Essential to writing a dramatic story is creating a high-stakes, layered, and escalating 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 previously defeated by this villain (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 this point, take the literary example of Les Miserables: Jean Valjean wants to help the miserable ones of France, such as Fantine and Cosette, but in 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.
Consider these two examples of female protagonists facing tough dilemmas. In William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice, Sophie had to make a terrible life and death choice. She is sent to Auschwitz death camp with her two small children where the Nazis force the following choice on her: To avoid having both children killed choose which one you want to live. Two years later out of guilt and despair over losing both children, she winds up in a fatal relationship with a manic depressive man who veers between loving her tenderly and abusing her. In the 1969 version of True Grit, written by Marguerite Roberts, heroine Mattie Ross constantly struggles between her desire for justice against her father’s murderer and the conflicting goals of her two allies, Marshal Cogburn and Texas Ranger, La Boeuf, who don’t want a girl on the hunt and have their own agenda of what to do with the murderer.
High-stakes (ie love/loneliness, integrity/corruption, life/death) and complex central conflicts are at the core of stories by celebrated English playwright and screenwriter, Terence Rattigan. What Rattigan does is to drop his characters into hard situations that bring their 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 peace of mind he has found while hiding from her puts John (and Anne) in a terrible conflict. John cannot pursue one value without conflicting deeply with another.
Such high value internal conflicts and soul-wrenching relationships are the seeds from which great writers grow poignantly dramatic stories. In fact, the core of many great stories is the protagonist’s high stakes internal conflict.
Scott McConnell is writer/producer/script consultant in Melbourne and Los Angeles.