Conflict - Or How is this a problem?

So, I’ve been wanting to talk about this for awhile now. I’m not too ashamed to admit that @jhull broke me/my mind by asking the “how is this a problem” for a character question; or in other words, why is something a conflict, what makes it a conflict? And mostly all I had is a shy shrug and a mumbled, “I don’t know, because it is.” So I’ve been mulling this over for months…maybe even more than a year, too insecure to bring it up lest I appear woefully stupid (which is in complete conflict with my own self-image). So I sat on it, waiting for the right spark to hit me.

And tonight, I think lightning struck. I was reading a book and it postulates the following: Character + goal + stakes + motivation + attempt + resistance = conflict

Now resistance is the key element in that equation, but it seemed to me that conflict arises when it (resistance) butts up against any of the other elements.

So for playful simple example, say I have

Character A, Character B
Goal: Drinking a glass of water
Stakes: dividend: slacked thirst vs Consequence: chapped lips
Motivation: don’t want to be dehydrated
Attempt: getting water from a canteen

Resistance: The resistance could affect any of those and that would be conflict.

Character B could threaten character A “Go near that canteen and I’ll whoop your ass.” Or even just actually beat their ass for picking it up.
Character B could convince character A that anything she drinks in this place (Fairylands) will trap her there forever.
A bad smell could come from the canteen – upping the potential negative consequences from chapped lips to poisoning
A promise of something better than (what fish f*ck in) if Character A will/can wait.
Character A could see someone they thought needed the water more than themselves and that could demotivate them from drinking it and offering it to the other person.
Character A could attempt to drink and nothing but a few stale drops comes out of the canteen, thwarting the immediate attempt

So what do you think? Have I come up with a way (not the only way, I’m sure) to create/identify conflict? Please say yes, I really need to be able to move on. If these aren’t conflict, why not? LOL,

I’ve been staring at this for like 20 minutes afraid to post it. That’s some serious resistance I’m having.


One of the best explanations that I’ve ever had, and it makes loads of sense to me, is that conflict arises when two values clash. Could be two seperate characters holding different values or one character with an external vs internal value clash.

When I say value, I mean like what a character values such as love, money, fame, reputation. When the character is faced with a situation that contradicts his or her value, there is internal conflict which tends to result in external actions though not always.

My own challenge is finding how Dramatica identifies that kind of conflict and how to locate a character’s value system in Dramatica. It’s easy-ish to identify the clashing values in the IC vs MC, in the Resolve section (one is steadfast and one is change), but it seems like a general application. Maybe their crucial elements hold additional clues.

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This is why I love the anonymity of the internet. None of you people know who I am so I can say any stupid thing on here I want and not worry too much about it in my daily life (although this page does seem to be becoming an increasingly larger part of my daily life). I’m super glad you decided to post. I feel like I tend to way over post and probably get on people’s nerves, but I’m hoping it will spur Dramatica related conversation, so I’m willing to accept the consequences.


Have you read Dramatica for Screenwriters? Chapter 14: Act, Sequence and Scene as Plot Twists opens with a description of what makes a dramatic event that offers a pretty good way to answer “why is this a problem?”

That’s a very similar concept to something @jhull wrote about how two truths create conflict when you change the context, and that’s fine as far as it goes, but FOR ME it’s kind of cerebral and unspecific.

Something like: Freedom is important for mankind to be his most ingenious, UNLESS security is more important to you.

Doesn’t fill my head with problems or questions, just some vague notions of a Libertarian duking it out with a TSA agent. However if you tell me to set a resistance against a Libertarian’s motivation, I would immediately put him in a circumstance where he was dependent on someone else, or a resistance against his character live through the true depredations of unfettered capitalism. (BTW, I have no idea why these examples came out political

Can you elaborate on this? I’m not really sure what you mean. What is an external value?

I’ve used DFS’s “True event” as a guideline for whether or not something is a scene, but not so much conflict. Again, it feels really broad to me. I’m not sure why, but I have the idea in my head that conflict is a much more intimate/smaller unit of story than how most people talk about it. You can pile on the conflict in a scene and have it coming from multiple sources (rainstorm, someone hunting you, while your toddler is crying at the top of their lungs for their favorite teddy bear) all bringing pressure to bear on a character within a single scene.

Anyway, I’m waxing way philosophical.

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Can you elaborate on this? I’m not really sure what you mean. What is an external value?

An example of one character experiencing internal vs external value struggle is Sophie in Sophie’s Choice.

I like what you have in the first post. They all seem like conflict to me, and most seem problematic, but a promise of something better and seeing someone else who need it more don’t necessarily seem problematic to me. They create conflict, sure, but if Character A can wait for something better to take a drink, then it’s simply up to them whether they wait or not. To give someone else water because they need it more sort of implies that Character A can wait for more water. If no other water is going to be available, then both characters would need it equally. The difference seems to be in preventing the goal of getting a drink vs asking the character to delay the goal.

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There was a Narrative First article not too long back that discussed a character that wanted to be a spy and spied on his neighbors and this caused his wife to toss all of his stuff out on the lawn or something. That article was about making things problematic. I’d like to find it again and see what it said and will post here if I do find it. If anyone else remembers it and knows what it’s called, please let me know.


My perception has always been that a problem and conflict are two different things.

Conflict, to me, is whatever is happening on the surface of the story. Whether it’s verbal or physical, internal or external, it’s the stuff that the characters are all conscious of engaging in. They know they’re coming into conflict with each other; what they usually do not understand is why.

