Last week we talked about establishing conflict through characters, relationships, and external forces. During the article, I casually mentioned the importance of conflict within scenes as well. Many of you expressed interest in hearing more about that, so I decided to expand my conflict ramblings to a second week.
Indeed, virtually every scene in your screenplay should have some element of conflict if it’s going to entertain an audience. I cannot stress this enough. One of the biggest mistakes I see in screenplays is boring scenes. Scenes that only exist for characters to spout exposition, to reveal backstory, or to wax philosophic. I’ve referred to these scenes before as “scenes of death.” The quickest way to make these scenes interesting is to add conflict.
The basis for all conflict comes from an imbalance – two forces opposed to one another (wanting different things), or even one force wanting something it can’t have. Usually these forces are represented by your characters. But they can be external as well (if our character is racing towards the airport to tell his girlfriend he loves her, the opposing force might be a traffic jam). So when you sit down to write a scene, you’re always looking to create that imbalance, that unresolved issue, to add an entertainment factor to the sequence.
Having said that, it should be noted that in rare circumstances, you can get away with no conflict. For example, in order for the scene in Notting Hill to work where Anna invites William up to her hotel only to find her boyfriend there (a scene heavy with conflict), we needed a few scenes with the two having a great time together. So eliminating the conflict in those previous scenes actually made the conflict stronger in this one. So as long as you have a purpose for not using conflict, it’s okay (however I would always err on the side of adding conflict).
In true Scriptshadow form, I’ve decided to highlight 10 movies and look at how they create conflict within their scenes. This should give you a clearer picture on how to apply conflict to scenes in your own screenplays.
Meet The Parents
Scene: The Dinner Scene
Conflict: The conflict here is simple. Greg wants to impress Jack so he’ll approve of him marrying his daughter. Jack wants to expose Greg as the inadequate choice for his daughter that he is (two opposing forces – a clear imbalance). This is a great reminder that the best conflict has usually been set up beforehand. So we’ve already established in Greg’s earlier scenes how important getting married to Jack’s daughter is (testing his proposal on one of his patients, organizing her preschool class to help him propose). We’ve also established how reluctant Jack is to accept Greg (when he first shows up, Jack disagrees with him on almost everything). This is the most basic application of conflict in a scene, but as you can see, even the most basic conflict can make a scene highly entertaining.
The Sixth Sense
Scene: Malcolm tries to get Cole to talk to him.
Conflict: This is a very understated scene, but the conflict is well-crafted. Malcolm wants Cole to trust him. Cole is resistant to trusting Malcolm. Again, a simple imbalance. One person wants one thing. Another person wants the opposite. Night cleverly draws the scene out by building a game around it – if Malcolm guesses something right about Cole, he has to take a step forward. If he guesses wrong, Cole gets to take a step back. So you actually feel the conflict with every question.
Back To The Future
Scene: Marty asks Doc to get him back to the future.
Conflict: Once Marty convinces 1950s Doc that he’s from the future, Doc lets him inside. Now at this point, the two are on the same page. They both want to get Marty back to the future. So there’s no conflict between the characters. Instead, the conflict comes from the fact that Doc doesn’t believe it’s possible. So again, two forces are colliding with one another and need to be resolved. At the end of the scene, they realize that the lightning can send him back to the future, and the conflict is resolved (sometimes conflict will be resolved by the end of a scene and sometimes not – it depends on the story and what you’re trying to do).
Scene: Multiple scenes.
Conflict: One of the reasons Rocky is so great is because almost every single scene is packed with conflict. Whether it’s Rocky trying to get a resistant Adrian to go out with him. Whether it’s Rocky getting kicked out of his gym. Whether it’s Mick begging Rocky to let him coach him. Whether it’s his constant clashes with Paulie (and his destructive behavior). Whether it’s him telling a resistant girl to stop hanging around thugs and do something with her life. If you want to know how to create conflict within scenes, pop this movie in your DVD player right now.
Scene: Birthday scene.
Conflict: In this scene, the army men sneak down to Andy’s birthday to report what the new presents are. The conflict stems from trying to report the presents without getting caught. Remember, if it didn’t matter whether the army men were discovered or not, there would be no conflict (and therefore no drama) in this scene. The conflict comes from the fact that if they’re seen, they’re screwed. This is actually one of the reasons the Toy Story franchise is so successful. Because nearly every scene is built around this imbalance. The toys have to pretend to be inanimate whenever humans are around. That means every scene is packed with conflict.
