The Path of Most Resistance

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THE IMPORTANCE OF CONFLICT

In the world at large the idea of peace on Earth is a noble, if seemingly unattainable, goal. But in the world of drama, it’s death– because the essence of “drama”, (and by that I mean both drama and comedy), is conflict.

If there are no obstacles, if there is nothing for your hero to have to overcome, and no one to oppose him, then there really isn’t much of a story. “John climbed Everest. It was so much easier than he expected.  Everything went according to plan, he breezed to the top and came safely back down. The End.” Again, great news for John in real life,  not so good for him if he’s a character on the page or screen. Because if there is no conflict or struggle not only is there little incident, more importantly, your hero is given little reason to improve or to change over the course of the story.

There’s a saying, ‘Kites rise highest against the wind.” “Easy” is not why we go to movies. I often tell my students that they have to be willing to torment their characters, which sometimes can be hard to do. But it’s essential, if for no other reason than to make your hero really prove how badly he wants something. Think of Scarlett, or Rocky, or Bond, or any hero for that matter, even in franchise movies. Especially in the case of franchises we, of course, all know going in that the hero is ultimately going to triumph. What we plunk down our $12 for is to see how he does it; how tough it gets along the way; how resourceful, strong, courageous, determined, how self-actualized the lead is forced to become in order to overcome the obstacles in his path and achieve his goal.

For what it’s worth, I believe that therein lies one of the prime reasons humans are drawn to stories: we get to vicariously experience what is to overcome, and thereby feel, (consciously or unconsciously), that we, too, can overcome whatever challenges and struggles we’re facing in our own lives. Regardless, if everything is a relative snap, there’s little drama for us to relate to or invest in, no pulling of the heartstrings or suspense, no reason for us to feel moved emotionally, or most importantly, to care.

So, if you story seems to lack impact, or your lead sympathy, take a look at the obstacles, both internal and external, that you’ve put in their path on the road to their goal and make sure they’re formidable enough. Make sure that they’re made to struggle and thus somehow forced to change and grow in order to be able to rise to the occasion, to overcome whatever is holding them back and thus achieve their goal and take the reins of their life. The more the odds are stacked against them, and the harder they are made to fight– yet still manage to refuse to give up– the more we’ll care.

2 Comments

  1. Do you think the origin of storytelling is the need for pep talks? Just the knowledge that life can be very hard, but we have the need to keep driving ahead toward a goal? Because it seems our species is hard-wired to fight and struggle. I once watched a speaker — a scientist who studied the brain or something — say we are born hard-wired for a harsh world. So maybe we’re CHARGED by stories that include lots of conflict, they get us revved up and kind of high, and after watching, say, a good conflict-filled movie, we feel a bit washed clean and inspired. Interesting stuff, this matter of our craving for conflict…

  2. Very interesting. Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I studied cultural anthropology in college and remember hearing that we were as hard-wired for cooperation as for conflict. In fact, that it was our ability to cooperate and work together that enabled us to evolve. Speaking for myself, I really don’t enjoy watching physical “conflict”, people beating up on one another, and don’t consider it at all entertaining. But what I do enjoy and find satisfying is watching a character rise to the occasion and overcome whatever is holding them back. To me that is heartening. And in order to do that they have to be confronted with obstacles — as we all are all the time in life. I also believe that phrase, “You should always strive to be kind, because everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”, is true. Everyone has their struggles, we’re all mortal and all suffer the slings and arrows, even the most fortunate among us, so I think we can all relate. In a sense, I think we’re all sort of the underdog.

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