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Essential to writing a dramatic story is creating a high-value, layered, and integrated central conflict. A good central conflict is more than A vs B, such as Batman battling some villain in physical combat to save Gotham City. It should also be (to just imagine 2 examples) that Batman has always been defeated by this villain previously (so is insecure), or that the villain is the woman that Batman loves. Now Batman is in conflict with himself. This adds layers of conflict and complications for our hero. That is, it adds drama. To stress the point, take the real literary example of Les Miserable: Jean Valjean wants to help the miserable ones of France, such as Fantine and Cossette, but doing so he risks revealing himself to Inspector Javert and so being arrested and sent back to the galleys. Valjean’s internal conflict is essential to the drama of Les Miserables, arguably the greatest story ever told.
High-value and complicated central conflicts are the core of stories by celebrated and popular English playwright and screenwriter, Terence Rattigan. What Rattigan does is to drop his characters into hard situations that bring their traits and values into their worst possible conflict. Consider John Malcolm in Separate Tables, who is tormented by desire for his frigid, manipulative former wife, Anne. Part of him desires her, part of him fears and loathes her. The best and worst thing that can happen to John is for Anne to reappear in his life. When she does, his love for her and his fear of losing whatever equilibrium and peace of mind he has found while hiding from her put him and Anne into a terrible conflict. John cannot pursue one value, act on one trait, without conflicting deeply with another. We see part of John want to ravish Anne out of love and the other part want to bash her with loathing and fear. This central conflict forms the basis of their relationship and the soul of their intensely dramatic story.
Or consider Andrew Crocker-Harris’s situation in Rattigan’s play/film The Browning Version. As a retiring, failed teacher, it is Andrew’s last day of term and his last chance for redemption. Rattigan drops this terribly hurt and frozen man into purgatory: Armed only with his sense of ethics, Andrew must face the truth of his malicious wife, his failed teaching career, his traitorous school colleagues and an innocent student he may have hurt. If Andrew does not face them and himself, then his very soul and physical life are at risk. He literally has to choose between life and death. Such high value internal conflicts and soul-wrenching relationships are the seeds from which Rattigan grows his poignantly dramatic stories. In fact, the core of many great stories is the protagonist’s high value internal conflict.
Scott A. McConnell is writer/producer/interviewer/script consultant in Los Angeles and Melbourne, Australia.
One of Scott’s specialties as a story consultant is to help writers during the early story construction stage to create layered characters and a multi-level, integrated central conflict. He believes that structure is the logical development of the ideas and conflicts of the central conflict.
Scott has been a story analyst for Nu Image, The Samuel Goldwyn Company, Hallmark, New World Television, Sundance Institute, and Concorde-New Horizons, among others. A member of the Producers Guild of America, Scott has produced on shows for Nat Geo, Animal Planet/Discovery, TruTV, Spike and Fox. His credits include supervising producer (writer/producer/director) on ‘Live Life and Win!’ and co-writing the reality series ‘Hollywood Boot Camp’. His reviews, film/play analysis and articles on screenwriting have been published in America, Australia, and England and can be read here: https://www.linkedin.com/in/scottamcconnell/
Scott’s interviewees include: Raquel Welch, Mike Wallace, Patricia Neal, Ray Bradbury, Patti Page, Budd Schulberg, Ian Gillan, Julius Shulman, Mickey Spillane, Henry Crawford, John Gay, and Liz Phair.