Villains, opposing forces, obstacles, conflict and drama — and why good stories use all of them

An important post for writers of all kinds

Julio Vincent Gambuto
6 min readOct 6, 2022

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Photo by Matteo Catanese on Unsplash

This week, I am breaking from my usual political and social commentary to write about writing. I am sure the next five weeks will offer plenty of fodder for commentary as we head into the midterms. For today, let’s talk about stories.

I love writing. I teach writing. I spend hours and hours every day writing screenplays, stories, and essays. I’m working on a book ; it’s almost done. I just finished an animated screenplay. All of which is to say that this post is for the writers from a writer — sent with love. Not only is writing a muscle (old news), but it is a constant learning journey. And the biggest lessons on my desk lately are the fine distinctions between villains, opposing forces, obstacles, conflict, and drama.

In Writing 101, it’s all kind of the same thing. Your hero wants something. Something else — an obstacle — is standing in their way. The general rule of thumb for a good story is that you want to throw every obstacle you can at your hero. Make them truly defend themselves, their world view, and show us — the audience, the reader — the true lengths they will go to, externally and internally, to get what it is that they want. As we all know, especially those who have endeavored to create longer works, that this is all harder than it seems. Hopefully, what follows can be helpful.

First, let’s define these terms with more clarity, then let’s see how they all fit together. I’ll use the screenplay as my default form here, but there are applications to all forms of storytelling.

Villain. The villain of your story is an actual character. Some stories don’t have villains. Inside Out, the acclaimed animated feature, doesn’t have a villain. It is one of the things that makes it such a modern movie for that genre. There is no one actually conspiring against Joy or against Riley. There is plenty of conflict and drama, but there is no villain. The villain is the character actively intending on thwarting the hero, usually because they have a world view that is opposite that of the hero’s and they want to prove it. In, say, The Devil Wears Prada, Miranda is a villain. Not only is she standing…

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Julio Vincent Gambuto

Author of “Please Unsubscribe, Thanks!” from Avid Reader Press at Simon & Schuster // Speaking at SXSW in March // juliovincent.com