Posts Tagged ‘Conflict’

We all know that it’s conflict really that makes drama happen. It’s not just a slice of life that you’re doing.”
—India-born writer/director Mira Nair (Salaam Bombay!, Monsoon Wedding)
MasterClass, Lecture 3

Salaam Bombay!

It’s possible that I’ve written more about the importance of conflict in drama more than any other subject. It’s why I chose the first chapter of my book to be on conflict. Here are a handful of posts over the years that unpack that some more if you want to do a deep dive.


The Key is Conflict (movies, TV, Docs, Podcasts, Etc.)

Protagonist = Struggle

Neil Simon on Conflict

Screenwriting’s One Unbreakable Rule

Conflict is at the root of everything from Shakespeare to Hamilton to Looney Tunes:

”Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.”
From Henry the IV

”There’s trouble in the air, you can smell it.”
Say No to This (from Hamilton) written by Lin-Manuel Miranda

“I like to swing upon my perch and sing a little song,
But there’s a cat that’s after me and won’t leave me alone.”
—Tweety Bird

Scott W. Smith is the author of Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles

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Director Joel Schumacher died a couple of days ago and while he’s known for many films (St.  Elmo’s Fire, The Client, A Time to Kill, Phone Booth, Batman Forever, Phone Booth) the first film of his that came to find when I heard he passed was Falling Down.

Written by Ebbe Roe Smith and starring Michael Douglas as a Los Angeles man who comes unhinged has stayed with me since I first saw it in theaters 17 years ago. Here are three scenes from that movie that are prime example of a character with ”a crisis lurking inside” and a member of the “end of the rope club.”

The release of the film was just a year after the 1992 LA Riots and I don’t recall its cynicism being embraced by critics. But in some ways the 1993 film represents—metaphorically or literally— the first six months 2020. A lot of angst in the air.

(Movies that make an impact are centered around a character during the best or worst days of their lives. These three clips could be summarized in the post CONFLICT—CONFLICT—CONFLICT.)

Scott W. Smith

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“Screenwriting’s one unbreakable rule: Don’t be boring.”
Richard Walter
Essentials of Screenwriting

“One of the essential components of drama is tension…Drama, so said drama critic William Archer, is almost always the effect of ‘anticipation mingled with uncertainty.’”
Writer/Director Alexander Mackendrick (1912-1994)

There are many challenges involved when discussing current films from a screenwriting and filmmaking perspective. There’s the danger of giving away spoilers, it’s not a film that everyone has seen, it’s not an award winner, it hasn’t stood the test of time, there aren’t writer and director commentaries to glean information from, and it hasn’t yet been explored about in books.

So I won’t say much about Eye in the Sky—except that it’s one great example of superior filmmaking. In fact, I’ll go as far as saying that it’s one of my favorite films of this decade.

I won’t say any more about it until a few months down the line, but kudos to screenwriter Guy Hibbert, director Gavin Hood, the producers, actors, and production team for hitting a grand slam. For creating that rare movie that is compelling, engaging, and thought provoking—even after you’ve left the theater.

I can’t remember ever feeling more like I was a hidden character in the film, wondering what the right decision in that situation would be. And Helen Muran and Aaron Paul—brilliant.

So while I won’t give away any spoilers on the film, I will provide 10 links to past posts that are buttons that I think the movie hits in terms of screenwriting, filmmaking & life.

The Major or Central Dramatic Question
The Bomb Under the Table
What’s Changed?
40 Days of Emotion
What’s at Stake?
Earn Your Ending
Happy, Sad, Ironic & Ambiguous Endings
Screenwriting from Hell

Scott W. Smith



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I came in from the wilderness, a creature void of form
“Come in,” she said, “I’ll give you shelter from the storm”
Lyrics by Bob Dylan

On my top shelf of storytellers sits Bob Dylan.

His songs written and/or performed over the last 50 year have appeared in movies or Tv shows more than a staggering 550 times. Along with his creative influence he’s won many awards including an Oscar for his Things Have Changed which he performed on the movie Wonder Boys (2000).

