Monday, September 27, 2010

So what is this "conflict" anyway? - Part II: the practice

Enough of your borax, Poindexter. We need action!

While preparing for my last article, my philosophical though somewhat unresolved search for the nature of story conflict did unearth some information that proves useful and practically applicable to screenwriters and aspiring writers when it comes to actual story creation.

Everybody knows that a dramatic story cannot exist without conflict, but I have encountered many aspiring screenwriters who are unclear on what story conflict actually is. These writers think they follow the rules, yet in the end cannot understand why their scripts fail the way they do. As I have said before, if anyone is ever going to understand something, they must first define just what the hell they are talking about. I found an official definition of the term used by those who specialize in real-world conflict resolution:

Conflict is, “"when two or more parties, with perceived incompatible goals, seek to undermine each other's goal-seeking capability".

This definition could not be more valid when it comes to the craft of screenwriting. Conflict is not two characters bickering. Conflict does not come simply from two characters who do not like each other. Conflict does not come from arbitrary fighting, chasing, shooting, or blowing stuff up. Real story conflict can only exist when a.) two or more characters each have individual goals that are directly opposed to each other, and b.) the characters take action toward their goal at the expense of the other character achieving their own. Directly opposed goals are the key. Conflicts between characters must be so arranged that one person's goal cannot possibly be achieved without defeating of the other person's goal in the process. There can be no win-win situations in story. The cop wants to put the criminal in jail, but the criminal wants to remain free. The monster would like to kill the blonde teenager, but the teenager prefers to stay alive. One kid wants the last cookie, but so does another kid. It is impossible for both sides to get what they want. One of them will have to lose. When one character pursues their goal, and then sees that the other character is a threat, the first character becomes willing to FIGHT in order to win the contest. This is the only place “conflict” comes from.

As stated in my last article, human beings love to see conflict. They are drawn to it like a moth to a light. It is what makes a story interesting. This means in order to write a screenplay that holds onto an audience's interest from beginning to end, EVERY scene requires some sort of conflict within it. This conflict does not necessarily have to be between the protagonist and antagonist. It could be between any two characters. This conflict may directly involve the Main Story Conflict that drives the story's narrative, or it may have little to nothing to do with it. All that is required is that in every scene there must be two or more characters who have opposing desires, and that these characters are willing to stick to their guns and try to get what they want despite the opposition.

Detective Jake Gittes wants to look up recent land sales, but the rude clerk just wants him to leave. John McClane wants to ride in the limo in peace and quiet, but the driver Argyle wants to talk. Jason Bourne wants a German girl to drive him to Paris, but the girl wants nothing to do with a stranger. The scene ends when one side wins by forcing the other to give in. Who wins all depends on which side is more dedicated to their goal. Gittes is dedicated enough to his case that he will not let a little rudeness stop him. Argyle wants conversation so bad he ignores McClanes attempts to make him stop. Bourne is willing to offer a stack of money to overcome the girl's resistance.

But a scene does not always end in a win-lose situation. Sometimes it is lose-lose. Sometimes they are interrupted in the middle of their conflict and the battle remains unresolved. But the result of the scene's conflict is not nearly as important as the fact that there exists a conflict to power the action of the scene in the first place.

Also, conflict is not limited to scenes with more than one character. Conflict can and should be at play in solo scenes as well. Something in that scene should make it more difficult for that one character to reach his or her goal. If a man tries to start his car, but it won't turn over, the conflict is man vs. object. The man want his car to start, the car refuses. If a man is merely walking to his apartment building, but the heat of the sun makes this act uncomfortable, the conflict is man vs. environment. A person can be alone, but still struggle with internal conflict. Internal conflict means that the person possesses two conflicting desires that cannot both be fulfilled. A man is mad at his girlfriend and wants to cut off all contact, but at the same time he is dying to pick up the phone and talk to her. Internal conflict splits a character in two, as if he were now two individual people, struggling against each other for what they want.

Internal conflict is another area of confusion for developing writers. Often I find scripts where the writer claims that the main conflict is internal, but all I really get is a long, boring narrative where nothing happens. The conflict is not internal. There IS no conflict.

