Building Greater Sources of Conflict

Improving stories through greater inequity

Years ago, Dramatica theory co-creator Chris Huntley introduced me to the idea that all meaning is context. His exercise of “People need in order to” unlocked this understanding with practical experience, and I used it to teach both my students at CalArts and my teenage daughter all about the intricacies of great storytelling. I covered the education of the latter in the article, A Method for Generating Conflict. And I even used the technique during one of the classes in my on-going series, Writing with Subtext.

While engaging with a student in the Dramatica Mentorship Program, I unraveled an extrapolation and clarification of the process that I shared in the article, Constructing Sources of Conflict for your Story. Based in part on my development of Dramatica theory through my application Subtext, I extended it beyond mere context observation into the foundational aspects of justification.

All this to say—some of the previous work requires a re-visitation. In particular, examples from the Writing with Subtext class benefit from a rewrite that includes this new appreciation of the psychology behind conflict.

In that class, I create two sources of conflict based on the first exercise:

People need to not feel scared in order to thrive unless comfort and being taken care of is more important.


People need to kill in order to stay alive unless every life is precious.

While good enough to get started, both still lack the clarity present in the new approach. Assumptions mask the underpinnings of conflict and keep hidden techniques more experienced writers take for granted.

When Killing Is Not Enough

This second example is quite close, but still lacks a specific something to give it that extra push:

People need to kill in order to stay alive unless every life is precious.

The conversation in the course considers a lone individual—an animal lover—encountering a vicious tiger in the jungle. A dilemma ensues: kill the tiger and live, or don’t and honor one’s principles, at the cost of one’s life.

A couple of things here. In the video, I assume the idea that “every life is precious” refers to the life of the jungle-cat. Taken at face value, the life of the animal lover is just as precious—resulting in all kinds of contradictions within the construction of the scene. The individual could quickly consider his life more valuable and end the other.

The second is the notion that “people need to kill in order to stay alive.” Is that necessarily true? I’ve been around for a couple of decades, and have yet to see the truth of this statement. In the course of fiction, yes, but in the real world, this statement rings false and insincere.

You fix both matters through justifications.

In the first, you double-down on the idea that every life is precious by writing, “People should honor every living creature as sacred in order to be a good citizen of the world.” Now we know what is at stake if we run counter to this belief. Now we see the basis of the justification and why one might stick with it given the consequences.

The other needs that reference to the original baseline. Staying alive is not enough to convey the imperative of the truth. Instead, write “People can kill another in order to be able to return safely home to their families.” Now we’re cookin’.

Objectively speaking, the family needs the individual to return home. Subjectively, one wants to honor one’s values despite the situation. By casting both as justifications, the writer avoids issues of clarity and contradiction. By making them both relatable through a contextual baseline, the writer also ensures full audience engagement.

Feeling Safe Enough to Create

With these concepts in mind, fixing the first is a cinch:

“People need to feel safe in order to be able to create freely UNLESS people should take risks in order to be known as one of the greats.”

Interesting. While writing the above, I so badly wanted to default to the idea that one needs to take risks to be inspired—but inspiration is not one of the four baselines of Being:

  • Knowledge
  • Thought
  • Ability
  • Desire

Forcing myself to think in one of those four terms turned the rather quaint generality of “being inspired” into something much more tangible—and therefore, more relatable to the audience.

I encourage you to think in these terms when constructing conflict for your stories. In addition to manifesting the narrative drive your audience craves, you also engender a greater understanding of how narrative works throughout the entire structure of your story.