The problem is that why: the subtext that drives the surface level disputes happening throughout the story. Take a husband and wife who can’t stop fighting. He thinks she’s too controlling; she thinks he’s a slob. They’re practically at each others’ throats every night. “Don’t put your feet on the table!” “Don’t tell me what to do!” etc, etc. What they don’t realize is that that the real problem between the two of them comes down to avoidance. The wife longs for emotional connection with her husband, but every time she offers it, he pulls away. So to compensate, she tries to exert control over his physical world. He rebels by making messes.

So this couple has plenty of conflict, but if you asked them how to solve their problems, they’d just tell you: “He needs to learn how to clean up after himself!” or “She just needs to loosen up!” Of course, the mess/lack of mess is just the tip of the problem’s iceberg. But because it’s all they see, they attribute all their suffering to the symptoms alone.

When Jim asks “how is this a problem,” I think what he’s asking is (more or less): “how do these symptoms stem from this problem?” How does the tip of this problematic iceberg appear to the characters in question, and what is the connection between the two?


Oh yes, you should defo get this into your blog @Audz !

I was reading through the story creation exercise in the forum that took place in 2014 and this question of what is Problem came up there too. Though no one was explicit in defining what Problem is (Jess was asking then too), I gleaned that Problem is more a subconscious aspect of the character…the underlying reason why he or she does something that is creating their actions. But because there wasn’t an explicit explanation of the term in the way Dramatica uses it, I wasn’t confident about what I had gleaned.

But, you’re explanation here explicitly says it! Thank you!

The follow on question from Problem is what is the Problem’s resolution in Dramatica terms?

Is it Solution or Response or Inhibitor?

I’m wondering now how Problem relates to the other story points and how to match it’s resolution to the appropriate story point.

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Here you go!: [How To Use Dramatica the Right Way] (


Awesome! Thanks Jim!

It looks like you’ve found a way that works for you, yes! Actually, that definition seems really useful. At first I was thinking it has too many “ingredients”, but they’re all great reminders, especially once you get down to the scene level, like a scene outline, or actual writing.

I’m glad you wrote this, because I was guessing that was true for you. It’s really important to figure out what works for you and what doesn’t.

Now, I do want to comment on Jim’s “how is this a problem?” stuff because I think it’s actually pretty simple. But I’ll do that in another post because, again, it probably won’t be helpful for you @jassnip – likely too vague/cerebral.

I drafted this post earlier today, and now that Jim’s posted the link to his awesome article, it seems kind of superfluous. But I’ll post it anyway, as another way of wording things, and another example of making something a problem.

I believe the definition of conflict used in Dramatica circles is sort of simpler than what’s mentioned in the initial post. It’s really just: character + desire + (thing that cannot coexist with desire). At least that’s how I understand it. I’m not sure if “desire” is always the right word – you might have some cases where the character isn’t aware of it – but it should usually serve.

When Jim flexes his biceps :muscle: tattooed with “how is this a problem?” he’s making sure that there actually is a problem, that we’re not just assuming one because the storytelling seems problematic.

Like if you say, “my MC hates his parents”. Great. How is that a problem? Maybe he enjoys hating his parents.

“Well, they really messed things up with how they handled his sister’s illness, and when she died everything went bad.” Okay, but now you’re just describing why he hates his parents. Great stuff, but it doesn’t make it a problem.

To make X a problem you need to look for the “other thing”, Y, that cannot co-exist with X.

“Hmm. Okay, my MC hates his parents, doesn’t want anything to do with them. But he also needs their help to pay for his college tuition, so now he has to show up for Sunday dinner and beg for money…” Perfect! X is he doesn’t want anything to do with his parents, and Y is that he has to visit them and keep them in his life because he needs their financial help. That’s a problem.

Character + desire + (thing that cannot co-exist with desire)


Sometimes I think there must be some Dramatica theory explanation of what a problem is that’s difficult and just out of reach. Then sometimes I think we’re all making it more complicated than it has to be and making something problematic is really just about tying an element to a story event…something to make the narrative worth watching or reading so it’s not just about some guy wishing people knew how awesome of a spy he could be for 90 minutes…or pages.

Not superfluous, not even a little. The additional/different verbiage helps immensely. Don’t ever stop putting your understanding forth, my friend.


Love this description of conflict, Mike. It’s very clear, mathematical and rather visual (to me) for some reason. Thanks.


Thank you, @jhull.

Thinking on this…that desire which, as you point out, people aren’t always aware of could also probably be described as want/goal/need. Need being the most likely candidate for an unknown.

Now I want to play with your rubric and see if I get similar kinds of conflict

Character A desires a drink of water but (thing that can’t exist with it) the water seller (Character B) demands payment up front and Character A doesn’t have enough credits…
Character A desires a drink of water, but (thing that can’t exist with it) brown sludge comes out of the tap, (oh this is fun, this is McKee’s “gap in expectations”)
Character A desires a drink of water but (thing that can’t exist with it) there is only enough for one and her daughter needs it too
Character A desires a drink of water but (thing that can’t exist with it) accepting it from Character B puts Character A at a disadvantage (I’m thinking of GoT where the disciples of the High Sparrow/Septon starve and withhold water from Cersei).

Yes, I like this as an additional tool in my arsenal. Thank you for phrasing it just right.


Thanks for that!


Came upon this method of generating conflict described by Jim on Narrative First. It has similarities and differences to what’s been discussed above.

What a rich conversation here re: conflict. So many ways to approach it.

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