Directing POSTS Screenwriting

Defining Conflict

Conflict is essential to drama, but can be defined in different ways and take many different forms. Conflict can come from external factors, from within a character, or arise from a combination of forces.

  • Person versus person (external conflict)
  • Person versus environment or social institution (external conflict)
  • Person versus a task they are compelled to undertake (internal and external conflict)
  • Person versus themselves, as in someone with conflicting traits or beliefs (internal conflict).

Figure 3-1 “Irish” Micky Ward’s (Mark Wahlberg) boxing opponents are nothing compared to the battles his family puts him through.

In all of these cases conflict can additionally be expressed in stark “right vs. wrong” moral polarities or with more relative and complexly drawn human dimensions. Stories devised on mythic, heroic or moralistic models usually frame conflict with the clear dichotomy of good versus evil. Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (2000), George Lucas’ Star Wars (1977), the Harry Potter films, and most superhero action pictures maintain a very clear moral compass that pits good guys against bad guys. Even many films dealing with more realistic material, such as Steven Soderbergh’s Erin Brockovich (2000), draw distinct lines between those who fight for good against those who embody evil. Erin Brockovich and Gladiator may seem at first glance to be very different films, but in terms of the clear moral struggles at the core of their conflicts they have very much in common. Both films involve a righteous protagonist who is at a serious disadvantage struggling to defeat a powerful and evil entity on behalf of the people. In Gladiator,  Maximus struggles to unseat the ruthless Emperor Commodus and return Rome to the people and their representatives. Maximus must accomplish this noble feat from the impossible position of a hunted former general who is now a slave. Similarly, Erin Brockovich, a paralegal with absolutely no training in the law, is compelled to battle the rich and powerful PG&E, an industrial energy giant she believes is poisoning the groundwater and causing local residents to contract cancer. In both films, against all odds, good defeats evil and the people are saved ( Figure 3-2 ).

Figure 3-2 As energetic, motivated heroes determined to fight for justice, Erin Brockovich ’s titular character ( top, Julia Roberts) and Gladiator ’s Maximus ( bottom, Russell Crowe) share many of the same dramatic qualities. Conflicts can even involve a struggle between opposing forces in which each side has virtuous objectives and good intentions, which makes it “right vs. right”—which is complex and challenging.

Conflicts come fairly easily when you create a world of clear moral polarities, however, as you move away from mythic or heroic dramas, and develop stories about the human struggles of characters who could be your neighbors, the blunt “right vs. wrong” distinction becomes unsupportable. When you develop conflicts that reflect the way real people function, with all their psychological complexities, you need to consider more relativistic ideas about right and wrong. This is where conflict gets really interesting: good people can do misguided or even bad things, and bad people can have sympathetic motives or soft spots. People can undermine themselves and their noble goals or they can display motives and actions that are ambiguous, inconsistent or paradoxical.

As we’ve already discussed, the conflicts in The Fighter are very human and complex. Nobody is completely bad or completely good in relation to Micky’s goal because everyone around Micky wants to help him become a successful fighter. But his family is bitterly divided over who should train him (father and girlfriend in one corner; and mom and Dicky in the other) and how this should be done. While we clearly see how they trap Micky in this tug of war for his future, we also understand the motivations and failings on all sides. We even sympathize with Micky’s crackhead brother Dicky who desperately wants to help, but consistently messes up because his ego and addiction come first. No one in The Fighter is purely good or totally evil. Everyone has some good intentions and many human flaws and yet the conflicts are serious—even potentially disastrous. This makes the conflicts in The Fighter multidimensional and allows the film to truly connect with an audience.

Excerpt from Directing: Film Techniques and Aesthetics, 5th Edition by Michael Rabiger and Mick Hurbis-Cherrier, © 2013. Taylor & Francis Goup, LLC. All rights reserved.

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