Alexander Polybinskyplaywright, psychologist, researcher of the psychology of creativity.

Psychology of conflict in film drama

Popular film drama manuals are increasingly looking like a mathematics reference book.

The main beats are already indicated on the script timeline: call to adventure at 15 minutes, first turning beat at 30, and second one — at half an hour before the end. The final protagonist choice certainly consists of two evils. 

And most importantly, your characters should be in constant conflict with each other.

The content of the conflict, in such cases, is filled in by the author’s personal experience and the facts found.

Here the desire to talk about the phenomenon of conflict itself. Does conflict even have its own content or is it just a form of action?

The concept of conflict is actively used in law, philosophy and even in game theory, but is more fully described in psychology.

Despite the many approaches to definition, the invariant formula of this phenomenon is as follows: conflict is a confrontational interaction between two active sides (subjects) to overcome initial contradictions.

The end of the conflict can only be the overcoming of contradictions. Even if not always in equilibrium.

Each of us is familiar with the situation when anxiety is so unbearable that any outcome of the matter is perceived with relief. Even failure.

Therefore, if there is no detente, then the conflict cannot be considered over.


The main active force in the conflict is the subject and his active manifestation of himself. However, the subject is not just a human individual. The subject is endowed with consciousness and will, capable of active and conscious actions.

In psychoanalysis, the concept of the subject is closely associated with knowledge of personal boundaries. In a sense, the formula of adequacy is the individual’s ability to understand exactly what he can influence and what will remain outside the scope of his responsibility.

Neurosis is a failure of this formula. For example, when we worry about what we have already done, instead of influencing the consequences.

Thus, the subject is distinguished by knowledge of his own goals and capabilities, as well as a clear idea of both his own and the common good. And only subjects, I repeat, can represent the parties to the conflict.

For clarity, let’s look at the paradoxical dialogues of Tarantino’s characters. At a superficial glance, it may seem that the heroes of his early films are talking about nothing. And this is their appeal.

But it’s a little more complicated.

It is in conversations about little things that the worldview of the heroes is revealed. Moreover, in an extremely specific form. Whether it’s arguing over tips or discussing whether it’s acceptable to give the boss’s girlfriend a foot massage.

The impact of these scenes is great precisely because of the vivid subjectivity of the characters. After all, they do not hesitate to broadcast their ideology in an extremely confrontational form in different thematic wrappers.

Words are not important here. The image of pure subjectivity affects us.

Aristotle also writes about the highest degree of impact of conflict, pointing out that in tragedy, not two enemies should fight, but two friends, brothers. This, of course, is not about kinship, but about the fact that each side of the conflict should have its own truth.

And this, again, is possible only in the case of a subject action.

Imagine a person who behaves unclearly and unconvincingly.

How independent do you think he is? Or clumsily fulfills someone else’s will?


Let’s consider another axiom of movie drama — obstacles on the path of the main character must certainly become more complicated and require more and more effort from him.

The first obstacle on the hero’s path is not just a call to adventure, but also an indicator, a signal for the need for change. For example, Jung viewed depression as a kind of intermediate period between two states of equilibrium, when old learning is no longer in effect and new ones have not yet been formed.

Obviously, obstacles are necessary for the character, first of all, to act. Respond to them. As Erikson writes, knowing how a person copes with significant life problems is the only key to understanding his life.

We can say that a character in a drama has no past and no future. He is only how he responds to circumstances and how he overcomes difficulties. This allows us to identify his personal and social role. Understand whether he is a policeman or a football player, an adult or a child, a husband or a lover, or even a ghost of a pet.

Therefore, if you want to avoid conflict, it is better not to identify yourself.

So why should the challenge increase in difficulty?

Obviously to make the character develop. If the obstacles are of the same type, it will stop working. After all, it is in conflict that old forms of relationships with the world and other characters are changed and new ones are created.

However, let’s ask one more question — what is development, in essence?

Among the many approaches to this concept in the psychological tradition, I find the most interesting contribution of Piaget. His ideas are the basis of many researches that show how conflict can be a source of intellectual development in children. In particular, if individuals find themselves in a situation of joint problem solving, but have different answers to the original question.

Thus, development is the ability of an individual to cope with choices in a given life situation. 

