Now I’m not saying that every story out there needs to be swelling with metaphor, symbolism, context and social commentary – far from it – but the minimum entry for decent storytelling requires two layers – the dramatic conflict and the emotional conflict.
Put simply, all fiction (and most non-fiction as well) is the story of a character of characters navigating a world. That world is undergoing it’s own conflict: a brewing war, a serial killer on the loose, a utopia on the brink of collapse, a dystopia on the brink of revolution are a few examples. Look to some of your own favorite novels, take the characters out of the equation and identify this conflict yourself. This is the dramatic conflict. This can either be a very real conflict that would play out regardless of whether your main characters existed or not (which is basically every disaster movie ever), or it is the conflict that is triggered by your main character which then runs away from itself and becomes it’s own entity (for example Katniss Everdeen may catalyse the rebellion in the Hunger Games, but then that dramatic conflict spins off from her and takes on a life of its own).
The emotional conflict is the main character’s internal struggles. This is your protagonist battling their inner demons and trying to reconcile the conflict in their mind. This is Luke Skywalker fighting his fear of becoming his father. This is Aragorn wrestling with his reluctance at becoming King. This is Tom’s revolution of thought in his travails with Puzzle.
These are your two layers, running in tandem with each other. Typically the emotional conflict takes the centre of the attention while the dramatic conflict forms the background, and that rotates and develops while the emotional conflict stays front and centre. The protagonist’s emotional conflict is colored and developed as the dramatic conflict progresses and vice versa, and through this we develop the narrative of the story, each bouncing off of one another, likely escalating to the conflict.
Usually, the emotional and dramatic conflict come to a head at the same time, when the two dovetail together (for example Katniss’ personal struggles come to a head in her final confrontation with President Snow, which is also the climax of the dramatic conflict of the rebellion as a whole), but more common is when the dramatic and emotional conflict climax in close succession from one another. You see, the risk one runs by having both conflicts resolve at the same time is that they vie for the attention of the audience, and thus cancel each other out. If they occur on after the other, though, it gives the space for both conflicts to breathe and have their moment to reach their own conclusion.
If you do follow the latter route, it is strongly recommended that the dramatic conflict is resolved first, followed by the emotional conflict. Despite the dramatic conflict being the ‘bigger picture’, as it were, and the one more likely to be action packed and exciting, it is not the conflict that the audience are primarily interested in. It is the emotional conflict, the conclusion to the clash that matters to their protagonist, that the audience are truly vested in. Look to any of the Lord of the Rings films and you will notice that the large scale battles are always followed by the smaller, character-led moments. These are the ones that matter to us as the audience because whereas set pieces appeal on a visceral level with sheer spectacle, it is the characters having their moments that truly resonate. The battle at the Black Gate and seeing the tower of Barad’Dur collapse is satisfying, but it is the farewell of Frodo before boarding the white ships at the Grey Havens that is the real gut punch to the feels.
These are the two layers that every good story should have. Disaster movies often fail in this regard because the dramatic conflict often drowns the emotional conflict, making the movie feel distant and lacking a soul. Having a story with emotional conflict and a subdued dramatic conflict is less of an issue because, again, that character struggle is the heart of your story, but still: neglect dramatic conflict at your peril, because that background informs what is happening to the characters and forms a rich tapestry behind your key players which informs how they interact with the world. Having a weak dramatic conflict may make your story feel ‘small’, as if it operates purely within a bubble, so any resolution lacks punch because the wider implications from your character’s choices and actions don’t seem to resonate.
This dual layer of conflict, then, is the minimum level that we should aspire to in our storytelling. The emotional and dramatic conflicts and the way they interact with one another are key in creating rich, meaningful narratives with impactful character choices.