“You’re wrong, Jim,” my friend Jim said as he bit the head off of a Santa-shaped and frosted Christmas cookie. Jim is kind of a competitive guy.
“Say more about that, Jim,” I encouraged around a mouthful of my own Santa.
“Jim phrased that kind of harshly, Jim,” my other friend named Jim said, his hand hesitating over the plate of cookies. Jim is more soft-hearted than competitive Jim or I. “But you do always say a commercial needs conflict to make it engaging, and Jim showed me one yesterday that’s pretty good and it doesn’t have any conflict.”
“Watch this,” competitive Jim gloated. Then he pulled out his phone to play this new Amazon ad about the aftermath of the holidays.
“Awww,” soft-hearted Jim said when it was over. “That gets me every time. I just took down the lights at my house.”
“And it gets him without any conflict,” competitive Jim challenged, taking another cookie off the plate. “It gets me, too. So, take that, Jim! And you take a Santa cookie, Jim.”
“I probably shouldn’t,” soft-hearted Jim said. “I’ve had a lot of goodies during the break. Too many goodies.” He patted his stomach.
“But these are yummy,” competitive Jim said, biting into Santa’s legs to prove his point.
“And somebody has to eat them,” I added. “They’re just going to go stale otherwise.” Soft-hearted Jim took one.
“But look,” I continued, “that commercial does have conflict. Plenty of it. Your definition of conflict is just too limited. You’re thinking of conflict like it’s a fight—a fight between a good thing and a bad thing. That’s a kind of conflict. But the best conflicts for driving stories are rarely just between a good thing and a bad thing in which one side wins. Stories like that may be exciting, especially if they have a lot of explosions—”
“Or a Death Star,” soft-hearted Jim interjected. “A Death Star is always good.”
“Or a fighter-jet-dog-fight sequence starring Tom Cruise,” competitive Jim added around a mouthful of cookie. “He’s still got it.”
“Or an unstoppable serial killer in a mask stalking teenagers,” I agreed, “part ten. But those kinds of stories can tend to be one-dimensional if that’s all there is to them. When I say conflict, I’m including the internal kind. The kind where there’s a tension between two good impulses that happen to tug in opposite directions. Like virtue versus pleasure, safety versus freedom, or standing out versus fitting in. We’re all torn between conflicting desires like that. Both sides are good, so there’s no way to win those kinds of struggles. A victory on one side would represent a loss on the other. Great stories are built around those kinds of struggles because everyone has them, everyone can relate to them, and everyone needs some insight about how to navigate them.”
“Oh crap, he’s going to talk about meaning again,” competitive Jim warned.
“Actually, I was going to say that those kinds of conflicts don’t even always look like conflicts,” I objected. “Which brings us back to the Amazon commercial.”
“Which has no conflict,” competitive Jim said smugly.
“Oh, it’s got conflict. It’s right there from the opening shot of the poor, discarded Christmas tree,” I countered. “But you see it clearest in three moments. When the lady putting away her holiday dishes looks at them with a bittersweet expression, when the little girl pulling the snowflake decorations off the window looks sad, and most obviously when the dad and his daughter hug and look like they’re going to cry. All those characters are experiencing that conflict between sentimentality and practicality we all face when the holidays are done and it’s time to move on and get back to work and reality.”
“But even though it’s sad, it’s also ok, because all that great holiday stuff will be waiting in the garage, or the attic, or wherever until next time we need it,” soft-hearted Jim said, gesturing with his Santa. “It’s still there for us.”
“DANG!” Competitive Jim shook his head. “And so is Amazon! Devilishly clever!”
“And that’s how you use conflict to drive a story to connect with people,” I said, trying not to sound smug. “Even if the audience isn’t conscious of the conflict.”
“Don’t sound so smug about it,” competitive Jim complained. I guess it’s harder to self-regulate sounding smug than I thought.
“Ok,” soft-hearted Jim sighed. “But I still don’t love that you have to have conflict to drive a story. It would be nicer if we could just enjoy things without struggling.”
“I guess, in life, you can’t enjoy the Santa cookie without biting Santa’s head off,” competitive Jim said, stuffing the remains of Mr. Kringle into his mouth.
“It’s not his head, but my belly I worry about,” soft-hearted Jim noted. Then he bit the head off his own Santa. “Mmmm. Yummy,” he noted sadly.