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  • Writer's picturePatrick O'Driscoll

Thematic Conflict – The Intersection of Dramatic Conflict and Theme

Like generating drama, exploring theme is a primary function of any story, but why is it so important?

From Terrence Malick to Marvel, every cinematic story strives for audience involvement. For markets broad and niche, making people care is the name of the game. The most rudimentary method of captivating an audience is with dramatic conflict. Not discounting the draw of unique and fascinating characters, but when it comes to generating drama protagonists are simply beings faced with a difficult problem to solve.

A protagonist’s struggle to endure, overcome or achieve something of significance is almost always the story’s primary source of dramatic conflict. When finely-tuned, the four working parts of that struggle (protagonist, goal, antagonism, stakes) can help to generate tension for the audience by convincingly posing and sustaining a dramatic question: will the protagonist achieve their goal, or not?

Clever concepts, intriguing characters and fresh deliveries of genre staples work wonders for audience involvement, but nothing engages us like dramatic tension. And yet scripts that possess all of the above, and more, while having nothing to say as a whole tend to feel perfunctory. That’s why theme is so fundamentally important.

Drama engages. Theme resonates. Drama without theme is meaningless and meaningless stories are quickly forgotten.

I sometimes urge writers to differentiate between drama and theme by asking: What is your story about? Responses usually encapsulate the protagonist’s motivated struggle against antagonism to solve a difficult predicament. I’ll then ask: what’s your story really about? The more contemplative answers delve into a resonant issue, experience of life or an aspect of our nature which the narrative is trying to explore. The effectiveness or ineffectiveness of that particular exploration is really down to the quality of the story’s thematic conflict.

Simply put, thematic conflict is a battle of ideas implied by the story. While pursuing their respective goals, characters (protagonist, antagonist) can represent opposing philosophies, incompatible worldviews concerning the story’s main theme. As characters clash, so do their philosophies.

At the resolution, how one philosophy prevails against the other can express a story’s meaning. All too often, delivering surprising and satisfying endings will come at the expense of that meaning. Or, a script might feature only one philosophy on its main theme, making for a somewhat preachy story. Achieving harmony between dramatic conflict and thematic conflict is difficult, but vital for a meaningful work.

Whether you prefer to approach it at the premise stage or you discover it in early drafts, defining your story’s main theme is fairly pivotal. In certain scripts it can be defined as the story’s subject matter (e.g. war, intolerance, loss of innocence), but more universally the main theme is the specific human value at the core of the protagonist’s inner journey (e.g. compassion, honesty, courage).

Michael Fassbender, Perla Haney-Jardine, Steve jobs, Aaron Sorkin.
Michael Fassbender & Perla Haney-Jardine in STEVE JOBS – by Aaron Sorkin, Walter Isaacson (book).

STEVE JOBS is about a guy dealing with multiple interpersonal conflicts while preparing three iconic computer product launches (drama). But it’s really about a perfectionist struggling to accept that he’s poorly made, relating particularly to fatherhood (theme).

Nailing down the moral value or issue at the heart of a story provides a touchstone for the development of all other elements – as they ought to be facilitating the story’s exploration of that theme. This is pretty crucial when it comes to the main characters. Knowing the theme helps to hone characters’ contrasting philosophies: the worldviews signified in their decisions, choices and actions under pressure.

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