Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Establishing and escalating conflict



Every piece of fiction, whether it's a short story, a novel, a film script or a stage play, needs some sort of conflict. Life is all about conflict, and fiction reflects life, albeit in a distorted and microcosmic way.
Conflict involves an element of struggle. For example, your lead character may be an alcoholic. His conflict, or one area of it anyway, is therefore his struggle against his own addictions.
There are many different sorts of conflict:

Physical confrontations, including war, battles, and fights
Internal struggle - as in the example above
Emotional conflict - two conflicting desires, for example lust and guilt
A struggle against the elements - as in the battle to survive in a blizzard
Romantic conflict - he loves her, she hates him. The conflict here would be his battle to win her over.
Political conflict - the battle to win the votes, conflicting ideologies
Intellectual conflict - the struggle to win a court case, or prove a theory
Companion conflict - rivals become buddies (or vice versa)

If there is no conflict in a story, then there essentially is no story. Why would anyone waste time reading a story about nothing happening?

It is important to establish what sort of conflict(s) we are to expect very early in a story. Ideally, the inciting incident (or complication) comes in the first five pages of a film script, or the first, or at most second, chapter of a book. It is this inciting incident that signals what sort of conflict we can expect. This incident is what forces the hero into action.

Simplified, every story is the struggle of the main character, the hero or protagonist, to overcome his or her nemesis (enemy). It is the tale of the hero's journey to acquire the strength, skills, talents or companions he needs to overcome his nemesis.

To make the introduction and escalation of conflict more important, there is usually a time element involved as well - if Frodo doesn't drop the ring in the fire before Sauron conquers Minas Tirith, Middle Earth is doomed.


Using our categories above, we can use the following as examples:

o Achille's battle with Hector (Troy)
o Alex's fight with Dim (A Clockwork Orange)
o Nash's struggle with schizophrenia (A Beautiful Mind)
o Sarah T (Portrait of a Teenage Alcoholic)
o Adultery (lust and guilt) (Desperate Housewives)
o Jealousy - (Othello)
Struggle against elements:
o Cold (To Build a Fire)
o Storm (The Perfect Storm)
Romantic Conflict:
o Love/hate (The Taming of the Shrew)
o Obsessive love (Fatal Attraction)
Political conflict:
o A struggle to maintain ideals (The Candidate)
o Rebellion v oppression (1984)
Intellectual conflict:
o Uncovering the truth (A Few Good Men)
o Discovering the truth again (The Pelican Brief)
Companion conflict:
o Strangers become friends (Lethal Weapon)
o Friends become enemies (High Noon)


We will examine various types of conflict and how they escalate using a simple plot for a film. This is the plot.


A widower, Frank, lives in the house he has occupied for the last twenty years. His wife died three years ago. His children have long since grown up and left home.

Next door lives a woman, Julia, who was divorced two years ago. She has occupied her house for twenty five years. In other words, they have been neighbours for two decades. The two houses are an isolated pair on the top of a steep hill. It was a brake failure three years ago that killed Frank's wife at the bottom of the hill.

Both Frank and Julia are in their mid forties. Frank has lusted after Julia for much of those twenty years, but has never voiced this to her, even when they were both available.

Now she has a new boyfriend, Sam. Frank can occasionally hear them making love through the thin party wall. He can do more than hear them however, because over the years, he has comprehensively bugged the house next door. He watches Julia obsessively - photographing her when she hangs washing on the line, watching her on a monitor when she sleeps, watching her showering, making love. He imagines himself in Sam's place. One night, Sam, also a widower, proposes to Julia. She accepts. Frank looks on disbelieving. They set a date for the marriage - in three months time.

He hates Sam. He begins to plot Sam's death. He engineers brake failure for Sam's car, after extensive research on how to do it and make it look like an accident.

But Frank still doesn't have the nerve to reveal his desire (he calls it love, we would call it lust or obsession) to Julia, even though she is now available again.

He is sitting in a darkened room, watching her on a monitor as she sleeps. Suddenly, she throws back the cover and gets up, walking over to the concealed camera / microphone.

Bending close to the camera she whispers "The back door's unlocked. Come to me, Frank. I want you now." He thinks he is hallucinating, dreaming perhaps. She waits. When he doesn't show up, she speaks again.

"Come to me now. I've waited for you for twenty years. I killed your bitch of a wife - it was no accident. I want you. I've waited for you all these years. Come to me."

The film might end with Frank in tortured indecision - does he go? Does he call the police and play the tape of Julia's words?


Don't use that plot, because I've already written the script. Even as you read this, the script, called "Driven", is looking for a good home.

Now, how many types of conflict are there in this story?

Frank obviously suffers internal conflict: he lusts after Julia but is too afraid of rejection to voice that desire to her. This could also be characterised as romantic conflict. He probably suffers from guilt - bugging her house and watching her in the night would raise guilt in most people's minds. He has another conflict - he wants Sam dead, and decides to kill him in an engineered traffic accident. More guilt; more fear. There is physical conflict in that Frank undertakes a series of actions that will lead to Sam's death. The time element is present - he only has three months.

What about Julia? If she isn't a total psycho (and of course, she might be) she must be feeling guilt. Guilt about killing Fran's wife. Guilt about using Sam to provoke Frank into decisive action. She obviously feels lust and suffers from obsession.
There is really very little here about love - this is the warped version. Lust, desire, murder, and voyeurism - this is a seriously warped couple. They may well go on to be very effective serial killers.

