My parents grew up during the height of film musicals and so our video library was full of classics like The Sound of Music, Singin’ in the Rain, The King and I, and West Side Story. Of all these films, West Side Story was my favorite. It was cool. It had action. It had good guys and bad guys.
The only thing that upset me was how sad the ending was! Tony and Maria want to get out of the ghetto, and they get so close to accomplishing that dream, but then at the end a simple miscommunication dashes all their hopes to pieces.
Every time we watched it I would somehow hope that the ending would change. This time would be the time that Riff and Bernardo decide to keep it a fair fight instead of pulling out their knives. This time the Jets wouldn’t torment Anita until she lies to Tony that Maria is dead. This time Tony would hold on to faith just a little bit longer, rather than running into the night, calling for Chino to gun him down.
But of course, none of those alternate-endings ever played out. The same tragic tale of self-destruction was the same each time. It had to, because that was the whole point of the story. West Side Story without its sad moments would be absent its whole message about the cycle of violence. If the Jets and the Sharks ever make friends with one another, then that’s the end of the movie right there. West Side Story is expertly crafted to make us want peace, but to bring those feelings alive in us it can never have any peace of its own.
The Need for Conflict)
Much has already been written about the need for conflict in a story. Opposition is considered the lifeblood of every narrative, whether based in a villain, or a situation, or even within the protagonist’s personal flaws.
This is represented in a very interesting way with the Star Wars series. Here there is an all-connecting power, the Force, which comes in two distinct flavors: light and dark. It is therefore not strictly a good power, it fuels both the heroes and the villains. In fact, whenever one side grows more powerful than the other the Force seems to surge to the other side, keeping things in balance.
This is a most fascinating construct. It seems to imply that the Force is almost a sentient being, one that wants there to be epic stories, legendary heroes, and diabolical villains. In short, the Force wants what every audience wants as well.
The concept of the force is derived from real-world ancient eastern philosophy, such as the notion of yin-yang, which insists that opposition, good and evil, must live together, and only through their interplay is life able to exist. Even western philosophies have similar ideas, such as in Christianity the pairing of a divine spirit with a carnal body to create a life that is constantly at odds with itself, yet which is able flourish and grow through the conflict.
Many stories have explored the idea of conflict being necessary for happiness. In the Twilight Zone episode A Nice Place to Visit, Henry “Rocky” Valentine finds himself shot to death after a robbery, and wakes up in an afterlife where his every wish is immediately granted. He is amazed that he somehow made his way to heaven, and for a while enjoys getting every break he couldn’t have in life. Money, luck, romance…it all comes effortlessly and on-demand.
After a while Rocky gets sick of life having no edge, though. He wants some risk, some danger. His host says they ought to be able to accommodate that. Things can be arranged so that Rocky will lose a few times at the roulette wheel, or he could be chased by some policemen that he will forever evade. Rocky says that’s no good, he’ll know it’s all a sham. He wants real danger and real stakes. He wants conflict.
Rocky becomes so bored that at the end of the episode he asks to be let out of heaven and to go to the other place instead. At this point his host laughs, and announces that Rocky has been in “the other place” all this while. Rocky’s hell is to live without any opposition.
Make the Conflict Real)
Unfortunately some writers have taken the lesson that “every story needs conflict” too far and made everything into a conflict. The mentor is gruff and doesn’t want to train the new talent, the kids at the school are jerks until the new kid proves his worth to them, the super-secret organization isn’t going to admit the applicant until she gains their trust. Of course, that’s all well and fine so long as your story’s central conflict is actually about reawakening the disillusioned mentor or befriending the kids at school or gaining admission to the secret society.
So it works for Daniel LaRusso to be bullied at his new High School, because The Karate Kid is all about him gaining the power to stand against those miscreants. And it works for there to be tension between Paddy and Tommy in Warrior, because their story is all about how a father makes amends to his son while coaching him. And it works in The Pursuit of Happyness for Chris Gardner to face stiff competition when trying to land a job as a stockbroker, as that story is about the man’s struggle to lift himself out of poverty.
But if these things aren’t what your story is actually about, then don’t shoehorn in meaningless scruples that distract from your main conflict. The 1997 film Men in Black is about James Edwards being welcomed into an intelligence organization that deals with extraterrestrial threats. Thankfully the writers of this film understood that the central conflict is not about James getting into the top-secret organization, but the enemy he must track down after he has done so. So rather than put James through a meaningless uphill battle to even land the job, they have the organization reach out to recruit him all on its own. It lets us skip past any unnecessary drama and get right to the meat of the story.
Applying the Concept)
In my own story I just introduced a new conflict when Nathan Prewitt started to see that the leaders of New Denver weren’t enthused about destroying the nearby giant worm. But they aren’t be contrary for no reason. As the story goes on, their opposition is going to become even more pronounced, and it will be the last and final opposition that Nathan must overcome in his quest to kill the beast.
In short, every story needs conflict, but the conflict needs to actually be meaningful to the heart of the story. Identify what it is your protagonist is really fighting against, and spend your time on that battle, rather than on meaningless periphery battles.