myth), which was the central psychological model of exploration for Freud. The first motif is the integration of moral wisdom/integrity (a neurotic conflict that occurs between what we desire and the rigid limitations of society) and the second is the formation of an adult romantic relationship (a neurotic conflict that happens through the psycho-sexual stages of ego development). Both of these motifs are taken from the childhood libidinal conflict, in fact, from the father/mother/child relationship.
In films, this internal conflict is always portrayed as an external one: obstacles on the way to desire. And even though our character will “fight” with the external world, the main question will always be if he or she is going to defeat his/her own ego defense mechanisms or not. The end of the conflict is either fulfillment of desire (comedy) or the discovery that the desire was false (tragedy and drama), leading to the development of the ego and the resolution of the tension.
Metaphysics of alienation
In his film, The Silence (1963), Ingmar Bergman explores the position of a lonely woman in a society that is just starting to open itself to freely expressed sexuality.
Ester and Anna are sisters. Ester, who is ill, hides behind cold intellectualism, while Anna, who has a son, lets herself off the hook, exploring her wildest desires. While both are controlling, the question really becomes who is being emotionally blackmailed by whom?
With this story, Bergman suggests that the main conflict is actually an internal one: both Ester and Anna are representations of the split woman’s psyche. Ester is the super ego (also their father died) while Anna is the id. There aren’t two women, just one. For the ego to rise above suffering, the super ego has to die.
COLLECTIVE UNCONSCIOUS – JUNGIAN ANALYSIS
In Jungian psychology, we can use conflict in a slightly different way. Jung claims that our personal unconscious is in correlation with the collective unconscious and that through psychological images and themes that we can all connect to (which are archetypes), we share the same experiences. Thus, one of the basic archetypes is ‘Persona,’ the face we present to the world, and the other is ‘Shadow,’ the dark, hidden part of our consciousness, which is somewhat suppressed. Our ‘Shadow’ wants to be seen, recognized, and integrated, and this is exactly the story of a vast number of movies. Only at the moment of discovering what has been hidden, do we come to know ourselves and only then is change possible.
The change of a character lies at the heart of every story. In addition, conflict is both a call for growth and an emotional transition incorporated into the individualization of each person.
David and Goliath
In Duel (TV movie, 1972) by Steven Spielberg, the car driver, David Mann, a salesman, is driving on a highway when he encounters an old oil tanker. It seems that unseen driver, a Goliath is actually haunting him, wanting to kill him. The psychology here is rudimentary.
David actually feels small in his marriage. What’s haunting him is archetypal fear that he is not enough, so Shadow escalates. In an open fight he has to prove that he is the Man.
If you want to discover these two basic models (Freudian and Jungian) in depth and for alternative psychological models (Eriksonian, Adlerian, Existential Analyses etc.) I highly recommend, Psychology for Screenwriters by William Indick, Ph.D.
Conflict comes in layers.
Even though every story is built around a central conflict, you can always use many opposing forces to help build up more tension around that conflict.
Films are enriched by the amount of opposites they have, and it is these opposites that open up new levels of meaning.
Here is the list of some of the archetypal opposites Ingmar Bergman used in his film The Silence (1963) to build the conflict between two sisters Esther and Anna:
Movement / Stillness
Silence / Words
Control / Fear, Helplessness
Family / Loneliness
Male / Female (give / receive)
Young / Old
Close / Far
Alive / Dead, Inanimate
Parent, Mother / Child, Son
Boredom / Play
Innocence / Sinful
Intellect / Passion
Heart (Emotional) / Brain (Rational)
Subordinate / Authoritarian
Peace / War
Freedom / Captivity
Health (Sexuality) / Illness
Success / Failure
Integrity / Moral collapse
Loyalty / Deception
Love / Fear
Define the main conflict in your story.
Think of opposite forces that can help this conflict come to life.
Think about how this conflict can be the essential part of your character’s psyche.
Just meditate on this for a while. Let the images come to you. If you can see some conflicted situations, write them down… and let them be, for now.
Next on Intuitive Screenwriting:
Conflict is born out of desire, characters are born out of conflict. Our heart pulls us to one side (emotions), our brain often to the other (ratio). The difference between a (mythical) hero and a (psychological) character, who is an antagonist, and what is the difference between the need/objective reality and desire/subjective reality?
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