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Do You Have to Start With Conflict?

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

Recently when I mentioned that one of the first things I do in the development of a new screenplay idea is to figure out what the main conflict is, a writer responded with this question:

“I’m curious do you always start with the conflict of the story first before outlining it or do you get the idea of the whole story and then find the conflict to drive it?

For me, I see the story first. And sometimes there’s no conflict but there is a transformation of the character similar to Kishotenketsu style Storytelling.”

Sounds like the perfect excuse to talk about one of my favorite subjects. Should you start with conflict? Do you have to?

To conflict or not to conflict

The short answer – speaking only for my own process – is yes, I do always start with the story’s main conflict. And I realize that my background makes me biased. When I talk about film and TV it’s centered around the types of stories that appeal to the market I’m most familiar with. That’s not to invalidate any other types of storytelling, it’s just where my knowledge is rooted.

And when we’re talking about the majority of American movies, the main conflict really IS the movie.

The main conflict is the “who wants what and what’s stopping them,” i.e. Clarice wants to stop serial killer Buffalo Bill, Evelyn wants to stop Jobu Tupaki from destroying the multiverse, Maverick wants to teach the young pilots how to fly the nearly impossible and dangerous mission.

Without a main conflict, you don’t have a movie. It’s the foundation piece that you won’t get very far without.

Yes, you could absolutely start with character and transformation. But then the next step would be to figure out what is the story for that character and transformation, which means figuring out what is the main conflict that will cause that particular character to transform in that specific way.

You’re going to need a lot of conflict

Most movies are built on one main conflict (that creates the “throughline” that we refer to), but that’s not all the conflict contained within the story. There are other conflicts (and obstacles) that are not foundational but add to the story. Smaller conflicts, supporting relationships, internal conflicts, situational obstacles, etc.

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

I’ve never heard of a writer getting a “too much conflict” note, either. But think in terms of layers of conflict. One big, foundational conflict that forms the basis of the story and keeps your screenplay focused, but also a variety of other conflicts that the protagonist has to engage in along the way. Overlapping layers of conflict of different intensities and durations, and that hit at different points on the spectrum from external to internal.

One way to get better at building more conflict into your scripts is to get better at recognizing conflict. If you’d like, start here:

You don’t have to start with conflict…

Every writer should, obviously, write what he or she wants, and use any process that works for that writer. However, it’s a good thing to be aware of the audience you’re writing for, and what their expectations are. You may not have to start with conflict, but in most cases I think you’ll be well served to think about it as early in your process as possible.

Start with a main conflict that can support the whole movie – that’s your sturdy foundation. And then give us layers of conflict that together create a dynamic, entertaining experience.

WRITE SCREENPLAYS THAT GET NOTICED AND OPEN DOORS

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.

Subscribe