The Pixar Way to Think About Story Conflict

The Pixar Way to Think About Story Conflict

This week’s video offers two lessons you can learn from the complicated story conflict in Toy Story to improve your own writing.

Video Transcript:

Conflict, conflict, conflict! It’s like this mantra among fiction writers, right? And we all nod our heads in agreement, because we all know story conflict is integral to good storytelling. But even though all humans totally get conflict on its most obvious level—altercation—understanding its uses and implementation in a story is sometimes a little harder to get our heads around.

Today, I’m going to use a fabulous object lesson about good story conflict that we can learn from Pixar’s seminal work Toy Story.

Woody Buzz TOy Story

Story Conflict Lesson #1: Conflict Is About Obstacles, Not Altercations

This lesson is two-fold, and I’m just going to come straight out and tell you the first one. Lesson #1 is simply this: story conflict isn’t actually about character altercations. Story conflict is nothing more or less than the meeting of your character’s goal with an obstacle that gets in the way of that goal. The character is at Point A, the goal is at Point B—and the obstacle (the conflict)? Right in the middle.

Goal Obstacle Conflict Infographic

Story Conflict Lesson #2: Conflict Needs to Be Compounded

So for our example, I want you to remember the scene in Toy Story’s Third Act in which the evil neighbor kid Sid has strapped Buzz to a rocket and taken him out to the yard to blow him up—leaving Woody locked in the bedroom.

Saving Buzz is the goal, and the locked door is an obstacle creating conflict. Pretty simple, right? And this conflict leads Woody to concocting a whole plan that begins with unlocking the door.

Woody's Plan in Sid's Room Toy Story

Now let’s say overcoming that first bit of conflict and achieving that first goal was the end the of the scene. Nothing wrong with that; it is well structured. But complications are the stuff of good fiction and good conflict. And so we should certainly not be surprised that master storytellers such as those as Pixar didn’t stop there.

What’s waiting for Woody on the other side of that door once he finally gets it unlocked? Scud the psycho bull terrier—another, even more dangerous obstacle!

Scud Toy Story

Just like that, the conflict is upped, and the story is able to keep right on rolling. And that is Lesson #2.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! How could you compound the story conflict in your latest scene by adding another obstacle between your character and his goal? Tell me in the comments!

The Pixar Way to Think About Story Conflict

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

    Glad you enjoyed the graphics!

  2. Sometimes while writing, I just feel like things keep happening the way they were planned and even the conflict is somewhat predictable. The plot happens like it’s supposed to and the characters are all accommodating. Every now and then I realize that life doesn’t always go as planned and stuff gets messy. You’re late for a meeting, coffee spills on your slacks, you trip and fall when you least expect it. I feel like some of the best story obstacles (like the dog later in the movie chasing after the moving van) really come out of the blue.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Exactly. Structure–including scene structure–can sometimes create kind of a safety net. We’ve got this checklist: Goal? Check. Conflict? Check. But if it’s as simple as that in every scene, it can still get monotonous. We have to keep hitting our characters as hard as we can as often as we can.

  3. Wow, I never thought of conflict this way before. And it makes perfect sense. Love it!

  4. Yea, Toy Story! It was fun seeing that scene replay in my head as you gave the lessons about conflict. That was one of the many things I loved about reading Creativity, Inc. was having such beloved films replay through my minds’ eye. Cool graphics, by the way.

  5. James M M Baldwin says:

    Vundabar.

  6. Brilliant post, K.M. I think I just watched my entire story structure pop into place. Love when I read something that spawns an epiphany. Keep up the fantastic work!

  7. Jim Arnold says:

    That’s just it. The story, though, in its rough draft, is boring because I can’t seem to get enough conflict into it. Everything is going too smoothly in spite of what little obstacle there is. I think I’ll have to re-outline the whole story and do a “do over” or something like that.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      One of my favorite techniques is writing a list of “the ten worst things that could happen” the the protagonist. Dig deep to find the character’s specific weak spots and figure out how to hit him right there where it hurts the most.

  8. Once again, a very helpful article! Thank you for the continued inspiration to push beyond a good storyline to craft a great one.

  9. thomas h cullen says:

    Just as a separate endeavour, trying to deflect two planets off of another planet is “beyond human limitations”.. and then there’s the added problem of the Earth Representative!

    Purposefully, is this person making him wait? Or, is it just coincidence, that he’s “still” waiting?

    The story between the Earth Representative and Croyan is precisely what makes The Representative ingenious.

  10. This came at exactly the right time for an edit I’m working on. Funny how it’s the simple things that are so easily overlooked.

  11. Great post! I love the visuals!

    Conflict can be difficult to do well, because I think a lot of writers are overwhelmed with it. This is a great way to break it down and show how simple it really is.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I think we can get hung up on the terminology. We hear “conflict” and we think arguments and nuclear warheads going off. But in themselves, those things don’t actually drive the plot. It’s the inherent relationship between the character’s goal and whatever’s blocking it that moves the plot.

  12. Much enjoyed. Thank you.

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