What stops us from making a choice?


Above, when we consider the concept of conflict as the opposition of two subjects, you might have fair doubts.

Take, for example, disaster films. In them, the main character enters into a struggle not with other characters, but with the forces of nature and chaos. In other words, with an element that does not claim the status of a subject in psychology.

However, it doesn’t seem like there is conflict in disaster movies. On the contrary, he seems most expressive in settings of wilderness and apocalypse.

Of course, the idea of a connection between the hero’s internal conflict and external circumstances is not new. It can be found not only in textbooks on drama, but also in the works of the philologist Bakhtin, where the concept of chronotope embodies the idea of ​​the integrity of the space and time of a literary text.

Therefore, external attributes and the position of the characters in the scene, as a rule, enhance the meaning of what is happening. So, for example, the quarrel between Myshkin and Rogozhin in Dostoevsky’s novel takes place on an empty spiral staircase (one of them is always taller than the other), and not in a noisy tavern. The tavern is more suitable for Faust’s conversation with Mephistopheles about the stupidity of the crowd.

Let us ask the following question: how does an internal personality conflict arise?

Sigmund Freud achieved significant success in working with neurotic patients using the interpretation method. Its essence was to manifest the variables of the Oedipal conflict in the patient’s life, and then resolve this conflict.

Simply put, to take control of your life you need to separate yourself from the authority of your parental figure and become your own authority. In fact, the meaning of the Oedipal conflict is contained in the following formula — do not appropriate what you yourself have brought into the world.

Only as a result of the metaphorical murder of the Father figure does the subject acquire the right to be independent, the master of his own life. And he may, for example, marry against the will of his parents, not continue the family business, etc.

At the same time, Freud notes that the interpretation method does not work with all patients. Some of them are simply immune to punishment for initiative and fear of competition, like classic neurotics. Others experience such intense distrust of the world that they are simply unable to take the mechanics of the Oedipal conflict seriously.

Subsequently, they will go down in history as a category of borderline disorders. Methods of working with such patients will be developed after Freud.

Thus, Melanie Klein will note that in the early stages of a child’s development, the dominant significance is not so much the authority of the parental figure as the specificity of the relationship established between them: trusting, avoidant or conflicting (frustrating).

Moreover, behavioral patterns formed in the first years of life stimulate a tendency towards certain states that the subject will subsequently seek in life. For example, a state of danger, guilt, humiliation, omnipotence, etc.

Simply put, the subject, already at the early stages of development, forms a limited set of scenarios for interaction in the world, and his subsequent life becomes an arena for searching for conditions and people with whom these scenarios are more successfully played out.

Levin described the specifics of internal conflict even more precisely, arguing that behavior is determined not by the objective (external) side of the situation, but by how it is given to the subject in experience.

Let’s take a look at a couple of disaster films we know through this lens.

So, the plot of one of them will look like this: the heroine, who is on the verge of a catastrophe in her personal life (marriage to an unloved man; inability to influence her destiny), needs to get into a catastrophe on a global scale in order to finally take fate into her own hands.

Or another story in which a middle-aged hero can’t grow up and gets stuck under a rock in a cave. After which he has no choice but to rethink his entire life and understand where he is still “stuck”.

I think you guessed what films we are talking about.

Even Oppenheimer is not without this element. In direct cuts, the tension of the protagonist during a difficult interrogation is mixed with images of matter, which, according to quantum physics, stores oceans of energy. The only question is who will explode first — the hero, his bomb, or the audience from the tension.

By the way, drama authorities also recommend transforming the interpersonal conflict of the characters into a social one. However, I believe you will look for the psychological background of this technique on your own with interest.


Let’s summarize what has been said.

Obviously, in the classic version, the film represents a very strict psychological formula in which the hero actively acts, changes himself and changes the world around him.

There’s only one question left.

Namely — what the!

Have you often met people around you who actively act and change themselves?

By the way, do you remember the last time you changed?

Moreover, in works of popular culture the paradoxical nature of the principles of classical drama is even more noticeable. Modern film discourse is still dominated by stories with happy endings, in which evil is punished and the benefactor triumphs.

Where does the gap between the intuitive understanding of life and the laws of drama come from?

We will talk about this in the next article on the philosophy of conflict.