Scene: Deli scene
Conflict: In this famous scene, the conflict comes from the fact that everything in The Ram’s life is falling apart – his health, his family, his profession – and the last place he wants to be is at his $10 an hour deli job. So there’s conflict within the character before the scene even begins. But when his boss starts getting on his nerves, when customers start pushing him, when someone recognizes him, he starts losing it. Those multiple forces pushing up against him are the conflict that makes this scene so great. It’s also another reminder that the best conflict is usually set up ahead of time. This scene doesn’t work if it’s the first scene in the movie. It works because we’ve experienced the downfall of this character. We know what he’s been through. Therefore we understand why he doesn’t want to be here.
Scene: Vivian comes back to his hotel.
Conflict: In this scene, Edward picks up Vivian on the streets and brings her back to his hotel. I specifically picked this scene because it’s a scene that amateur writers always screw up. What’s the purpose of this scene? The purpose is for these two characters to get to know each other. A very common scene in a romantic comedy or any “guy meets girl” movie. However, bad writers will take this scene and try to fill it with a bunch of clever dialogue, exposition, and backstory. If you go that route, at best you’ll have an average scene, and more likely a terrible one. Here’s the thing. This scene *does* have clever dialogue, exposition, and back story. So then why does it work? Because the writer added an element of conflict. Edward wants to talk whereas Vivian wants to get down to business. He wants to get to know her. She wants to collect her money and run. So there’s this little dance going on during the scene – the two characters wanting different things – that allows the writer to slip in clever dialogue, exposition, and backstory, without us realizing it. We’re so entertained/distracted by that dance, that all the story machinations slip under the radar. This is why conflict is so powerful. The right dose can turn an otherwise boring scene into an entertaining one.
The Other Guys
Scenes: All of them.
Conflict: One of the easiest genres to write conflict in is the buddy comedy. That’s because every single scene will have your characters clashing with each other. This is why The Hangover was so popular. This is why Rush Hour was so big. The conflict is definitely artificial, however because it’s a comedy, it works. The trick with these films is to vary the conflict from scene to scene so we don’t tire of it. For example, in an early scene at the office, Mark Wahlberg yells at Will Ferrell for being a pussy. It’s an intense scene with a lot of conflict. However later on, when Mark has dinner with Will’s wife, the conflict is more subtle. Mark keeps bothering him about the fact that there’s no way this could really be his wife. Not every scene needs to be nuclear charged with conflict. You need to mix it up just like you need to mix up any aspect of your screenplay.
Scene: Jack Rabbit Slims
Conflict: The uninitiated screenwriter will look at this scene between Vincent Vega and Mia Wallace and think it’s just a bunch of cool dialogue. Don’t be fooled. This scene’s awesomeness is based entirely on its conflict. Vincent Vega wants something he can’t have – Mia Wallace. Why? Because Mia Wallace is the wife of his boss. What’s so great about this scene though is how hard Tarantino pushes the conflict. If all that was going on here was Vincent wanting Mia, there would be conflict, but not that much. It’s the fact that Mia is throwing herself at him that’s making this so difficult. The more tempted Vincent is, the more difficult his choice becomes. Another lesson here is that the conflict doesn’t only have to come from the characters inside the scene. It’s not Mia who doesn’t want Vincent here. It’s her husband who’s preventing her from being with Vincent. So the conflict in this scene is a little trickier than normal, but it shows that if you think outside the box, you can find conflict through other avenues.
No Country For Old Men
Scene: Anton and the gas station attendant.
Conflict: In this scene, which is probably one of the best scenes of the last decade, Anton pays for gas but gets annoyed when the attendant makes an offhanded remark about where he’s from. The conflict here comes from two places. The first is through dramatic irony. We know how dangerous Anton is. We know what he’s capable of. So we fear what he’s going to do to this man. Dramatic irony is basically conflict between the character and the audience member. It’s usually us not wanting a character to do something. So the imbalance has actually broken the fourth wall. The other conflict here is basic. Anton refuses to let the attendant off for anything he says. Every sentence is shot back in his face. The longer the conversation goes, the more dangerous (and more conflict filled) the scene becomes.
The idea is you want to look at every scene and ask the question, “Where is the conflict here?” Where are the opposing forces? Where is the imbalance? If everything is too easy for the characters in your screenplay – if everybody agrees on everything or the characters don’t face any resistance – there’s a good chance your scene is boring. There are instances where it’s okay (such as the Notting Hill example) but for the most part, you want some conflict in your scene. So get back to that script you’re working on and start making all those scenes more interesting by adding conflict. Good luck! :-)