Harry got up
Dressed all in black
Went down to the station
And he never came back
New York Minute by Don Henley
“Every story, every scene, and every beat is about change—a change in knowledge caused by discoveries, and change in actions caused by character decisions.”
Writing for Emotional Impact
A great bookend to making sure you have conflict in every scene you write is the whole concept of change. The average scene is 1-3 pages long and in that short time—in every scene—step back and ask, What’s changed?
In watching movies and reading scripts it’s easiest to see change within a scene when it’s a major event that serves as an inciting incident or a act break.
For instance, around the 7 minute mark in Jerry Maguire, the Tom Cruise character says, “I couldn’t escape one simple thought—I hated myself…I hated my place in the world.” Then in a late night breakdown/breakthrough he writes a personal mission statement (“Fewer clients. Less money.”) that changes his personal outlook from how the scene started, and it also changes the whole direction of his life. By the end of the scene he’s, “the man I’d always wanted to be.”
After that scene he gets applause from his co-workers, and soon afterwards gets fired. Then he loses his clients, his girlfriend, and his financial stability. Conflict and change working hand in hand.
Sometime the change can be as major as an accident (Cast Away, The Martian, Gravity), the break-up of a relationship (Legally Blonde), but other times it can be a little more subtle like an oven not working (Pieces of April), or asking for directions (Richard Gere in Pretty Women).
The core foundation of change boils down to just three categories you’ve been hearing since taking literature classes high school:
- Intrapersonal (Self)
- Interpersonal (Others)
- Extrapersonal (The World)
There are other names these categories go by—Inner/Internal/Interpersonal/Intragroup/External—but whatever you call it, it boils down to conflict you have with :
B) Those close to you (family, friends, co-workers)
C) The larger society, world, universe
Another way it’s put is:
A) Man vs. Self
B) Man vs. Man
C) Man vs. Nature
Sometimes a category is added like Man vs. Supernatural. But I like to cap it at three and tucking supernatural conflict into Man vs Others. And while it’s anathema to some to suggest there are rules in screenwriting, in general it’s best if something changes in each scene you write.
“Look closely at each scene you’ve written and ask: What value is at stake in my character’s life at this moment? Love? Truth? What? How is that value charged at the top of the scene? Positive? Negative? Some of both? Make a note. Next turn to the close of the scene and ask, Where is this value now? Positive? Negative? Both? Make a note and compare. If the answer you write at the end of the scene is the same note you make at the opening, you now have another important question to ask: Why is this scene in my script?”
Story, Page 35
That’s McKee speak for “What’s changed?” If nothing has changed it’s a good time to ask why the scene needs to be in your script.
A simple example of a scene where the charge (and the change) goes from positive (+) to negative (-) is an early scene in Rocky. Rocky starts the scene upbeat having won a fight the night before, but when he arrives at the gym he finds out he’s lost his locker to another fighter.
One of my favorite change scenes in fairly recent movies—and I’m flying from memory here—is in Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps where Jake Moore (Shia LaBeouf) goes to Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) and asks if he can marry his daughter. Gekko says no and things go down hill from there, but the scene ends with Gekko offering him a job. So in that case the scene starts out neutral, goes to negative, and ends up positive.
In Scriptnotes episode 219 John August and Craig Mazin discuss this general idea a little as they look at a scene from The Lookout.
“The fun of thinking about scenes this way is that you start to focus in on a really important question when you’re writing a scene, every scene, scene after scene after scene. At least one of these states — an internal state, an interpersonal state, an external state — at least one of them must be different at the end of my scene. Or this scene is not a scene. And it doesn’t belong in my movie.
“And that’s where we talk — when you and I talk about intention and purpose, this is where the intention and purpose starts to happen. The changing state. What has changed inside of you? Nothing? Fine. What has changed between you and her? Nothing? Fine. What has just changed in the world? There are times when you can get all three working kind of nicely. And I love that.”
Scriptnotes Ep 219
A scene that comes to mind (and one I know McKee is fond of talking about) where at least conflict happens on all three levels (with himself, with others, and with his world) is the French toast scene in Kramer vs. Kramer. There’s a lot of conflict and change in just two and a half minutes.