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.
What Is Theme?
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 will delve into a resonant issue, experience of life, or aspect of our nature that, all too often, the story wants to explore but seldom does, commonly highlighting an underdeveloped thematic conflict.
Simply put, thematic conflict is an implied battle of ideas. While pursuing their respective goals, characters (protagonist vs antagonist) can represent opposing philosophies and incompatible worldviews concerning the story’s main theme. As characters clash, so do their philosophies.
In the end, how the thematic conflict gets resolved can express a story’s meaning. Unfortunately, the demand to deliver surprising and satisfying endings will frequently come at the expense of that meaning. Or, a script will feature only one philosophy on its main theme, making for a preachy story. Achieving harmony between dramatic conflict and thematic conflict is difficult, but vital for meaningful work.
Whether you prefer to approach it at the premise stage or you discover it in early drafts, defining the 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 particular human value at the core of the protagonist’s inner journey (e.g. compassion, honesty, courage).