The balance of conflict found in a complete and lasting story is not a matter of luck—it’s the result of an intuitive sense of narrative as an analogy to the mind’s problem-solving process.
This is the core conceit of the Dramatica theory of story. One you can find repeated time and time again in animated features, swashbuckling novels, Shakespeare plays, and Academy Award-winning Best Pictures. Character, plot, theme, and genre are not real life—they’re analogies to the motivations, methodologies, evaluations, and purposes found within the human mind.
We just turn them into stories for fun.
As an example, examine the timeless romance of Pretty Woman. While short and sweet and very much to the point, the narrative told reflects an even-handed approach to the various ways our minds sense and perceive conflict.
Conflict exists in both external and internal sources. Both external and internal appear as states or processes.
In Pretty Woman, Vivian Ward (Julia Roberts) is the hooker with a heart of gold. Everyone judges her based on the way she looks, the way she acts, the way she carries herself, and of course—her occupation. Her Situation, or
Universe, is problematic. She’s trapped in this position, falls back on it when push comes to shove, and ultimately finds a way out. And it’s all personal—personal to her and her Main Character Throughline.
Edward Lewis (Richard Gere) is as stubborn as they come. Wealthy, prosperous, and ruthless—he creates conflict because of strict
Mindset. As Influence Character, Edward challenges Vivian not with his occupation or the amount of money he possesses—she couldn’t care less about either of those. It’s his fixed point-of-view, business above all else, that creates the highest potential for conflict.
And this fixed attitude becomes the focal point of the Overall Story Throughline. As with most Beauty and the Beast fairytales, this Overall Story focuses on the transformation of the heartless and withdrawn “beast.” Manipulating this monster and changing his essential nature is the driving force behind this story. It’s not spoken about. It’s not sung about. But once one perceives the narrative as a whole—from beginning to end—one sees the Author’s focus on dysfunctional
Psychology as a source of trouble for all.
This positioning of the Overall Story Throughline and Main Character Throughline in a vertical alignment is the foundation for most, if not all, Coming of Age stories. Here, the maturation rests in the hands of the one challenging the Main Character. Richard is the one who comes of age. And he does so primarily, because of the relationship he develops with Vivian.
When one thinks of Pretty Woman decades after, scenes of shopping on Rodeo Drive come flooding back to mind. Roy Orbison, embarrassed shop owners, and fitting montages define the Relationship Story Throughline between Edward and Vivian. These activities set conflict in the relationship within the Domain of
Physics: shopping, buying, and even possessing—a John owning his trick—that’s at the core of their bond and the driving force behind their interpersonal growth.
As light and straightforward as Pretty Woman is, the narrative that forms its foundation is strong and coherent. The reason for the film’s popularity over the years is not merely Julia Robert’s laugh at having her hand snatched in the cookie jar of expensive jewelry (another instance of Physics conflict in the Relationship Story). The explanation for the film’s endearing success is the soundness of its narrative structure—a perfect balance of conflict as seen within a single human mind trying to solve a problem.