“Plays are about conflict. Plays are about people not getting along.”
“Generally in a lot of my plays, two people are in major confrontation with each other, like in The Odd Couple or Barefoot in the Park or The Sunshine Boys.”
In February of 2008—way back when I just started blogging and honestly didn’t know if writing for this blog would last more than a month—my fifth post was titled Everything I Learned in Film School (Tip #1). It was about conflict.
A better title would have been Conflict-Conflict-Conflict. Here’s an excerpt:
If real estate’s mantra is location, location, location, then for screenwriters it’s conflict, conflict, conflict. The lack of conflict in screenplays is why studio readers say that you can cut out the first 30 pages of many screenplays and nothing would be lost. Start your story as late as you can and start it with conflict. (Rocky loses his locker, in Sounder the boy’s dad is hauled away, Nemo’s mother, brothers and sisters are all killed, Juno is pregnant, all in the first few scenes of the story. And it’s hard to beat the first line in Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, “Gregor Samsa woke one morning and found he had changed overnight into a gigantic insect.” (When you wake up and you’re a bug, that’s meaningful, life-changing conflict.)
What are your favorite movies scenes? Good chance they’re full of meaningful conflict. “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.” (Casablanca), “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.” (Sunset Boulevard), “She’s my sister and my daughter.” (Chinatown)—Conflict-Conflict-Conflict.
But don’t just take my word for it, read this exchange from Neil Simon’s play Broadway Bound (as two brothers are struggling to make it as writers):
STAN I know what we’ve been doing wrong.
EUGENE What we’ve been doing wrong.
STAN (Nods) What’s the essential ingredient in every good sketch we’ve ever seen?
EUGENE I don’t know. What?
STAN Don’t say “what” so fast. Think about it.
EUGENE (Thinks) What’s the essential ingredient in every good sketch we’ve ever seen.
EUGENE I don’t know. What?
STAN You do know. We’ve talked about it. You’re just not thinking.
EUGENE Stan, I don’t want to take a high school exam. Tell me so we can write the sketch.
STAN The ingredient in every good sketch we’ve ever see—is conflict! …Remember? the night we talked about conflict?
STAN You do remember?
EUGENE Tuesday, September seventh, eight thirty-five P.M.
STAN All right, Now what’s the other ingredient in every good sketch we’ve ever seen?
EUGENE (Sighs in exasperation) More conflict!
STAN Come on. You know it… Think about it…Heh? …Do you know it?
EUGENE Yes. It’s when one brother wants to kill the other brother.
EUGENE It’s close. You said it in that sentence. Do you remember what you said in that sentence?
EUGENE No. It was a long time ago.
STAN One brother wants to kill the other brother. The key word is wants! In every comedy, even drama, someone has to want something and want it bad. He wants money, he wants a girl, he wants to get to Philadelphia. When somebody tries to stop him from getting money or a girl or getting to Philadelphia, that’s conflict.
This is how David Mamet puts in his book On Directing film:
“Screenwriting is a craft based on logic. It consists of the assiduous application of several basic questions: What does the hero want? What hinders him from getting it? What happens if he does not get it?”
Mamet’s thought boiled down to one word—conflict.
In one of my most popular posts (Screenwriting the Pixar Way) the director of Toy Story 3 says;
“Toy Story 3 is about change. It’s about embracing change. It’s about people being faced with change and how they deal with it.”
I like how Carson Reeves at ScriptShadow says, “Every single one of your screenplays should have goals, stakes, and urgency.”
“A good character always has a crisis lurking inside them like a ticking time bomb.”
Oscar-winning screenwriter Michael Arndt
Crisis/ticking time bomb=conflict.
Others have said dramatic writing is about characters making wrong decisions or bad choices.
Wrong decisions/bad choices= Conflict
And just to drive this point home…
Shakespeare, Chaplin, Hitchcock –Conflict, Conflict, Conflict
Spielberg, Scorsese, Tarantino—Conflict, Conflict, Conflict
Ibsen, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams—Conflict, Conflict, Conflict
Film, TV, Other (documentaries, radio drama, digital storytelling, reality shows, Serial podcasts, etc)—Conflict, Conflict, Conflict
Scott W. Smith