10 Types of Narrative Conflict You Can Use in Content Creation
By Keith MacKenzie on March 23, 2016
If you're in the business of content creation, consider that you are also a storyteller. You aren't just whittling listicles or carving out intriguing essays for your client. At heart, you must emotionally engage with your audience in such a way that they want to read on or keep watching.
To do this well, you need a hero in your story. You want your audience to feel connected to that hero and, in turn, cheer for him or her. And equally as important: Heros must be challenged in pursuit of their goals.
Your story can be effective, or it may fall flat on its face. Try this story on for size: Ethan is in a classroom. He fixates on the cute blond up front-let's call her Claire. She glances back and smiles. When the bell rings, Ethan walks up to her and asks her out. She smiles, they date, and then it's birds and bees and marriage and joint real-estate ownership.
Now, consider this alternate version: Ethan is a prodigy for an acne-cream ad. His bloodshot eye fixates on Claire. She glances back and smiles. When the bell rings, he takes a deep breath and stands up only to trip over Clint's deliberately outstretched leg. Clint laughs derisively and high-fives his leather-jacketed friends.
Ethan grimaces, ignores Clint, and approaches Claire. He sputters: "Um, hi." He feels like an idiot.
Claire pushes our hero aside, and envelopes Clint in a warm embrace. Turns out she was smiling at Clint the whole time, not Ethan.
Dejected, Ethan vows to himself: "I'm gonna get the girl, Clint be damned!" He hits the gym, and well...you figure it out.
Consider which story is more interesting for your audience, and why. The second offers numerous roadblocks: the acne, the social awkwardness, Claire's jerk of a boyfriend, the list goes on. And more so, if you like Ethan-and this is important-you want him to do well, especially when the odds are stacked against him.
In the world of storytelling, that's the power of conflict. When there's no dragon to kill, no mountains to climb, no Clint to push aside, then there's no point to the story. You've lost the audience.
Likewise, powerful content marketing weaves a fascinating story rather than admonishes you with contrived statistics about the strength of a dish detergent. Good stories, not promotions, are the ones shared and retold. At the heart of each is a challenge, a conflict that we can relate to.
There are many kinds of conflicts. This is my list-your job as the storyteller is to understand through these examples how conflict powers every great story in content creation.
1. Person vs. Fate/God
A universal conflict is the belief in something that is not readily tangible, and maintaining that belief in spite of possible evidence or insistence to the contrary. We see Luke Skywalker's attempt to tap into the "good" Force in the Star Wars movies, Angelina Jolie's unwavering belief that her son is not her son in The Changeling, and the classic test of faith in The Passion of the Christ.
In the advertising world, let's consider Guinness' "Empty Chair" as an example of this:
2. Person vs. Self
We all have flaws. That's why we like stories about imperfect people who battle their shortcomings. Jake LaMotta struggles to contain his jealousy and temper in Raging Bull. Ed Norton battles himself in the form of Brad Pitt in Fight Club. Matt Damon's too scared of life to embrace a good thing in Minnie Driver in Good Will Hunting.
In that latter case, the "imposter syndrome"-that nagging feeling that you don't belong or you've just been faking it all along-is very real. So we can relate.
Gold-medal swimmer Michael Phelps may be some kind of superhuman robot torpedo thing with really big hands and flippers for feet, but the reality is that he still has to work hard. This short video produced by sportswear company Under Armour epitomizes that:
Feel those chills? Yep. Sure, Phelps has his bad days, but he persists so he can get those golds. We're emotionally engaged, so we'll tune in to watch him compete.
One question, though. Where's the bong?
3. Person vs. Person
Many stories see a protagonist fighting for the good against some kind of adversary. John McClane versus Hans Gruber in Die Hard. James Bond against (insert evil villain #5,435 here). Arnie and his Austrian drawl against everyone in the 1980s. Harry Potter vs. Lord Voldemort. The list goes on endlessly and we cheer them on.
Not only are companies pitted against each other in the form of people as in the famous Apple vs. Microsoft ads of the late 2000s, we see a father and baby son do battle in this cheeky shaving ad from Wilkinson Sword:
4. Person vs. Society/Institution
We also see many stories pitting heroes against societies or institutions which limit their progress. Dead Poets Society sees Robin Williams inspiring his students in the face of stultifying academia that insists on conformity. Star Wars sees Luke, Leia, Han Solo, and company taking on the evil Empire. Academy Award-winning Spotlight depicts investigative reporters uncovering the disturbing truths behind the curtains of a very powerful Catholic Church.
