Stories begin with a protagonist, a setting, and a status quo. Then something disrupts the status quo. This is the beginning of the plot. Plot constitutes everything that happens in the story; every event, action, or choice. The foundation of any plot is conflict. Conflict is any time a character has an objective with an uncertain outcome. Every conflict has two steps, the promise and the payoff. The promise is when you build the conflict up. The payoff is when you resolve the conflict.
All stories begin with a few basic promises. They establish the setting, genre, tone, writing style, and characters. Some stories complete this orientation before establishing the primary conflict, others establish the primary conflict simultaneously. The goal is to complete the orientation before the 5-10% mark in the story. It’s important to accurately represent the style of the story in this opening section.
Consider the Disney film Aladdin. Originally the plan was to open with the villain in the desert, and then go straight to the protagonist being chased by the guards, but the production team realized that they also needed to establish the genie’s style of humor. So they added the character of the bazaar merchant to establish the comedic aspects of the film.
Aladdin is also an example of a story that establishes the primary conflict, the lamp, in the opening scene. In contrast, Raiders of the Lost Ark uses a minor conflict, the quest for the golden idol, to establish the story’s style before introducing the primary conflict, the ark.
If the story is going to include a drastic change after the introduction, hint at it. In the opening scene of The Matrix the audience sees two people with superhuman abilities, but that’s not enough. The telephone booth clearly establishes that there’s something the audience doesn’t understand about this world. Of course this leaves the audience with an unanswered question, and the story can only go on for so long before providing the answer. Otherwise the audience may forget the question altogether.
Types of Conflict
Most conflicts can be boiled down to one of four types. Two are external conflicts, where the character’s thoughts and emotions are directed at an external character, and two are internal conflicts, where the character is ultimately fighting their own flaws and weaknesses.
Man vs. man, any instance where two characters oppose each other.
Man vs. society, where a character is opposed by a group, or by the expectations of a group. When a character is fighting fate, destiny, or a prophecy they are really fighting the world’s plans and expectations.
Man vs. nature, where a character is trying to overcome a natural obstacle such as a mountain or a storm. Nature is not a character, so in the absence of a personality the character often imposes one, symbolically or literally having a dialogue with part of themselves.
Man vs self is similar to man vs. nature, but without the symbolic bridge. The character recognizes their own weaknesses and struggles to overcome them.
Conflict & Climax