4 Types of Main Conflict You Can Build Your Screenplay On


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

Sometimes the basics aren’t as simple as they seem.

I know that’s true because even after all the time I’ve spent writing, reading, and developing screenplays, I still discover new things about the most basic of screenplay elements.

And I know it’s true because the vast majority of notes given on screenplays are rooted in the foundational elements. (If screenwriting was easy we’d all get it right on the first try!)

The basics are basics because they’re essential… not necessarily because they’re simple.

So I guess we’ll just keep digging deeper, peeling back the onion, and any other metaphor I can think of. 😆 All in our search for understanding, and with the aim of building out the most useful frameworks we can. Ready?

This week let’s take a closer look at a screenplay’s main conflict. Specifically, the different ways the main conflict can work.

It’s something I don’t think I’ve seen discussed much (if at all), and it just might help you crack your next screenplay.

What is a “main conflict”?

All movies have multiple conflicts, but the main conflict is the basis of the story. It’s the thing the entire screenplay is built on, and creates the throughline or spine that everything else hangs off of.

When you describe your story as “someone wants something and goes after it against strong opposition,” you’re describing the main conflict.

We talk a lot about defining the protagonist and the story goal. That’s the “someone wants something” part of the equation.

But conflict is created by opposing forces. Your protagonist pursuing a goal is one side. The antagonist pursuing a conflicting goal is the other. The antagonist’s side of things gives us the rest of the equation, the “…against strong opposition” part.

Sounds simple, right?

What we tend to skip over is looking at how the opposing forces interact. Meaning, how they create that all-important conflict.

There’s more than one way — I thought of 4 — and getting familiar with the differences between them can help you understand more precisely how your (or any) screenplay works.

4 types of main conflict

The main force of opposition often shows up as an antagonist character, but it doesn’t have to. For simplicity, I’ll use the term antagonist here but just know — whatever form it takes, we’re simply talking about the primary force of opposition that is (usually deliberately) getting in the way of your protagonist achieving the story goal.

Just as the protagonist pursues a goal, so does the antagonist. The antagonist’s pursuit of a goal creates the opposing force that creates the story’s main conflict.

But not all main conflicts are constructed alike.

There are (at least) four different ways that opposing forces can interact to create conflict:

#1 The protagonist’s goal can be to prevent the antagonist from achieving his/her/its goal.

For example, in Bridesmaids, protagonist Annie is Lillian’s best friend and maid of honor. Antagonist Helen wants to take over both of those positions. Once Annie is aware of this, it’s her goal to defend her position and stop Helen from taking over.

Another example is The Silence of the Lambs. Protagonist Clarice Starling wants to stop antagonist Buffalo Bill from killing women to make his skin suit.

The Ring and My Best Friend’s Wedding also land in this category.

(Just a guess, but this might be the most common type of main conflict.)

#2 The antagonist’s goal can be to prevent the protagonist from achieving his goal.

For example, in The Babysitter, protagonist Cole wants to see what his babysitter (the antagonist) is up to, then to escape once he learns she and her friends are killers who perform satanic rituals. The babysitter wants to stop Cole at every step.

About A Boy also fits into this type of conflict. Protagonist Will wants to maintain an attachment-free lifestyle, but antagonist Marcus comes on the scene and drags Will into relationshipland.

#3 The protagonist and antagonist can both want the same goal, but only one can have it.

The movie Warrior falls into this category: estranged brothers both want to win the MMA title. Only one character can succeed.

(Even though neither of them feels like a bad guy or villain, function-wise they represent the forces of opposition for each other and so they are essentially each others’ antagonist.)

#4 The antagonist’s goal can be something separate from, but in conflict with, the protagonist’s goal.

For example, in Die Hard the protagonist John McClane wants to save the hostages from the terrorists. Meanwhile, antagonist and head terrorist Hans Gruber wants to rob the vault in the Nakatomi building, and he’s taken the hostages as part of his plan to do so.

If John McClane saves the hostages, Hans’s plan to rob the vault will fail. If Hans succeeds, all of the hostages will die as part of his master plan. The pursuit of their goals makes the protagonist and antagonist the primary force of opposition for each other, even if their goals don’t look mutually exclusive on their face.

Additional examples include Finding Dory, The Perfect Storm, and stories with similarly environmental or other non-sentient antagonists that are in the way of the protagonist trying to achieve their goal. The “antagonists” in these stories are just being or doing their natural thing, not necessarily trying to deliberately prevent what the protagonist is trying to achieve. But the antagonists’ existence presents the main force of opposition in the protagonist’s pursuit of his goal.

Seeing life from the antagonist’s side

Since we need that opposing force in order to create conflict, we should think about constructing the antagonist’s side of things to be able to go head to head with the protagonist’s. In other words, we need to make that antagonist as active and motivated as we’re constantly trying to make our protagonists.

If the antagonist is unmotivated or inactive, they won’t provide enough conflict to keep the story going. The protagonist will achieve their story goal quickly, and the movie will be over.

But unlike the protagonist, the antagonist’s goal isn’t on a standardized (okay, call it formulaic if you want) timeline. That’s because the movie is the protagonist’s story. Their goal creates the timeline of the movie. The goal is established in Act 1, pursued in Act 2, and resolved in Act 3. That’s the basic framework for a screenplay.

The antagonist’s goal, on the other hand, can exist before the start of the movie, be a reaction to learning of the protagonist’s presence or goal, or it might even line up with the protagonist’s timeline. It depends on the story, and is informed by the nature of the interaction (i.e. the four types we talked about above).

Understanding this aspect of your story can help you figure out where, when, and how to introduce your antagonist and establish who wants what, when.

Your screenplay’s antagonist or main force of opposition

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

Conflict in a screenplay can occur on many levels but here we’re talking about the main source of conflict, at the story level.

The idea of the main conflict might sound so simple that it’s tempting to gloss over. But thinking about whether or how the opposing forces are actually in conflict can help you build a stronger story, and make plotting the screenplay easier (especially the context/setup part of the story, aka Act 1).

My challenge to you:

Think about the main conflict in your own screenplays. Can you identify what type of conflict you’ve built?

Look at movies and screenplays and try to identify what kind of main conflict they’re working with. Do you notice any patterns? Are there any that don’t fit into these three types? Do they work, or not?

And if you’re working on a screenplay now, you might find these questions useful as part of your story development process:

  • What’s the main conflict in your story? If it’s easier, think about what the protagonist’s goal is, and then identify who or what is the main thing that’s stopping her from achieving it.
  • If you’re still unsure about the story’s antagonist, think about the protagonist’s goal, and then brainstorm other goals that would be in opposition.

And you can brainstorm from the four types:

  1. Who might be trying to achieve something that the protagonist needs or wants to stop?
  2. Or, conversely, who might want to stop the protagonist from achieving his/her goal?
  3. Who might want to achieve the same goal as the protagonist, which only one of them can achieve?
  4. What other goals would put another character in your protagonist’s way? Or are there any non-character forces that could serve as the main force of opposition just by their existence?


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.