And in advertising, we again see Apple, with its iconic 1984 advertisement:
5. Part 2: Person vs. Society/Institution
An old Sudanese saying goes: "When the elephants fight, it is the grass that dies." Ordinary folks are caught in the crossfire between rival factions, dueling countries, battling families. We've seen this in Romeo and Juliet, of course. Often lost in the barrage of Cold War propaganda films from the 1980s are thoughtful stories about the actual people, such as a Russian Sean Connery connecting with Alec Baldwin in The Hunt for Red October and American boys befriending a shipwrecked Russian sailor in the lesser-known Russkies.
To be honest, who hasn't felt forbidden to do something because of elements largely out of your control? Google tackled this conflict masterfully in its tear-jerking series of advertisements about a Pakistani and Indian resurrecting a long-lost friendship:
6. Part 3: Person vs. Society/Institution
What about transcending social perspectives and seeing one's inner beauty? The uncool geeky kid (yeah, Ethan!) wins the heart of the popular girl. The "monster" overcomes his lack of physical attraction in Beauty and the Beast and The Elephant Man.
Disability in our society offers a similar challenge. Samsung's "Hearing Hands" tells the story of a community coming together to help a hearing-impaired man feel like he belongs. [Full disclosure: Samsung is a Skyword client.]
The disability advocacy group Pro Infirmis takes it to another level with "Because who is perfect?" which championed the inclusion of the physically challenged to the tune of 23 million views. We love to see people overcome and transcend, and that's what these brands are giving us.
7. Person vs. Nature
Hollywood has produced Oscar winners covering survival against predators and elements, i.e. battling a shark in Jaws, being inconvenienced by an iceberg in Titanic, and nowadays, Leonardo DiCaprio battling a bear and the elements in The Revenant. That Hugh Glass story has been retold in numerous forms since the 1800s, showing our fascination with man versus wild.
John West Salmon tapped into this with its 30-second TV spot produced in 2000 when interruptive advertising was still the norm. It proved immensely popular when it aired, and became appropriately shareable once YouTube came onto the scene because of its humorous take on the conflict:
8. Person vs. Technology
Our fascination with technology shows: our love for galactic sci-fi such as Star Wars and Star Trek, and terrifying implications of technology taking over in The Matrix, the Terminator movies, and most recently, Ex Machina.
Our collective fixation with machines means an audience at the ready for fascinating stories such as the groundbreaking victory of Deep Blue over Garry Kasparov-the latter's first-ever loss in chess-and the very recent win of Google's computer program over a South Korean master at the ancient game of Go.
In short, humans versus machines offers a conflict that may never go out of style, and it shows in marketing as well. Consider this advertisement for a robot firm:
9. Person vs. Science
Similar in tone to technology, science-based conflicts touch on both the beneficial and nefarious possibilities of scientific progress. From Nick Nolte's heart-wrenching efforts to save his son in Lorenzo's Oil to Matt Damon utilizing his botany skills to survive in The Martian, we see inspiring stories of survival. And then there's the scary stuff: Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Jeff Goldblum's unfortunately cellular encounter with musca domestica in The Fly, genetic supremacy and segregation in Gattaca, and cloning extinct animals in the Jurassic Park movies.
At first glance, sports science may not seem to offer a conflict in itself. But perhaps it does. When athletes challenge themselves and others to be better, there is a minutiae of precision in their development. They-and their trainers and coaches-watch themselves in action and in training. This also continues to be a collective fascination with sports fans, and the sports network ESPN has recognized this with their immensely popular Sport Science series. The athletic equivalents of Nick Nolte and Matt Damon would look to this series in the drive to better their own respective games.
Consider this example, where New England Patriots' helmsman Tom Brady's strengths are broken down scientifically to demonstrate how he maintains his peak level of performance while pushing 40:
10. Man vs. Woman/Woman vs. Man
No list of story conflicts is complete without the battle of the sexes, such as superspy lovers battling it out in Mr. and Mrs. Smith, darkly comedic spousal warfare in The War of the Roses, and entertaining balance-of-power rom-coms such as How To Lose a Guy in 10 Days. Even reality TV pitted men and women against each other in some of the most popular Survivor seasons.
Nike tackles this conflict head on by encouraging men and women to fight-er, run-to see which side can clock the most miles in running shoes:
Competition. Not just against each other, at the track or in the ring or on the field. Humans are predisposed to tackling challenges, and in turn, fascinated by stories about overcoming them. That's the power of conflict-anything that poses a challenge to your protagonist taps into the innate desire to survive.
Next time you're tasked with putting together a piece for the purpose of brand storytelling or content creation, in the form of video, prose, podcast, or another medium, work conflict into the package. Do it well, and your story will find a receptive and willing audience.
Want to learn more about what makes a great story? Check out our interactive graphic on the five digital storytelling narrative elements from Hollywood hits.