If you want to know how to write a story, you have to know how to write conflict. It is the beating heart of any work of fiction and it takes many different forms.
These are the basic types of conflict:
In this post, I want to focus on “Man vs supernatural” and how to write conflict good enough to makes a movie iconic.
First of all, let’s talk about what are the general rules to follow in order to write conflict that can be defined as supernatural (and, just to be clear, by “supernatural” I don’t mean the TV series where two brothers travel around the US to throw salt at demons).
What is a Supernatural Conflict?
It’s a type of conflict that involves the clash with
The superhuman is part of the story
The easiest way to tick this box is to make the superhuman element part of your hero’s or your villain’s abilities.
Either the protagonist and the antagonist both possess those abilities, or just the antagonist does.
Very rarely the protagonist alone possesses those supernatural powers, and it’s not a coincidence. There’s a very good reason for that: if your hero is basically God and your villain is just some rude random guy that poses no threat, the movie will be over in 5 minutes.
But even in those rare cases with a superhuman protagonist and a human antagonist, you must give the antagonist some kind of “earthly power” big enough to oppose the superhuman power of the hero.
Superman is basically a God (or, according to Zack Snyder, Jesus). But his foe, Lex Luthor (comics Lex, NOT MOVIE LEX, DEFINITELY NOT MOVIE LEX) possesses great intelligence, money, and influence.
Superpowers in fictional narratives shouldn’t be too vague. The person or entity with those powers can be mysterious, sure. But it must be clear how the abilities themselves work, they must have rules and boundaries.
If your character has super strength but he is trapped in a situation where only telepathy could get him out of trouble, you cannot simply “add” telepathy to his superpowers without a good reason.
If the hero is fighting this supernatural force, he must have a way to defeat it, or at least the hope to be able to defeat it.
The supernatural foe shouldn’t be simply invincible, otherwise he would simply crush the protagonist and the end credits would roll after 10 minutes.
Let’s use Pirates of the Caribbean the curse of the Black Pearl as an example on how to write conflict.
Pirates of the Caribbean
You see kids, back in the day when dinosaurs were still walking on this earth, Pirates of the Caribbean was a good movie, with a simple little story and a good example for how to write conflict.
Back then, it wasn’t the franchise we know today to be full of rockstar-zombie-fish-skeleton pirates with plots so complicated that they seemed to be taken straight out of soap operas.
Here the antagonist, Captain Barbossa and the rest of his crew, were cursed by a treasure they stole.
This curse makes them immortal and invulnerable to physical pain, but it also takes away the pleasure of living, since the cursed men are condemned to be hungry and thirsty without being able to eat or drink.
The curse plays a key role in the story. Since the pirates can’t be killed, it appears that the pirates are unstoppable and that the heroes have no chances of winning.
And precisely because the chances of winning are so small, the audience is hooked. They want to know if the heroes are going to defeat this seemingly invincible foe, and how they’re going to do that.
There are specific rulers to this curse, and they are all explained in this iconic scene:
- The pirates cannot be wounded or killed
- Their true form is shown in the moonlight
- Their senses are dulled because of the curse
But Captain Barbossa’s speech is not just a mere list of things they can and cannot do, it explains what’s their goal and their motivation to pursue it.
Will, Elizabeth and Jack find out that the only way to get rid of the cursed pirates is to break the curse.
To do that they need to give back the last gold coin along with a bit of blood from all the original members of the crew.
Since one member of the crew, Bootstrap Bill, was tied to a cannon and thrown at sea by Barbossa, the one to give back the coin with his blood will have to be his son Will.
In this scene, Jack manages to take advantage of the curse temporarily and distract Barbossa, while Will manages to give back the coin.
Since when the curse is lifted the pirates will go back to be regular human beings, Jack’s plan consists of killing Barbossa as soon as his supernatural power cannot protect him anymore.
This line perfectly closes the scene and sums up the irony of Barbossa’s story: he came back to life as he wanted, only to be able to feel the cold grasp of death.
The plan also highlights the most important aspect of Jack’s personality, he is the man who is always one step ahead. He carefully planned his moves so that he could be the one to kill Barbossa with the bullet he has been keeping for years.
When we think of the word “supernatural” we tend to associate in with the unknown.
When writing a story for a screenplay or a book, this concept of an unknown entity creeps in and makes us think: “Yeah, so what all of a sudden the cursed pirates can fly? It’s a mysterious curse
But this way of thinking is wrong, because even the casual reader or moviegoer knows enough about stories to recognise a cheap trick.
That is why it’s important to keep in mind the 3 rules of how to write conflict: the superhuman being part of the story, well-defined powers, and a clear plan.