Internal conflict does not mean a lack of external conflict. Quite the contrary, a writer needs to create just as much direct person-to-person conflict in a story where the main conflict is supposed to be internal as they would with a traditional external conflict. A conflict only exists when the audience can SEE on the screen two forces butting heads. If a character is wracked with conflicting desires, this internal struggle must MANIFEST itself into the outside world through the character's actions. The internal struggle motivates the character to take actions that create secondary conflicts with the people around her. This is the only way for the audience to understand the conflict, and it is also the only way to keep the story from being a complete snore.

The same thing goes for stories that in lieu of a person-vs-person conflict, attempt a conflict on the social level, or a cosmic one. A character may attempt to fight against a notion such as “injustice,” but in a cinematic story, a conflict cannot be played out against the abstract. The character needs to have a physical opponent to fight against in order for the audience to experience that conflict. If a character sets out to battle “injustice” conflict must come when she runs afoul of another character whose opinions of this injustice are the complete opposite of hers. This character comes to represent the abstract concept she is fighting against as a tangible antagonist.

Another area where people sometimes have problems with is telling the difference between general “dramatic conflict” -the type that should exist in every scene just to keep it interesting, (the type of conflict that could come from practically any two sources, from hero vs. villain, to a cat vs. a bowling ball), and the Main Story Conflict- the central conflict that drives the entire story. The Main Story Conflict refers only to the opposition that occurs between the protagonist and the antagonist (or the force of antagonism if there is no human antagonist in the story) once the protagonist begins his or her pursuit of his/her Main Story Goal, according to the Story's Spine. Here once more is my diagram of the Story Spine and its five essential components:

In a correctly-constructed Story Spine, once the protagonist recognizes that he/she has a Problem, and begins down their Path of Action towards his/her Main Story Goal, the antagonist creates an ever-present conflict blocking the protagonist's way. The antagonist is in the way because, as I have already said, the antagonist has his or her own goal that is the complete opposite of the protagonist.

It is easy for readers and writers alike to become confused between general dramatic conflict and the Main Story Conflict because they are usually referred to by the same terms. When someone talks about “the conflict” of a story, it is difficult to tell to which they refer. Ancient Greeks like Aristotle used term agon to refer to the central contest in a tragedy. Aristotle used this term in Poetics to apply to to the main story conflict at play, but perhaps we need to invent a newer, little less ancient term to make things easier to comprehend.

Further difficulty comes when one finds that it is hard to tell when exactly the Main Story Conflict begins in many movies. Screenwriters have almost unanimously adopted the term “Inciting Incident” for this moment. The inciting incident is the moment when the story truly starts in earnest, because it marks the starting point of the Story Spine. The inciting incident occurs at the point where the protagonist, a. first encounters the Main Story Problem, b. decides on what Goal must be achieved to overcome the problem, and then, c. decides to take action- action that will put them into conflict with the antagonist.

However, in many movies, the Main Story Problem already exists well before the official “inciting incident.” For instance, in The Dark Knight, the Joker is already running rampant all over Gotham City before Batman even knows of his existence. Where would the inciting incident be placed there? How about American Beauty, where the protagonist Lester Burnham is fully aware of his problem even before the story begins (his life sucks), but does not do anything about it until after the fifteen minute mark?

According to the study of real-world conflict resolution, there are five stages to any type of conflict:

  1. Prelude to Conflict: Variables that make conflict possible between those involved
  2. Triggering Event: A particular event, such as criticism which creates the conflict
  3. Initiation Phase: Occurs when at least one person makes it known to the other that a conflict exists
  4. Differentiation Phase: Parties raise the conflict issues and pursue reasons for the varying positions
  5. Integration stage / Resolution: Parties acknowledge common grounds and explore possibilities to move towards a solution

In a cinematic story, the inciting incident does not happen until the first THREE phases listed above occur. The inciting incident only happens (launching the Story Spine and beginning the main conflict) once three things take place in the story: First, the Story Problem must come into existence. Second, the protagonist must LEARN that the Story Problem exists. And finally, the protagonist decides to TAKE ACTION to do something about that Problem. Until all three of these have occurred, the inciting incident has not yet occurred, and the story has yet to officially begin. Anything that takes place before all three of these qualification are met are merely part of the story's setup, and not part of the Story Spine proper.

