How to Get More Conflict Into Your Screenplay


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As Seen On
by Naomi Write + Co. in screenwriting

We always talk about the need for conflict in your screenplay. But if this seems like one of those concepts that makes absolute sense in theory and yet you feel like you’re not quite nailing it in your scripts, then today’s post is for you.

(And even if you don’t struggle to get enough conflict in your screenplays, I hope you’ll read on and pick up a new trick or two anyway.)

Our case study today is School of Rock, which is interesting to look at as an example because:

a) It’s a movie that works. Whether you’re a fan of Jack Black or of this type of silly comedy or not, I don’t think you can deny that the story is solidly constructed. There’s tension and urgency in what the protagonist is doing, even though the movie is light, goofy fun.

b) And it’s a movie that doesn’t seem like it should work as well as it does.

Let me explain…

Here’s why School of Rock doesn’t seem like it should work

One of the things we examine when deciding if an idea will work as a feature film (and might be worth writing) is how strong the main conflict is, and we usually think of that as protagonist vs. antagonist. Pretty straightforward, right?

But if we just looked at that aspect of it, School of Rock might not make the cut. In the movie, we see Dewey Finn – wannabe rock star – pretending to be a substitute grade school teacher so he can use the kids in the Battle of the Bands contest.

Who’s the antagonist in that scenario, i.e. the main thing creating opposition to the goal? Really, it works out to be the school principal. On a story level, she is the main force of opposition. As in, the main thing that could stop Dewey Finn from achieving his goal.

This is the basic conflict that forms the foundation of the story. It falls into category #4 in this article about the different ways the main conflict can be constructed:

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

In the School of Rock example, this main conflict might be hard to identify precisely because the antagonist isn’t deliberately trying to oppose the protagonist. She’s just trying to run her school. She isn’t even aware that she is keeping him from his goal (or that he has this story goal at all). And yet, it is the main force of opposition.

On its face that main conflict seems sort of weak, doesn’t it? So why does it work?

Here’s why School of Rock works anyway

You might think School of Rock makes for a bad example in this case, but I actually think it’s fun to look at stories or movies that don’t seem like they should work but undeniably do.

To me, this reinforces the idea that every story is unique. Just because an idea doesn’t fit certain parameters doesn’t mean it can’t work – it just means you’ll have to take on the creative challenge of finding the best way to make it work.

The first thing we should note is that the main conflict in School of Rock is also informed by the difficulty of the task itself. Dewey has to maintain the cover of being a teacher (something he knows nothing about) while he secretly trains the kids in rock music, and does it all right under their noses. We understand that’s no easy feat and Dewey already has his work cut out for him by the time you add the main force of antagonism — the principal — into the mix.

So really, when evaluating the strength of the main conflict, you might think of it as: protagonist’s pursuit of his goal vs. antagonist’s pursuit of her goal.

How difficult each of those things are to do, what the characters must do in order to achieve them, and how badly they each want their opposing goals all factor into how strong the main conflict is.

Layers of conflict

But the direct “protagonist vs. antagonist” conflict itself isn’t the only source of conflict available to use in your screenplay. And, in fact, most stories need layers of conflict to maintain the tension and urgency throughout the story. (Something we talk about in Week 3 of Finish Your Screenplay – shameless plug!)

The protagonist-antagonist conflict is important, of course. Usually it is the main, overarching source of resistance/opposition. And it has to be believable in the context of the story. Otherwise the audience will think, “Why doesn’t the protagonist just do xx?” (To get around that main obstacle.)

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

This is where School of Rock is a great example because it creates enough conflict collectively from all of the sources to sustain the screenplay. Without enough conflict the story would drag and feel like it was going on too long. We’d get bored. The fact that this doesn’t happen means we’re entertained all the way through, and that comes at least in part from the amount of conflict.

Where does the other conflict come from?

