4 Types of Conflict to Use in Your Screenplay


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by Naomi Write + Co. in pre-writing, screenplay structure, screenwriting

Let’s talk about conflict – and maybe the lack of it – in your screenplay.

I worked with a screenwriter recently who was very frustrated at the “screenplay lacks conflict” note. Because he had gotten this note from previous readers, and believed he had addressed it. He was quite surprised then when the same note came up again in my feedback.

But here’s the thing – and maybe this sounds familiar. Previously he’d been told that the lack of conflict resulted in flat scenes. So he had addressed the note by adding obstacles to a few scenes in the script.

And yes. That did add conflict to the screenplay. Sort of.

But he hadn’t really targeted the core issue. Now, I don’t fault this writer at all. The way we talk about conflict in screenplays may be too vague or incomplete to actually help screenwriters address the problem. So let’s clarify the topic today.

Your screenplay needs layers of conflict

When conflict is only addressed at the scene level, the screenplay can feel sort of thin. Like there’s no weight or consequence or bigger meaning to what’s going on.

And a screenplay full of surface-level conflict can be tedious to read. (Kind of like when your couple friends bicker in front of you. You know there’s nothing getting solved or resolved and it’s unclear why the conversation matters enough to keep going on about.)

But that’s not to say there’s no place for scene-level or surface-type conflict. Your screenplay absolutely needs it. It’s just that you need other layers of conflict too, and those conflicts need to connect in order to create meaning (and not fall flat).

So what types of conflict does your screenplay need?

1. Foundational conflict

This is really the main conflict that the story is built on. When you describe your story as “someone wants something and goes after it against strong opposition,” the main conflict is the protagonist going after something vs. the opposition that’s stopping her.

Act 1 establishes that conflict, Act 2 escalates it, and Act 3 resolves it. That’s the framework for a screenplay.

And we know that main conflict is the thread that runs through the whole story. Or the throughline, as we often say. It connects everything, holds the story together.

In planning the story, we want to think about what the protagonist is doing in pursuit of their goal and what the antagonist is doing in opposition to that. This might sound basic but it can be easier said than done. Why? Because the protagonist and antagonist may not face off in scenes together. So you’ll need to think about this foundational conflict from a big-picture point of view and consider what each side is doing in the grand scheme of things (and how we see that).

2. Conflict from supporting characters

Conflict can and should also come from supporting characters. You want to create some kind of conflict in every relationship the main character has.

If you think of the conflict in your story as a spectrum, at the far extreme end of it is the main antagonist – that’s the person or entity that’s really in direct opposition or that’s most actively stopping your protagonist from achieving their goal in the big picture. But there are other forces that fall elsewhere on the spectrum.

Supporting characters may not be actively working against your protagonist, but because they have their own desires and agendas, their actions cause conflict – either external or internal – for your protagonist. So the conflict supporting characters cause for your protagonist might be somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, more like friction in the protagonist’s life.

But that doesn’t make it any less important. You want the conflicts in the screenplay to hit different levels of intensity. Constant high-intensity conflict would be exhausting, but hitting one middle-range intensity note would get boring. We want variety.

3. Internal conflict

Really the focus of any internal conflict is going to relate to the character arc. The internal struggle demonstrates the growth we see in the protagonist, and the story should maintain a focus on one type of growth, one transformational experience. (Otherwise the story feels scattered and loses meaning.)

In terms of showing internal conflict or a character arc happening… in a movie you have to find a way to externalize it. Often that happens in relation to other characters, but not always.

You can think about how situations, plot events, and other characters challenge the inner wound or deficit or fear your character has, which helps force their growth or change in this story.

4. Situational conflict

And finally we come back around to the kind of conflict we started with.

You can think of situational conflict as the obstacles a character runs into. It’s the traffic jam on the way to the airport to get the girl. Or the food poisoning the bridal party gets on the day of the dress fittings.

Situational conflict (which is the kind of conflict our writer friend added to his screenplay in order to address the “lacks conflict” note) is important too. It adds variety and layers to the conflict in the script. It makes scenes entertaining.

We just want to make sure it’s not the only kind of conflict in the script. And, if you receive feedback about needing more conflict, let’s start with the foundational conflict and make sure that’s in place before we go building all of the other conflicts on top of it.

Give us all the conflicts

“Where is the conflict coming from?” is one of the most important questions you can ask when planning and writing your screenplay.

What the protagonist is doing to get what they want, and what the antagonist is doing to oppose it is vital – but it’s not the only type of conflict you’ll need in the script to keep us engaged and entertained on every page.

It’s important to think about what other sources of conflict can help create immediate, tangible conflict. But, again, this can’t be the only type of conflict or your screenplay will end up feeling like it never goes deeper than the surface level.

We want to cover the spectrum and deliver a variety of conflicts, layered and woven together throughout the screenplay.


Start with my 3-part email series: "The 3 Essential, Fundamental, Don't-Mess-These-Up Screenwriting Rules." After that, you'll get a weekly dose of pro screenwriting tips and industry insights that'll help you get an edge over the competition.