How Do We See Conflict in a Screenplay?


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by Naomi Write + Co. in screenwriting, story analysis

In last week’s post I mentioned, “Where is the conflict coming from?” is one of the most important questions you can ask when planning and writing your screenplay.

We went over four layers of conflict to include in your screenplay, and reader Rob asked me to provide some examples from an existing movie. An excellent idea – so here we go!

I’m using Under the Tuscan Sun as our example this week because:

A) Who couldn’t use a little fantasy fulfillment right now, and
B) It’s one of the examples we’re using in the Finish Your Screenplay in 80 Days weekly meetings, since one of the writers in the group is working on something similar. (The next session starts in January! Want to write your screenplay with us? Details here.)

Does a screenplay need multiple conflicts?

So, why do you need four types of conflict layered into your screenplay?

Because we want to hit different levels of intensity over the course of the story journey. Constant high-intensity conflict would be exhausting. And hitting the same intensity note at any level would get boring.

But beyond just different intensity levels, the different types of conflict also engage us in different ways. Variety keeps things interesting, and keeps us leaning in for more.

What four types of conflict should you include in your screenplay?

A quick recap – the four types of conflict to layer into your screenplay:

  1. Foundational: 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.
  2. Conflict from supporting characters: 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.
  3. Internal conflict: 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: Obstacles a character runs into along the way. 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.

Four types of conflict in Under the Tuscan Sun

Where do the different types of conflict show up in our example movie?

1. Foundational: In Under the Tuscan Sun, protagonist Frances has bought – on a whim – a rundown villa in Tuscany. Her goal is to renovate the villa and establish a new home and life there. But what’s stopping her? There isn’t a real antagonist in the story. Instead the main – or foundation – conflict, is Frances-as-fish-out-of-water. She’s an American city gal dropped into a small, rustic Italian village.

2. From supporting characters: We see a lot of conflict from supporting characters, which makes sense since the main conflict isn’t as concrete as it might be in another story. So this screenplay probably needs conflict from other sources to enhance the cumulative conflict in the story.

As with most elements of screenwriting, there isn’t one “right” answer. There isn’t one way to build conflict in your story. But we’re always aiming to create enough conflict to engage the audience from start to finish.

One good example of conflict from a supporting character is Frances’s friend, Patti, who provides conflict in a few different ways throughout the story. First she forces Frances out of her comfort zone and sends her to Tuscany. Later, Patti shows up and throws a wrench in Frances’s new love affair.

Patti’s motivations are never malicious, of course. But she has her own desires which she acts on and then those actions cause conflict as Frances pursues her own goals.

3. Internal conflict: Frances’s internal problem is that she’s lost hope and faith that happiness and true love are possible. Everything she experiences in this story is aimed at forcing her to see things differently.

So, for example, she sees romance blossom between one of her young construction workers and a local girl. The couple overcomes a language barrier and disapproving family in order to be together, which helps restore Frances’s hope. That might not sound like conflict, but think of it as challenging the faulty beliefs Frances is holding onto. It becomes much harder for Frances to cling to her old worldview in the face of this evidence.

And to be clear, there’s probably a lot of overlap between the main (foundation) conflict and the internal conflict. Because the external plot events should be designed to force some kind of internal change or transformation. That’s one of the big ways we make stories meaningful.

4. Situational:
And of course you’ll see situational conflict in pretty much every scene. One good example is when Frances sees her new love interest has unexpectedly stopped by the villa. But she’s on some distant hill, watching him through binoculars. He starts to leave. She tries to stop him but can’t get his attention. Frances races down the hill, desperate to make it back to the villa in time, but gets caught up in the bushes and tumbles down the hillside in the process.

Can you see the different types of conflict?

Where is the conflict coming from?” is a great question to ask not only of a story you’re planning, but of a screenplay or movie you’re enjoying. Start noticing the different types of conflict that show up. You’ll see how they’re layered over each other to create varying levels of intensity and ways to engage our emotions. You’ll get more familiar with how conflicts are built — and probably get some ideas for conflicts in your own screenplays.


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.