The reason I make such an effort to point this out is that I have encountered so many scripts that go on for dozens and dozens of pages before finally reaching a real inciting incident. I have seen plenty of scripts where no real Story Problem arises until page 40. I have read 100 page scripts where the Story Problem shows up on page 10, but the protagonist neglects to take any action over it until page 60. The result of the latter is a movie that has a whopping sixty minutes of setup, but a mere forty minutes of real story. To create a properly-paced screenplay, the first three phases of conflict as listed above must take place within the first 10-18 pages. Otherwise, the script will begin to bore the hell out of the reader. Why? Because there is no real conflict. I cannot say this enough: until the inciting incident launches the story spine and initiates the main conflict, YOUR STORY HAS NOT YET BEGUN! You are just making the audience angry by keeping them waiting.

Once the inciting incident takes place, Phase 4 as listed above, the Differentiation Phase, then takes up the majority of the rest of a story, everything from the inciting incident to the story's main climax. Here the two sides play out their conflict while pursuing their goals, developing the story situation and escalating their efforts against each other. The final phase, Resolution, takes place at the story's climax. However, in a cinematic story, there can be no “acknowledgment of common ground” between the two parties. There can be no peaceful resolution or win-win situation. The fact that protagonist and antagonist have completely opposite and contradictory goals means that story conflict can only be resolved by one side winning and the other side losing. And this loss must be irrevocable, meaning the losing side is left completely unable to continue fighting. Story conflict is life or death. The two sides must be the irresistible force versus the immoveable object. The only way to end it is for one finally give.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

So what is this "conflict" anyway? - Part I: the theory

(Related article: What is "conflict", Part II)

We've all heard it a thousand times. Drama cannot exist without conflict. Drama IS conflict. Conflict is the force that powers drama. Etc., etc., etc. This is unquestionably true. As anyone who reads scripts will know, a story without sufficient conflict is a terribly dull and pointless experience. Nothing worth caring happens, and because there is no reason for anything worth caring about TO happen. According to the Story Spine, a story without conflict cannot even be called a story. It bears about as much drama as your aunt's four hours of vacation slides, or a description of a blouse in last year's Sears catalog. Without conflict, there is nothing for an audience to find interesting. No matter how creative a narrative's premise, setting, and characters, a storyteller will never hold an audience's attention for more than ten minutes without conflict.

But the question I have the arrogance to ask is, “Why?” WHY can't drama exist without conflict? Why does a story need conflict in order to exist? What is it about the nature of conflict that makes it interesting to a human viewer, while anything without is a flat bore? Over and over I have heard men and women, experts in the field of drama, make statements about conflict as if they were as much as a given as the sky being blue, but I have never heard anyone explain why. Is there a reason behind this?

In mathematics, there are concepts known as “axioms.” An axiom is a basic mathematical proposition that is considered to be self-evident. If someone wanted to proved it through logical deduction, they would find it impossible. Examples include that if a = b, then therefore b=a, or a+b=b+a. Unlike theorems, axioms cannot be derived by principles of deduction, nor are they demonstrable by mathematical proofs, simply because they are starting points; there is nothing else from which they logically follow. Doubt the axioms, and all of mathematics falls apart. Is drama=conflict an axiom of storytelling? An unprovable fact that must be accepted by faith? Or is there a reason behind it?

To proceed logically, we must begin by defining our terms. What exactly is “drama?” Both drama and dramatic are used in such various ways the terms become vague and abstract. Even in literary and artistic circles it becomes a go-to label to describe just about anything narrative, theatrical, or emotionally striking. But when one tries to pinpoint an actual definition, we find that our question is a dog chasing its own tail.  

