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Tips on Creating Conflict in Screenwriting

written by: Kumara Velu•edited by: Rhonda Callow•updated: 6/28/2010

Conflict in a screenplay is what makes a gripping story. But then you can't simply throw in conflicts anywhere you like and hope for a riveting screenplay. You must know when to introduce conflict and what kind to use.

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    Suppose a character in the screenplay you are writing wants to become a doctor. He asks his father to finance his studies, enroll in medical college, finish his course, graduate as a doctor and lives a happy life before the story ends. If such a screenplay is turned into a movie, it is guaranteed not to interest even the most patient moviegoer.

    Clearly, what’s missing in your screenplay is conflict. People don’t love conflict in their own lives. However, they love to see others handling it. That could be why people love to go to the movies – they want to see how a character in a movie copes with conflicts that comes his or her way.

    Here are tips for effectively creating conflict when screenwriting.

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    Set Up The Conflict Early

    Set up the conflict as early as possible in the screenplay. In our story above, you don’t have to wait until the character joins medical college and sits for his examinations to set up the conflict.

    You can, for example, have the conflict as early as when he asks his father for financial assistance. When his father refuses to offer financial assistance, we have the first whiff of conflict.

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    Make The Conflict Bigger

    If possible, when screenwriting, don’t offer a resolution to your conflict very early in the story. Have it lead to a bigger conflict.

    In our case here, the character is not going to walk away and forget his dream when his father denies him financial assistance. He’s going to fight for his right to have that financial assistance, because his late mother had left behind savings for him to further his studies. His father wants to use the savings to start a theatre group for senior citizens and he wants the son to help out in his dream project.

    When the son demands for his right, an argument ensues and the father kicks him out of the house. The son ends up in the streets with nowhere to go. Now this is a bigger conflict than when his father refused financial assistance.

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    Make The Conflict Relevant

    The conflict has to be relevant to the plot. Our story here is about a character who has to overcome all odds to become a doctor. Suppose he’s kicked out of the house ends up in the streets.

    In setting up the next conflict, you can’t have him getting mixed up with gangsters in the process of trying to save a millionaire’s daughter from trouble if he going to end up marrying her and living happily ever after.

    The conflict must be related to his dream of becoming a doctor. There would conflict though if the millionaire’s daughter falls in love with him and doesn’t want him to become a doctor. She even has mean-looking guards supervising him to ensure that he doesn’t escape from her mansion.

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    Introduce Internal Conflict

    Thus far we’ve been discussing external conflicts. Most screenplays highlight external conflicts which a character has no control over. Internal conflicts are those taking place within the character which he finds difficult to grapple with. Sometimes internal conflicts are stronger than external conflicts.

    Say our character manages to escape the mansion with the help of a midget maid who also sponsors his medical studies. In his first semester he fails some important papers and now begins to entertain doubts as to whether he has what it takes it to be a doctor. He wonders whether he should just give up his medical studies and return to the millionaire’s daughter. This is an internal conflict he has to contend with.

    The audience would want to know whether he would fight on and complete his medical studies or throw in the towel and return to the possessive millionaire’s daughter. Your screenplay succeeds if they are willing to wait to find out the outcome.