What’s the main conflict of your story? Is it a powerful force that engages the emotions of your reader or does it leave them feeling flat and let down?
THE MAIN CONFLICT is one of those areas where a minor improvement can often make a huge difference in the quality of the read. So it is well worth reconsidering that conflict.
Let’s see if we can make this easy.
First, a definition.
1. Opposition between characters or forces in a work of drama or fiction, especially
opposition that motivates or shapes the action of the plot.
2. A state of disharmony between incompatible or antithetical persons, ideas, or
interests; a clash.
Basically, whatever your main character wants or needs most is opposed by some “incompatible person or interest” and your main character is motivated to action to fight for their goal/need.
In JOHN Q, John’s son needs a heart transplant, but their HMO won’t pay for it. John’s need is to save his son’s life. The opposition is an insurance company with a loop hole.
That is the main conflict.
BTW, I’m not interested in debating the legality or morality of the situation. This is solely about focusing on the conflict of a screenplay.
First, notice how it is already a strong conflict. It has “opposition that motivates or shapes the action of the plot” in that John must take action or watch his son die. Second, notice the stakes — not John’s life, but his son’s life. Third, notice the injustice that sets up “disharmony between incompatible interests,” an insurance company that John has been paying who refuses to cover this important operation.
Finally, I won’t tell you how the movie ends, but in the 2nd Act, John takes a hospital hostage and demands that they do the transplant. They took this to an interesting extreme that was born in the original conflict, but took it to a new level.
WHAT TO DO:
Since your main conflict is so important, you may want to try a variety of different ways to elevate it. Here are a few techniques you could use to turn an average conflict into an amazing one.
A. Raise the stakes.
Increase the value of the conflict. What will be lost if the main character doesn’t succeed? For John, it was his son’s life. Other stakes could include love, money, property, respect, a lifestyle, a person’s honor, family, a dream, a set of beliefs, etc.
Whatever it is, simply brainstorm new levels. A simple football game becomes the champion game. Add some gambling and suddenly, the entire town is on the edge of losing their savings if the team doesn’t win. Want to take it farther? The quarterback is threatened with death if he loses. Etc.
B. Make the opposition more incompatible.
When the antagonist is a group of terrorist, it is usually because the writer is trying to take the opposition to a completely incompatible edge. But you don’t need a terrorist to do that. In fact, someone really close might do a much better job.
From an emotional point of view, it may be that a twin brother who was considered “perfect” by everyone, but had constantly berated and physically abused his brother, might be the best opposition.
In HAPPY GILMORE, Happy was opposed by Shooter McGavin, the top golfer, who was everything that Happy wasn’t. As the media became more interested in Happy, Shooter got more hostile. When Happy actually learned to golf, Shooter hired a crazy guy to harass Happy. Shooters primary focus turned into getting Happy off of the golf tour, any way he could.
Remember, here you are just looking for incompatibility. Who would be the most incompatible with your protagonist? Find that person or group and you have added to your conflict.
C. Have us totally buy into the main character’s goal or need.
This is important. You need to sell us on the value of that goal or need. We need to see/hear/feel the goal/need. In KARATE KID, the new kid in school doesn’t just want to take karate. If that was all it was, most likely, that movie would never have been made.
Instead, the writer has the bully’s girlfriend become interested in Daniel. Then, the bully beats Daniel up in front of the girlfriend. If that isn’t enough, the bully and four friends surround him in a field and begin beating him… until Mr. Miyagi steps in.
By then, we’ve bought into the need for Daniel to learn karate. Notice how we saw the need, heard the need, and felt the need.
D. Try on different extremes.
Even if you’ve done the first three, brainstorm this one, also. Why? Because movies are about extreme situations. But, they don’t all have to be life or death extremes…
John Q took the hospital hostage. Daniel agreed to fight the bully in a karate tournament in front of everyone. Happy Gilmore bet everything on his ability to beat the top golf professional.
You are simply looking for the best extreme that fits your story.
Any one of those four methods can elevate an average conflict to an engaging conflict. But don’t just take my word for it…
Write down your main conflict and see if it is compelling.
If it isn’t compelling by itself, go to work using the four methods above to elevate it. You, and your readers, will be glad you did.
Always good advice!