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:
- Prelude to Conflict: Variables that make conflict possible between those involved
- Triggering Event: A particular event, such as criticism which creates the conflict
- Initiation Phase: Occurs when at least one person makes it known to the other that a conflict exists
- Differentiation Phase: Parties raise the conflict issues and pursue reasons for the varying positions
- 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.