by Greg D’Alessandro
I can’t take it anymore. As a reader in this town for over five years, I’m constantly asking myself the above question. A great number of scripts I read (professional and amateur) are lacking, if not devoid, of conflict. No overall dramatic tension and no dramatic tension in the scenes. When I read scene after scene of characters chatting with each other, talking about their iPods, the hot guy in the room, orange juice etc. – no matter how clever, witty or poetic – I want to hurl the script across the room. Actually, I DO hurl the script across the room. Conflict is a basic tenet of dramatic writing that goes back to Aristotle. A story without conflict is… the phonebook! Please, please… don’t write ANY scenes they are lacking strong dramatic conflict. This is what makes scenes come alive. This is what makes your story a page-turner. This is what makes the reader want to keep reading and the viewer want to keep watching. And, most importantly, this is what keeps me sane!
Let’s look at overall dramatic tension first. David Howard, the Founding Director of USC’s acclaimed Graduate Screenwriting Program, has defined ALL stories this way: “somebody wants something badly and is having difficulty getting it.” Simple, right? Wrong. You’d be surprised by the number of writers who can’t tell you WHAT the protagonist in their story wants, let alone WHY they are having difficulty getting it. The “what” can be discussed in a future article – and boy THAT’S a big topic - but with regard to conflict, answering the WHY will help the writer determine what the primary conflict is in the story. WHY is your protagonist having difficulty getting what they want? What are the OBSTACLES that are preventing them from achieving their goal?
It’s not a bad idea to list the obstacles that your protagonist faces in the story. Usually, there are at least five obstacles standing in the way of the protagonist. One of those obstacles is always the protagonist himself, because he or she has an arc. He or she is on transforming from a personality into a person, and is struggling internally with regard to the goal he or she is seeking. The other obstacles are external (mountains to climb, boyfriends to dump, aliens to eat, etc.). And, of course, you have antagonist(s) who are actively trying to stop the protagonist from getting what he or she wants (Darth Vader, The Wicked Witch of the West, Angelina Jolie, etc.) So make sure you know what the overall conflict is for your story. What does your protagonist want? What is preventing him from getting it? Make sure you can answer these questions simply and specifically.
Scenes. This is where the biggest problems are. Writers don’t “build” scenes like they should. Instead they write scenes that are “entertaining” or “clever” or “cool.” Yeah they’re cool, but they’re also… boring! Why? Because there’s no conflict! Writers sometimes balk at the suggestion of adding conflict to a scene because they think that conflict means two or more characters have to physically attack each other or they need to be screaming at each other. No, no, no. Conflict merely means that there are two (or more) characters in the scene that have opposing wants or intentions. Writers need to look at scenes from an actor’s perspective. Actors need to have an “intention” in a scene or else there’s nothing for them to play – they become part of the scenery. A dramatic scene is a story. It has a beginning, a middle and an end. And it has a character who “wants something badly but is having difficulty getting it.” Sound familiar? The protagonist in the scene has an overall goal for the story, yes, but in the scene at hand, he or she is taking one step on their journey to that goal and is encountering an obstacle that is preventing him or her from advancing. So, as Hal Ackerman the co-chair of UCLA’s MFA Screenwriting Program suggests, when writing a scene ask yourself this question: “what does my character want, and what is he doing NOW to get it?” Also ask yourself, “WHO is opposing the character in this scene”? If you identify what EACH character in a scene wants BEFORE you write the scene, it will make writing that scene much easier and it will ensure that you have a dynamic, dramatic scene.
Here’s an insider tip. After reading a script, I usually flip through it, stopping randomly at ten different pages. If there’s no conflict on five or more of those pages I IMMEDIATELY give the script a PASS. If there’s conflict on all ten pages, then I know the writer knows what he or she is doing and assume the story must be good as well. And guess what? I’m always right. Great writers write great scenes. And great scenes ALWAYS have strong conflict.
So, where’s the conflict? On EVERY single page of a script. No exceptions!