In “The Real Reason Why Most Scripts Fail” Cory Mandell argues “most writers haven’t yet trained themselves to write in professional-level compelling conflict”.
Initially I thought I knew what he meant when he said compelling conflict, but when I started to think about it, I started to doubt myself.
To compel is to force or drive, especially to a course of action.
Conflict is a struggle or clash between opposing forces.
In “The Anatomy of Story” John Truby describes this as the central conflict, and poses it as a question. “Who fights whom over what?” This conflict forces the character to undergo some kind of change.
He describes this change in the form of an equation. W x A = C. “W” is a characters psychological and moral weakness. “A” is the action the character takes. “C” is the change the character undergoes.
The simple logic of the story is described as another question. “How does the act of struggling to do the basic action (A) lead the character to change from W to C?”
While Truby’s equation describes a conflict that forces the character to change, it doesn’t identify what makes a story compelling.
Interestingly compel also means to force to submit, or to overpower. The word compelling seems to imply a force. A character, an event. a circumstance, that asserts its will, subjugating a character. This elicits a response from the character, and leads to conflict.
I think compelling conflict is somewhere in this binary polarisation of these forces. One character asserting their will, the other resists.
Perhaps I am being too literal in my understanding of the term conflict, but it seem to me, when you are looking for what’s compelling, you are looking for what is forced upon someone. That one thing that pushes them to the point at which they must take action.
Truby describes it as the character’s weakness. I’d describe it as the character’s breaking point, the point at which they can take no more, and push back.
At this point the stakes are at their highest, and you have a compelling conflict.