What if Bruce Wayne and his parents went to the opera one night and... had a wonderful, safe night?
What if Elizabeth Bennet met Mr. Darcy... and he was perfectly pleasant and she liked him right away?
Or if Cinderella's step mother was... awesome?
You’d be bored. And these wouldn’t be good stories. They’d just be some things that, well, happened.
Conflict is at the very center storytelling. Without conflict, there is no narrative, no tension, and no need for resolution. And there will be no satisfying ending. Conflict is the key ingredient to any story. And for a story to be compelling, that conflict must matter. Batman’s parents had to die. Elizabeth Bennet needed to not like Mr. Darcy. And Cinderella is not Cinderella without a wicked step-mother. If the hero of a story does not have an antagonist, an impossible challenge, or a deep-seated conflict, there is really no story to tell.
What is ‘conflict’?
Conflict is one of those universal human experiences that is so familiar it almost defies definition. Not only do we all know what it’s like to experience conflict, those experiences are visceral and instinctual. Whether it’s because of circumstances, principles, or simply personalities we usually don’t choose our conflicts. Usually.
So when it comes to conflict in stories—those we consume and those we create—we know it when we see it, even if we can’t explain it. And yet, becoming a better storyteller or learning to appreciate narrative art more deeply requires us to not only explain conflict, but to understand it on a deeper level.
Let’s look at When Harry Met Sally. It’s not only a great romantic comedy, it also gives us an example of how conflict works on multiple levels to drive a story forward.
The events of the plot unveil the external conflict. Harry and Sally meet through a mutual acquaintance and drive from their Midwestern college to New York City after graduation. They randomly run into each other over the years in New York, and a friendship is slowly born. They try to be simply friends, but their mutual attraction is plainly visible. Over the course of their relationship they go through cycles of getting along and fighting. None of these fights center on the actual question the viewer knows is at the center: do they belong together?
And that is the emotional, or inner conflict of our two leads. They are clearly drawn to the other but cannot bring themselves to say it. There is a strong pull towards the other person that they do not want to give into. Each character is conflicted within themselves.
But what is driving this inner conflict? They are friends, and want to be friends. But there is an undeniable pull towards romance. Helpfully, the movie tells us why early on. During that initial road trip Harry tells Sally, “men and women can’t be friends,” because “the sex part gets in the way.” This is the movie’s thesis, its main argument. And of course Sally disagrees, vehemently. This disagreement is the first sign of conflict, and sets the stage for the intellectual conflict, or the conflict of ideas. Harry thinks that sex and attraction are too powerful for men and women to overcome in a real friendship, and Sally doesn’t. This conflict lies under the other two. And when tit is resolved the damn bursts, they kiss at the New Year’s Party, and they end up together.
These three layers of conflict are typical of what you see in narrative art. They are by no means the only layers of conflict that exist in this story or others. There are many other theories of conflict, and many more ways to slice this pie. But the point is not to have a particular model of conflict for every story, but to see the dimensions of conflict in a story.
Layered conflicts like this exists in good stories because it’s true to life. As human beings, our minds are designed to think, our hearts to feel, and our hands to act. A conflict that exists in our minds or hearts will manifest in the actions of our hands. Good stories reflect life, so we should not be surprised when we see something of our experiences in them.
Conflict drives the story forward
Without Harry’s statement—and genuine belief—that men and women can’t be friends, there is no real story in When Harry Met Sally. The plot would simply not go anywhere.
When considering a great story, an understanding of how conflicts shape the narrative will help you see what the artist wants to say. In seeing the conflict clearly—and understanding its implications—you can start to unlock the meaning of the work. But if the conflicts are not conveyed clearly, both the simple plot and the meaning of it will be obscured.
Conflict lies at the heart of every good story. It’s essential to capturing reality, even in the most unreal settings and environments. Without conflict there is no story.