A Story Is About What Goes Wrong


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.

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

A story isn’t about what goes right, but about what goes wrong.

You my have heard something along those lines before. And if we accept that as true, then we’d be smart to think about how “something going wrong” could be baked into the story at the foundation level.

What I’m really getting at here is the main conflict in the story. There’s one big goal that can’t be immediately achieved and something getting in the way, causing that to happen. The main thing that’s getting in the way is the basic story element we’re exploring today: the antagonist or main force of opposition.

What is the 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.

In the first two installments of this series we talked about the protagonist and the story goal. Those together make up 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.

When it comes to conflict, where might screenwriters go wrong?

As straightforward as that might seem, stories are unique and each one brings its own special challenges. Sometimes that affects these basic components of the story, and if we don’t take the time to straighten them out up front we end up with lopsided or weak stories. No judgment here, just an opportunity to evaluate how your own story stacks up.

The most obvious issue you might run into is designing a story that doesn’t actually have a main conflict or force of opposition.

But that’s not always an opposition problem. Sometimes “no main conflict” is a result of no goal and/or no protagonist. In this case there may even be an antagonist character, but because we don’t know either who the protagonist is, or what the protagonist wants, or if he wants anything at all, we don’t have the context to understand what might be stopping him from getting it.

See? You need ALL of the parts present and in working order if you want the story to run.

So if it feels like there’s a problem with the main conflict, it’s important to look at all of the components that make up that main conflict and see which component might be the weak link.

But if the protagonist and story goal are in place, then the other version of this problem that writers run into is not being able to identify who or what the antagonist or main force of opposition is. Actually, it’s only a problem if the writer ignores this unique challenge of their script and proceeds without addressing it.

If the story contains no opposition (or the opposition is weak) then the audience will likely get bored because everything is just so darn easy for the protagonist. (Remember, the story isn’t about what goes right, it’s about what goes wrong, when things get hard.)

But sometimes the writer may know that there are things getting in the protagonist’s way, but they aren’t sure which one — if any — could be considered the main antagonist or opposition. In this case, is it really a problem? It depends.

Ultimately, if your story has enough conflict altogether, it’s not an absolute-must-do rule that you have to have one main antagonist. The whole point and the bottom line of everything we do is holding the audience’s interest. Keeping them engaged in the story.

So if your story doesn’t have one obvious main antagonist or force of opposition, it’s not that your story is broken or faulty or can’t work, it’s just a particular challenge you’ll need to find a solution to in order to effectively tell this story.

A couple of options come to mind:

  1. Invent / choose / promote an antagonist. Especially if you’re learning the craft, a more clear, concrete conflict at the core of your story will make it easier to write so you might just want to make sure you have that to begin with, even if it requires some invention.

    If you’re dealing with an opposing institution, for example, you can put a face on the thing or the group by inventing one antagonist character to represent them. If you have a couple of rivals or competitors, maybe you can elevate one to become the main antagonist in the story.

  2. Think about what the main conflict is in a big picture, high-level view and what the opposing force could be made up of, and then work to make sure you have enough conflict altogether to sustain the story.

    For example, say my story is about a guy who’s stranded in a remote woods as the weather turns bad, and I have all these different ideas for things he encounters — first he loses his supplies, and then his partner dies, and then it’s something else — but I’m struggling to identify what the main antagonist is.

    I might reframe that in my own mind as “guy vs. snowstorm” to help me wrap my brain around it as I’m developing the story. I’d then try to make sure that the opposition and conflicts I use in the story fit under that umbrella, feel like they’re connected or cohesive in some big-picture way, and all together feel strong and consistent enough to keep us interested throughout the story.

    And — importantly — I would make sure to structure the story around this as the main conflict so that the story feels right to the audience.

Setting up the main conflict in Panic Room, by David Koepp

The original point of this series was to look at how these basic foundations of a story can be effectively conveyed on the page, since that’s one of the places where the writing process can break down. So let’s take a look at Panic Room — the February 8, 2001 draft.

