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Conflict is one of the most essential elements in any screenplay. It drives scenes, motivates characters, and propels entire stories forward. If you’ve been writing for long, these simple facts have been pounded into your head by every screenwriting book, DVD and guru you’ve come across.
You’ve heard that every scene you write should have some sort of conflict, but it can be a struggle to naturally integrate conflict into your story. When you force obstacles, they can feel contrived. And inauthentic conflict is one of the most common reasons screenplays fall flat.
Next time you’re stuck with a conflict-less scene, remember this: All conflict stems from concept.
From TV to movies to comic books… Good writing culls conflict from concept.
To help make sure your screenplay follows this guideline, ask yourself the following three questions: 1) What is my concept? 2) What question does my concept pose? And 3) How can I use that question to infuse the scene I’m writing with conflict?
If you’re working with a solid premise, this exercise will force you to remember the turmoil you’ve already set up, and you’ll be able to more readily access that as you move from scene to scene.
While this all might seem a bit obvious, it’s easy to lose sight of your concept and conflict when you’re writing, and your story can suffer as a result.
Below, we’ve analyzed the conflict in Notting Hill and Raising Hope in order to help demonstrate our point:
Notting Hill. When you think of this 1999 classic, your mind might not immediately jump to conflict heavy scenes. But upon close inspection, you’ll find that throughout the film, the writer milked conflict from the concept with effortless grace and precision.
Here, we’ll approach the movie using the questions discussed above…
What is the concept? A mega movie star falls in love with a British bookstore owner.
What question does the concept pose? Can an incredibly famous and wealthy actress form a successful relationship with a regular guy?
Clearly, the concept is rich with conflict. Rich girl vs. regular guy. The basic premise leaves the audience hungry for more, and as the story progresses, the writer delivers emphatically. Throughout the script, each scene draws on the concept, pitting Hugh and Julia’s worlds against each other as they fall further and further in love.
For example, when Hugh first visits Julia for what’s ostensibly a date at her hotel, he walks straight into a press junket for her latest movie. Consequently, he must pretend that he’s a journalist from “Horse and Hound Magazine” for the duration of the scene. The conflict comes from Hugh being out of place in Julia’s world, and pretending to be something he’s not.
Later, when things start to go wrong for the couple, the writer continues to mine conflict from concept. Julia arrives at Hugh’s London flat after a sex tape scandal sullies her name. Things quickly turn sour when the press finds her at Hugh’s place, and Julia lambasts Hugh for giving up her location. She accuses him of seeking out the tabloid limelight. In this moment more than any other, their worlds are truly juxtaposed, and the audience sees for the first time the true dangers of the main character’s unconventional relationship.
Notting Hill is an expertly crafted script. From the opening scene until the final image, nearly every scene explores the central conflict inherent in the concept, resulting in a strong, tight, and thematically unified story.
Raising Hope. Even when it comes to sitcoms, good writing features conflict born from concept. For those of you unfamiliar with the show, here’s the gist of it: A 20 year old guy is left alone to care for an infant child, and as he learns to be a father, his own parents learn a few lessons of their own.
With this show, the main question posed is: Will Jimmy be able to manage raising a baby on his own, despite being so young himself?
In almost every scene, the writers address this central question. In the pilot, it’s simple stuff. Jimmy has to change the baby’s diaper. Jimmy has to figure out how to get the baby to go to sleep. Things like that.
But as the season progresses, the show goes in all sorts of fun directions, all the while keeping Jimmy’s story tethered to the concept.
In episode two, Jimmy starts to date a lunatic baby sitter just because she’s good with his baby, even though he really wants to date her cousin. This is a perfect example of conflict from concept. First, it addresses the big problem: How is Jimmy going to care for this baby? But it also addresses the secondary problem: How is Jimmy going to keep living his life now that he has a baby? In this episode, the baby not only forces Jimmy to date a creepy, dead-toothed baby sitter, but in doing so it keeps him from getting closer to ‘the girl.’ Each of these issues is disastrous for a 20-year-old guy, and each is inextricably linked to the question posed by the concept.
Notting Hill and Raising Hope are two very different stories meant for two very different audiences. Upon first glance, the conflict in either may be hard to spot, perhaps overshadowed by the twinkle in Julia’s eye, or a particularly hilarious ‘baby poop joke.’ But the writers kept their stories strong by linking conflict to concept whenever possible.
In order to make sure your writing does the same, you need to start thinking about conflict almost as soon as you come up with a new idea. If your newest concept is rife with related conflict, and you’re overflowing with ideas for scenes, arguments and story arcs, then you’re on the right track. On the other hand, if your concept seems great at first, but doesn’t generate much conflict, you might want to move on to something new.
This can also be a very useful tool as you rewrite an old script. Does the screenplay feel slow? Does it lack momentum? Do you feel stuck? Go through the script scene by scene, checking to make sure your conflict comes directly from your concept. Chances are, you’re missing some good opportunities to bring the concept to its full potential. Follow the process outlined above, and you’ll be well on your way to a successful rewrite.
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