So, how would we introduce some of these examples of conflict?

Start small. Don't reveal too much to the audience yet - whether readers or film-goers.
Frank watches Julia hanging washing next door.

That's it.

Except there is more. He is lurking.

He hangs back, obscured by net curtains, the archetypal peeping tom. He watches her with a vacant expression on his face. Only his eyes seem alive.

This is a nasty guy - a stalker. There is conflict expressed here. The way he hangs back expresses fear, indecision.

Julia wears jeans and a tight, white sweater. She bends over the washing basket. The movement reveals the crack of her bum.

There is a click. Frank photographs her. The camera is expensive, with a long, telephoto lens.

So what is going on here? Frank has obviously spent money to further his obsession. But what is Julia doing? Is she oblivious to her watcher, or is she deliberately teasing him, provoking him.

She turns sideways, putting her hands on her hips, arching her back to relieve the ache. The sweater pulls tight over her breasts. We hear another click and another as Frank takes more photos.

Yes, she is indeed provoking him. What is she up to?

We have just introduced internal conflict and perhaps a battle of wits between watcher and watched. But we started at a low level.


Where do we go from here?

The next escalation would involve Frank looking at his watch - perhaps seven in the morning.

He gets up, padding downstairs barefoot. He goes into a room filled with electronic equipment.

A beat focuses on an old newspaper. The headline revealed states 'Tragic death of wife in auto accident'.

Frank switches on a monitor.

We see the image of Julia showering, turning, running her soapy hands over her body.

Frank's gaze is riveted to the monitor

So, this conflict has escalated. Frank hasn't just spent money on his obsession. He's spent a shitload of money. He has broken the law, bugging his neighbour's house. Again, it is almost as if Julia is deliberately provoking him with her seductive movements. Do people really shower like that?


The next escalation would also involve Frank lying in bed awake.

Frank lies, staring at the ceiling. We can hear the rhythmic creaking of a bed; muffled moans of passion. Frank's face shows anguish.

He gets up, again padding downstairs barefoot. He goes into the electronics room, switching on the monitor and clicking a setting on the PC.

We see the image of the couple next door, making love. The frantic movements are seen reflected in Frank's eyes. Pulling back, we see his expression is stony. The sounds are clearer now. Julia is emitting little cries. We see her facing the hidden camera. We see her body and her face. It is almost as if she is staring directly at the hidden camera.


This time, we hear speech, transmitted into an earpiece.

An outside shot established that Sam and Julia are in a dining room. From outside, we see their lips moving, but cannot hear what they are saying.

A voice over reveals the gist of the speech.

A beat focuses on an earpiece in someone's ear. We pull back to reveal the ear belongs to Frank.

So, Frank indulges his obsession 24 hours a day? Serious stuff.

Sam is proposing to Julia. She accepts. They set a date for the wedding - three months time.

A close up of Fran's face reveals a tear trickling down his face.

He plays the conversation over and over again.

Gradually, his expression changes from grief to fury. He clenches his fist. His lips thin down to a narrow slit.

So, he is not going to take this lying down. He is going to do something. What?


We see Frank staring at a monitor. He is not watching the woman next door. He is looking at a schematic of a brake system. The system is for the make and model of car we have seen parked outside next door's house - Sam's car.

So the conflict has escalated to murder?

We see the stealthy night-time tinkering carried out by Frank on Sam's car.

So Frank is carrying out his plan for murder.

Sam is getting into his car. Julia opens the passenger door. Is she going to get into the car? Frank's face is a mask of fright and confusion. He goes to the front door, ready to run out. He hesitates, dithering.

Making a decision, he opens the door, running out.

Too late! The car is driving away, down the hill. He is going to run after it, but a voice stops him.

"Morning Frank."

It is Julia. She didn't get into the car after all.

We hear a screech of tyres, a crash, the crump of an explosion. Black smoke rises above the trees.

Frank has resolved his conflict with Sam. He has killed him. How will he resolve his conflict with Julia?


Frank sits in a darkened room. He watches Julia, watching her on a monitor as she sleeps.

So, is the situation back to normal?

Suddenly, Julia throws back the cover. She gets up, naked, walking over to the concealed camera / microphone.

Bending close to the camera she whispers "The back door's unlocked. Come to me, Frank. I want you now."

He thinks he is hallucinating, dreaming perhaps. She waits. When he doesn't show up, she speaks again.

"Come to me now. I've waited for you for twenty years. I killed your bitch of a wife - it was no accident. I want you. I've waited for you all these years. I saw you fiddling with Sam's brakes. I've got photographs.

A quick flashback shows Julia standing in a darkened window, photographing Frank. A pan around the room shows that she has hundreds of photographs of Frank in all sorts of situations.

"Come to me," she repeats, but now it is a command.

That is how the situation is resolved - with a dramatic twist.

So we can see how each segment involves little steps, but the steps are cumulative - each is a little worse than the one before. You are drawn into this sick couple's world.

We do not realise until the very end that Julia is as badly besotted with Frank as he is with her. Perhaps even more so.

They have had their little game with each other, but Julia has proved to be the winner, being more deceitful, manipulative, deadly.

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