*A quick note: the draft of the script I’m including here has gone through some revisions, but don’t let the pagination and colors throw you off. I wanted you to be able to see how the action is described on the page, but you could watch the movie to see the things we’re discussing here if that’s easier for you.

In Panic Room, our protagonist is newly divorced single mom Meg.

(Don’t forget to practice what we discussed in the protagonist article in this series! Think about: how do we know Meg is the protagonist?)

At the beginning of Act 1 we meet Meg, see her relationship with her young daughter, and see that they are moving into a new place, post-divorce.

By the end of Act 1 we know the main conflict is Meg vs. the Bad Guys and her goal is to protect herself and her daughter from these home invaders.

But how did we get there? How was the main force of opposition and/or the main conflict established? What context do we need in order to understand the nature of the opposition and/or the main conflict?

Here’s what we see:

  • After meeting Meg and establishing the new house, it’s mom and daughter’s first night there, when – surprise! Three bad guys arrive (pg 16), intending to steal something they know is in the house.
  • They’re not just opportunistic robbers. We know because we see them try multiple ways of getting in before they make it, they’ve come prepared with tools, and they know their way around once inside (even have the alarm code!) (pg 17-18).
  • The bad guys weren’t expecting anyone to be home, but whatever they came to steal is too valuable – they’re not walking away now. They decide to try to carry out their plan despite the people asleep in the house. (pg 24)

So we’ve established the three bad guys. But if Meg hasn’t established her story goal yet, how do we know they’re the opposition? And when do we know it?

Let’s talk for a second about types of opposition and main conflict

You might remember this article about the 4 types of main conflict.

I would put Panic Room into category #4: the protagonist and antagonist(s) want different things that conflict with each other.

When Meg realizes the bad guys are in the house, she doesn’t know exactly what they want but she knows it isn’t good. Her top priority is protecting her daughter from them, no matter what they’re there for.

Unfortunately, the bad guys want their loot. If they could get in and out without her knowing, they would. But because of what we see next, we know their goals are in conflict:

  • The bad guys sneak through the house. Meg – awake for a middle-of-the-night bathroom break – catches a glimpse of them on the security monitor. There’s a tense moment when they think she knows but aren’t yet sure…
  • And then Meg takes off running toward her daughter’s room (pg 27), launching us into the Act 2 Adventure. Both sides know who they’re up against, even if there’s still a lot to learn about each other.

    The bad guys are armed (pg 23) and likely dangerous, and they aren’t going to give up easily, and now Meg’s in their way. They want their loot, but they’ll go through her to get it. And we know Meg loves her daughter “so much it’s disgusting*,” so she’s going to do everything she can to protect her and keep her safe, which now means dealing with these three bad guys.

    (*That’s a line from the movie, but there’s something similar in the script.)

So in this case, we establish what the antagonists want (their story goal) first, then – when the protagonist becomes aware of it – she establishes her story goal in reaction to it.

That may sound incredibly obvious but I’m spelling it out because:

  1. That was the point of the series, and
  2. I hope it’s helpful to you to examine how all of the pieces of the puzzle are placed. There isn’t one right or only way to lay down a story; we always have to figure out what’s right for the story at hand.

Panic Room is actually a little more complex than it looks at first glance. But Koepp and Fincher convey the information we need to understand the story – the context – so elegantly that it seems simple.

So that’s how the main conflict is established (Act 1), and then of course from here the two sides that are in opposition must continue to engage as they each pursue their story goal. The conflict escalates and intensifies as the story continues. Some of that escalation comes from the opposition increasing, but some of it comes from…

You guessed it — raising the stakes! And that’s the final foundation piece, which we’ll talk about next week and see if we can identify how stakes actually show up on the page. (I think this one will be particularly useful to you because I get a lot of questions about story stakes.)


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.