“Drama” means “conflict”. The two terms are nearly synonymous. If someone says that a situation was dramatic, they mean that it was filled with conflict. If you had too much drama in your last relationship, this means you and your other had constantly conflicting attitudes and emotions. If something creates a “dramatic change,” this means that there is a definite contrast (a conflict in appearance or perception) between how things were before and after. Even when “dramatic” denotes strong displays of emotion, one must admit that such displays cannot exist in a person without a conflict to trigger it. Therefore, we need to throw the word “drama” out the window and change the question to, “Why does a story demand conflict?” What is it about conflict that people find interesting?

Human beings love to experience conflict. They crave it. It's an urge still alive and well after millions of years of evolution in our reptilian brains. And I don't just mean the ancient savagery of cheering for blood in a gladiator arena. It exists in all of our lives. Modern enjoyments of conflict include an interest in sporting events, court cases, politics, gossip, board games, business, contests, competitions, hunting, fishing, hide-and-go-seek, the list could go on. But people rarely want to experience conflict directly in its cruel unchecked form. Very few enjoy the stress of arguments or the threat of fist fights. We want to experience the joy of conflict from either the perspective of an uninvolved viewer, or within safe controlled boundaries, such as the rules of a sport. This is completely normal, and many believe healthy within limits. But to try to find an explanation, one would have to delve deep into the nature of human psychology. There are undoubtedly volumes of discussion dedicated to this question, but to investigate further would probably only create more questions than answers. So, I will leave that Pandora's box closed and focus specifically on how the human desire for conflict manifests itself in story

Why does a story need conflict in order to exist? I have thought about it, and try as I might, I cannot come up with any direct answer. All I can hope to do is relate it to the needs of a narrative story.
Definition time again: What exactly do we mean by “story?” What separates a story from other types of narrative communication, such as a news article or television commercial? In a chapter of my upcoming book, I present this definition:

A STORY is 1.) a structured series of events, 2.) about characters, 3.) dealing with a problem, 4.) unified by a premise.

Now, trust me when I say my definition backed up by sound logic, because the only part of this definition of interest at the moment is part #3. Stories are about problems. From the simplest of folktales to the grandest of literary epics, all well-told stories from the beginning of time revolve around a character dealing with some kind of problem. A problem naturally implies conflict. Something is wrong with the protagonist's world, and the protagonist sets out to struggle against forces set against them to solve that problem.
Why is this? Why have all real stories ever told fit into this simple pattern? The answer lies in why stories exist in human culture in the first place. Humanity has a psychological need for stories. The world we live in is chaotic, confusing, orderless, and sometimes meaningless. Things rarely turn out the way we want them to, and the cumulative effect of our hopes and desires consistently going unfulfilled can drive a person to despair or even madness

Story's most important social function is to give people the illusion of a structured, orderly world where things happen for a reason, where actions have tangible results and clear meanings, a world where things are resolved in the end. Stories are not a reflection of the world we live in, but an analogy of the world as we would like it to be.
We all have problems in our lives. They can overwhelm us. Many seem unsolvable. Sometimes our problems are so great they just might drive us insane. This is where stories come in. Stories are social therapy. Stories give us people with problems. People just like us. As the story progresses, the character moves forward to overcome that problem. Once the character's problem has been solved, the story comes to an end. Through the social therapy of stories, people come to believe that their troubles are not insurmountable, that problems do have solutions, and that no matter how bad things may seem, everyone has a shot at a happy ending.
So, one reason why a story demands conflict is because a story demands that a character struggle against a problem. From their comfortable position as a detached viewer, the audience can watch human beings like them take on enormous problems and battle against conflicts more severe than any of us ever hope to find ourselves in. We watch these people fight for their lives, their loves, their souls against forces that appear insurmountable. And the audience gains pleasure from that. If they see others fighting against such problems and ultimately succeeding, it makes the audience's own problems seem far less threatening. If others can achieve the impossible, it gives the audience hope for success in their own lives. And the bigger the conflict they experience through the story, the more pleasure they will receive.

I realize that this does not completely answer the question I originally set out to answer. It only illuminates story conflict on its most macroscopic level. Maybe there is more to uncover that will explain things on a deeper level.

Or, maybe drama=conflict IS a storytelling axiom. All I know is that, like science, continuously increasing our understanding of our craft on its most basic level can only make us greater, more insightful storytellers on its most advanced. Keep digging.