We finally come to the end of our study on the four elements of conflict as shared in James Scott Bell’s book Conflict and Suspense. As it’s been a few weeks since we’ve discussed these elements, I’m going to take a moment to remind you of the basics.
- Conflict begins with character, and every good story needs a lead worth following. Of course, we want our lead to intrigue and inspire, but he must also struggle. We want to witness how he deals with discouragement and defeat, and then we want to watch him rise above it.
- Though we’re invested enough in the lead to follow his journey, we don’t necessarily have to like him. Negative leads have the power to captivate an audience as much as a positive lead: think Ebenezer Scrooge or J.R. Ewing.
- Regardless of the emotion he evokes in us, the lead we follow must face a formidable adversary. Having two evenly matched opponents adds tension to the conflict and creates an element of suspense within the story.
- Our hero must also have a reason to stay in the fight. His purpose must authentically reflect who he is and what he believes, and the final outcome must determine the difference between life and death.
The last component of conflict is the Knock-out Ending. According to Bell, this grand finale is “a last point of conflict where the stakes are highest and the outcome in doubt.” This scene is vital to your story’s success, but it can follow a variety of paths.
The final battle in the hit movie The Avengers has the superheroes fighting on two fronts. They must save Manhattan from evil alien invaders and protect its citizens from a U.S. nuclear missile. The stakes are high because the fate of millions of people and the future of New York City hang in the balance. No one wants the heroes to lose this fight. Forcing the group to combat enemies both foreign and domestic ratchets up the tension, erases any thoughts of an easy win, and keeps the audience riveted to the screen.
As exhilarating as superhero battles are, anticipating the outcome of a more private battle can be just as compelling. The 2010 Academy Award winning film The King’s Speech follows the struggles of King George VI as he battles a debilitating stammer. Throughout the movie the audience feels his embarrassment, understands his frustration, and applauds his determination. But when he is called on to deliver a speech that will both challenge and comfort his nation in a time of war, the pressure he experiences is palpable. The audience holds a collective breath as they watch. Leaning toward the screen, we silently urge him on and agonize over every word he utters until we can rejoice in his accomplishment at the end.
Both films deliver exactly what audiences want in a Knock-Out Ending: a sense of satisfaction and a desire for more. Which books or movies would qualify for your favorite knock-out endings? Share your opinions in the comments section. I’d love to hear from you.