Conflict is one of the key elements to any scene, any act, any plotline of scripted drama (and comedy as well).
I was reminded of this when I was going back and forth recently with a film director as we discussed collaborating on a project together.
He wanted me to check out the storyline that he had originally worked on and used this lure to get me to read -- “From minute one it has conflict in every scene.”
It was a fantastic lure on his part because I did indeed read the work and found that the story had exactly as he had advertised --
“Conflict in every scene.”
I know it sounds obvious, but its amazing how many screenwriters take in the word “conflict,” and say to themselves something along the lines of, “duh, of course.”
Only to then move on to write their scripts in a way that is shockingly short of any conflict in the storyline, plot, between the characters, etc.
When professional screenwriters fail in their efforts regarding “conflict,” they often fail by not making the conflict “organic,” which means they emerge with a screenplay where the conflict on the page reads/plays like it is often times written to satisfy a part of the storytelling process they know they must fulfill.
Professional Screenwriters also fail when the “conflict” is interwoven into the storyline in a way that involves only the major character and has nothing to do with the other supporting characters beyond who the protagonist interacts with throughout the plot. This problem leads to stretches in the script where the reader/viewer is often bored because they don’t feel the same undertow of emotional tension, anticipation, and excitement running beneath the other parts of the screenplay/movie associated with the conflict focused on the main character.
But at least the professional screenwriter knows enough of his craft to maintain a level of conflict for the main character, even if at times it comes off as a token effort.
Non-professional screenwriters are often mystified when the reader of their screenplay doesn’t want to go forward after reading the first twenty to thirty pages.
Or the producer was bored reading their script and asked their assistant to read it first and provide coverage… before turning it down.
Obviously there are several factors why the above scenarios occur, but I definitely will put my money on the lack of conflict being one of the issues that is involved in almost all non-professionally written screenplays.
Professional Screenwriters know that any script should have a ghost haunting much of the plot of any story that keeps the reader wanting to turn the pages, and the viewer wanting to see what happens next. If that ghost had a Latin name it would be –
Latin. A legal principle, of whatever origins, now found in the English Common law,
roughly translated as "the law of the land."
1 - Establish the rules of the screen story being told.
2 – Establish the main character, who is in conflict with the law of the land.
The above is where even the most celebrated professional screenwriters go off track when their stories fail to resonate with readers or audiences.
I’m exactly like the producer I cite above, reading so many scripts from “unknown” screenwriters who want to become known, but don't write in a way that at least satisfies the two points above.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read scripts that have the main character doing the most mundane things, like for instance brushing their teeth.
And that’s it. There’s nothing else attached to the choice of having a main character brush their teeth in the script.
That’s not to say that someone brushing their teeth can’t be a scene that ends up intriguing the reader.
In an episode from the brilliant series “Black Mirror,” titled “Fifteen Million Merits” ( written by Charlie Brooker and Konnie Huq) the main character wakes up and brushes his teeth and we see in this daily activity there is a decision, a challenge to what he will do. Here’s a link to the entire show, and the scene I’ve written about occurs at the 1:40 mark of the show.
Even in the most mundane seeming actions in a script, Conflict is something that should permeate every aspect of a writer’s mind when constructing their story and executing the scenes in a screenplay.
Conflict should be the ghost haunting the writer’s every creative step as he/she creates a screenplay that ends up being work that people will not only start, but end up finishing because they have to know how it all plays out.
If you don't agree with me, that's fine. Maybe we should take it outside and talk about it some more...