So we know the main conflict is important but there are other types too! And we need them, especially if the main conflict doesn’t provide constant, urgent conflict. Really, most screenplays need layers of conflict to maintain the tension, to diversify so we don’t get fatigued, to escalate and compound the intensity, and to create meaning.

Other sources of conflict you might utilize in your screenplay include:

In particular, School of Rock shows us just how much conflict from supporting characters can benefit a story.

This type of conflict comes from characters who aren’t working in opposition to the protagonist’s goal, but they are creating conflict along the way. Maybe they have different methods or strategies, maybe they have a personal agenda that creates conflict, etc.

In our School of Rock example, the group of kids Dewey works with aren’t trying to stop him in any way, but they create additional conflicts for him to navigate. Some are resolved within a scene, some carry out over several scenes. (Layers!) These “lesser” or lower-grade conflicts help entertain us even while the antagonist (the main conflict) is off screen or hasn’t been activated.

As we get into Act 2 here are some of the conflicts we see from supporting characters:

Lawrence tries to back out of the rock band, telling Dewey he’s not cool enough to be in it. Dewey must convince him to continue.

Dewey assigns band roles, but in the next scene Summer pushes back on being relegated to “groupie.” She threatens to tell her mom, and Dewey makes her the band manager to keep his plan on track.

Dewey learns the kids don’t actually know any rock music, or anything about it, so he adds Rock History to their new “curriculum.” This is part of an ongoing process of teaching them not just to play the notes, but to embody rock music. To live it. To love it as much as Dewey does. It’s a process that provides conflict and entertainment over several scenes in Act 2.

And so on. Dewey deals with the kids as a group (trying to get them to go along while also keeping their new “class project” a secret), and individually (helping them overcome individual problems or hurdles which create obstacles as Dewey tries to achieve his story goal).

The value of stakes

One more thing I want to point out about the School of Rock example, is how well it shows us that stakes can amplify a conflict. Essentially, strong and meaningful stakes can make the conflict feel more intense even if the conflict itself might be kind of weak on its own. Strong, meaningful stakes can also help make a conflict feel like it’s escalating – getting more intense – even if it’s not actually getting stronger or bigger.

In School of Rock, the stakes help make the main conflict feel stronger than it is on its own. Here’s how it plays out:

By the time we get to the break into Act 2, we know Dewey needs rent money or he’ll get kicked out and probably ruin his friendship with best buddy Ned. Dewey has his heart set on winning Battle of the Bands for the prize money, but also for the validation. He’s just been kicked out of his own band so if he can win Battle of the Bands it will also prove that he’s a legit rock musician. And it’ll make his old band regret booting him – icing on the cake.

So there’s both external stuff and internal stuff on the line, and all of this together helps us care enough to go along on the ride with Dewey.

But about a quarter of the way into Act 2 we see this lovely new type of stakes introduced: Dewey sees that one of the kids is getting bullied by his father. It’s not reportable abuse, certainly, but dad talks to the kid in a demeaning way, doesn’t support and nurture him, and generally makes him feel bad about himself.

Dewey knows what that feels like. But Dewey also knows that “rock is about stickin’ it to the man!” So now there’s something new on the line: if Dewey can teach the kids to really embrace the rock ethos, he’ll be helping them stick up for themselves.

These are important emotional stakes that help us get even more invested in the story. They make us care more about the main conflict and whether or not Dewey achieves his goal – which now includes the kids and how they’ll benefit from it too.

Where is the conflict coming from?

Whether or not School of Rock is an example that you enjoy, I hope you’ll take inspiration (and a tip or two) from this exercise. You can learn a ton about how to build more conflict into your own screenplay by really examining where the conflict is coming from in a movie that works for you (entertains you, doesn’t bore you, makes you feel something).

If you want to try it for yourself, take your own case study movie and break it down scene by scene. Then look at each scene on its own and try to identify how the protagonist is taking action toward his goal, and where the conflict is coming from. if it’s easier, think of it as “what’s making it hard for him to achieve his goal in this scene?”

And if you’re so inclined, let me know what layers of conflict you find!


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.