Art of Dramatic Writing, Part 3: Conflict and Unity

Dramatic Writing 3

Now that we’ve discussed Egri’s take on the pivotal characters in a script, let’s look at how the protagonist and antagonist work in concert to create the dramatic structure that is your script.


There is a saying, “There is no action unless there is a need; and there is no need until there is a crisis.”

According to Egri, “A play is a crisis from beginning to end.”

It demands well-defined and uncompromising characters in opposition, moving from one position to another through conflict.  These forces can be groups or individuals.

Transition: The Movement of the Story

A story is about change.  For a story to be compelling, there must be some change in either the characters, the situation or both.  The changes happen incrementally and in large movements.

In every big movement, there are smaller movements.

In the change from beginning to end of a play, from one pole to its opposite, there are smaller micro-changes along the way.  As the writer, you orchestrate each characters’ micro-changes  with each step in the character’s overall change.

These changes are what writers refer to as beats.

When you have two well-defined, uncompromising characters in conflict, the change becomes inevitable.  One of the two must change or the story will never end.

This struggle — this conflict between the two — must be inherent in their actions and presented through their dialogue.

The Unity of Opposites

The “Unity of Opposites” is when the wants & needs of two characters are mutually exclusive.  There is no compromise to be found between what these characters want.

A clear example is Harry Potter and Voldemort.  The two cannot exist in the same universe.  Thus, by the end of the saga, one or both of the characters are ultimately forced to change.

This unity of opposites must be so strong that the deadlock can only be broken when one of the characters is utterly fundamentally, emotionally or physically, changed at the end.

Conflict — Cause and Effect

There is no action under the sun which is the origin and result in one.

Remember the hurricane we talked about in “Part #1″…?  Everything results from something else.  Action cannot come of itself.  It is always the result of previous factors.

Conflict is created by the environmental conditions, social pressures and individual needs diverging from one another.  Each demands a response that forces something to give.  More of than not, the first to give, to change and seek a new stasis, is the individual.

Before a character takes action, these forces affect the character until s/he is forced to act to alleviate the external and internal pressures the character feels.

All major conflicts in a play are the result of the “micro-conflicts.”   These “micro-conflicts” are the transitional steps that lead the character from one state of mind to another; resulting in the character making a decision and taking action.

Each transition causes a character to act, forcing the opposing character to act.

Each action leads the character to the major conflict at the end of the play (the climax).

When characters are equally matched, the process of conflict goes from micro-conflicts to major conflicts.  This is steady, rising action.

The conflict starts small, then becomes increasingly serious until it reaches a crises which forces a climax in which the character must make a life altering decision that results in change.

Conflict grows out of character.

The intensity of the conflict is determined by the strength of will of the three-dimensional individuals who are the protagonist and antagonist.

Types of Conflict

Static Conflict

A character must know what s/he wants and be willing to act to achieve that want, or there will be no conflict. Only conflict can generate more conflict.  If there is no conflict, no dialogue can further your script.

The first conflict starts from a conscious will striving to achieve a goal, as determined by the premise of your script.

A script can only have one major premise.  But each character has his own premise which will clash with others.  Subplots will include lesser conflicts that should reflect upon the major premise.

Jumping Conflict

Jumping conflict is when the story skips a logical step or two between events.

To avoid jumping conflict, where a character makes an illogical transition from one state to another, it is essential to know the arc of your character’s change and the steps required to get there.

Real characters reveal themselves one step at a time.  They must be given the room and opportunity to do so; and the audience must be given the opportunity to observe these changes as they take place.

Rising Conflict

Rising conflict is the steady increase in tension and stakes.  It is a product of characters who are well rounded and clearly defined.

Every action of such a character will be understandable and dramatic to an audience.  Each character musts intensely feel that the action chosen is the only one possible; these choices are dictated by the play’s premise and the characters you have created.

This steady, determined, uncompromising drive in the characters is what creates the tension between them.  We understand what they want, why they want it and what they are willing to do to achieve it.  When a unity of opposites exists between these characters, tension and conflict are unavoidable.

It is your job as the writer to create characters that convince the audience there is no other choice possible for these characters.

Drama is not the image of life but the essence. 

In real life, people argue without ever deciding to remove the factors which cause the trouble.  In drama, this urge to remain static must be condensed into a moment of action by removing the senseless and superfluous and leaving only the essential desires and emotions which result in action and change.

Every word spoken should carry this conflict forward.


There are small imperceptible movements in every conflicts – transitions – which are determined by the individual characters.  These transitions will determine which type of rising conflict you employ.

The character’s psychological and sociological qualities will determine how he responds and reacts to various stimulants, which will determine how he acts and what he chooses to do.

Every conflict consists of an attack and a counter-attack.


Foreshadowing is the hint and promise of conflict.  You are establishing that opposing characters in some way are equal in their capabilities, and your audience will wait for them to clash.

This creates dramatic tension that holds the audience’s attention as they way for that inevitable moment.

In human nature, most people hide their true selves from the world, and at times from themselves.  As an audience, we are curious to see what happens to those who are forced to reveal themselves.  Characters are only forced to reveal themselves under duress, when in conflict.

In other words, conflict reveals character.


When plotting your script, filtering your characters, their wants and their conflicts through the prism of your premise is a way to make sure that your work is moving in the right direction.

Next week, we’ll look at how these elements come together to create rising tension and a satisfying climax that creates a sense of catharsis for your readers.

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