Writing About Writing: The Two Types of Conflict Every Story Needs

Stories need conflict. But then you knew that already, didn’t you? Everyone says that. So what’s my angle here?

Stories actually need TWO types of conflict. Or at least, it helps to think of conflict in two different ways. There are microconflicts and macroconflicts. MAYBE you can get away with one but not the other but when you can double team it that’s when real storytelling magic happens.

microconflict is an internal struggle within a single character that your audience can relate to. Some examples include:

– Work vs. family life balance
– A financially secure but boring career vs. a less stable, but more fulfilling career

macroconflict is a larger-than-life dilemma with high stakes for virtually everyone involved. Some examples include:

– A pyschopath trying to take over the world
– The mafia is going to shoot your whole family

Defining these two types of conflict and then forcing them to collide with each other is one of my favorite storytelling strategies. We need microconflicts because they’re relatable and let our audience put themselves in our characters’ shoes. But we also need macroconflicts because movies are supposed to take our audience on a journey their real life doesn’t. The macroconflict serves that purpose, giving our story a heightened level of suspense and drama.

Oftentimes a microconflict is something that’s been boiling under the surface for years before our story begins. It’s something mildly annoying to a particular character, but nothing they would ever fix on their own. The macroconflict shows up and forces the character to face it.

So maybe you have a timid soccer mom who’s always chosen to put the opinions of other soccer moms over her kid. She’s too self-conscious to live her life any other way. That’s a microconflict.

But then 10 minutes into your film, someone kidnaps her kid and suddenly the opinions of other soccer moms don’t matter, just getting that kid back. THAT is a macroconflict. If we really want to raise the stakes, we’ll throw in a ransom note or something like that. We make the soccer mom team up with some less popular mom who’s kid is in the chess club. We see her skip out on an Avon party or something stupid in order to focus on the mission at hand.

By the end of the movie, she gets her kid back, but she’s also learned how to live life on her own terms without letting the opinions of others govern her or the relationship she has with her kid.

Another interesting strategy is to give different characters different microconflicts and then have them face the same macroconflict. In Finding Nemo, Marlin’s microconflict is that he’s too anxious whereas Dory’s short-term memory loss often leads her to recklessly pursue adventure. That search for Nemo as well as Marlin and Dory’s relationship forces them to face their microconflicts.

When you think of conflict in these two categories it helps you figure out both your characters and your story. It’s not enough to have a really cool idea for a macroconflict if your characters don’t have microconflicts. Likewise, it’s totally fine if you want to explore some dude’s struggle with work-life balance in corporate America, but odds are it’s not going to be terribly interesting until you introduce some cool new conflict like aliens or ghosts or drugs or something that people DON’T deal with in their day-to-day life.

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