Ever since seeing St. Vincent (2014) a week ago I’ve been listening to Dylan’s Shelter From The Storm over and over again. It hit me that Shelter From The Storm could sum up what most movies are really about:

I was burned out from exhaustion, buried in the hail
Poisoned in the bushes an’ blown out on the trail
Hunted like a crocodile, ravaged in the corn
“Come in,” she said, “I’ll give you shelter from the storm”

Many great movie characters seek shelter from the storm;  Rocky, Terry Malloy (On the Waterfront),Norma Desmond (Sunset Blvd.) , Rick (Casablanca), Erin Brockovich, George Bailey (It’s a Wonderful Life), Tom Joad (The Grapes of Wrath), Norma Rae, Oskar Schindler, Maximus (Gladiator), Karen Silkwood, Tyler Durban (Fight Club), Indiana Jones, Ellen Ripley (Aliens), Chuck Noland (Cast Away), Joan of Arc, Sophie (Sophie’s Choice), C.C. Baxter (The Apartment), Andy Dufresne (The Shawshank Redemption), Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid, and Bogart and Hepburn’s characters in The African Queen.

If you’re looking for a standard and proven theme/desire to hang your story on take a tip from Dylan and write about characters who are seeking shelter from the storm. It emotionally resonates with movie audiences —people who are also seeking shelter from the storm.

P.S. Couldn’t find a good version of Dylan singing Shelter From The Storm, but I did find a version with Rodney Crowell and Emmylou Harris.

Related posts:

Off-Screen Quote #22 (Bob Dylan)
Bob Dylan’s Brain
Revisiting ‘Highway 61 Revisited” (2.0)
‘Against the Wind’ Bob Seger’s version of “Shelter From The Storm”)
Jimmy Buffett in Iowa (Part 1) Buffett’s version (written with Bobby Holcomb):
And there’s that one particular harbour
Sheltered from the wind
Where the children play on the shore each day
And all are safe within
Highway 61 Meets A1A
Neil Simon on Conflict (Conflict and more conflict.)
Everything I Learned in Film School (Tip #1)

Scott W. Smith

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Labor Day, the first Monday in September, is a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.
What Labor Day Means, US Department of Labor

“When is everything going to get back to normal?”
Roger Sterling (John Slattery) in the Mad Men episode Tea Leaves



Let me start with the good news—and then I’ll get to my car wreck. Yesterday Red Shark News posted Seven Must Read Blogs for Screenwriters and Screenwriting from Iowa…and Other Unlikely Places was the first blog mentioned. That nudge at the end of August helped this blog have its most viewed month in a year and a half.  Welcome to the new readers, and I appreciate the shout-out by Patrick Jong Taylor.

“Screenwriting From Iowa…and Other Unlikely Places reads as a travelogue to the vast world of screenwriting beyond the borders of Los Angeles. Although never stated in so many words, the blog progresses two inter-related messages: learning and practicing the craft of screenwriting is not dependent on geographic proximity to major industry towns (like LA); and your own environs, no matter where you are, can be an enormous source for inspiration and discovery.”
Patrick Jong Taylor

The origins of physically starting this blog go back to January 2008 after I saw Juno when I was living in Iowa and realizing that it was written by an outsider to the film industry. Diablo Cody followed her Catholic prep school education in the Chicago area by getting an undergraduate degree in Media Studies from the University of Iowa, then writing Juno at her home and a Starbucks in the suburbs of Minneapolis. (Synergy in action: That year Cody won an Oscar for her screenplay and I won a Regional Emmy in Minneapolis for my blog.)

If you want to read one post that sums up what I’m after here check out; The Secret to Being a Successful Screenwriter (Seriously). No snake oil being sold there. Free advice that follows where Oscar-winning screenwriter Michael Arndt (Toy Story 3) says 99% of your efforts should go to becoming a better screenwriter.

Now, the bad news. (And for new readers; I usually use weekends and Holidays to re-post, not post, or go off the topic of screenwriting and filmmaking just for a change of pace. And on weekday post I aim for  200 words or less.)

My Labor Day weekend started with a bang. While stopped at red light, the above car slammed into the back of my vehicle going between 30-40 mph. Thankfully I was driving a full-sized SUV that appears to have suffered only a mangled bumper. Though I had some pain in my back and neck I was able to drive home from the accident.

The next day x-rays showed there appears to be a hairline fracture in my neck. I was given a couple prescriptions for pain killers and muscle relaxers, and supposed to see a specialist tomorrow. I’m sure many readers have been in worse accidents. Car wrecks where some involved didn’t walk away— or if they did had to use a cain or a wheelchair.

I haven’t been in an accident in over 25 years, and while thankful it wasn’t worse it still shakes you up. You’re suddenly  more sensitive to the tail-gaters, and how many small cars are on the road. I don’t see buying (or even renting) a compact car in my near future.

Last week I did a solo video shoot that wrapped late at night so I lined up all my gear at the door so I could back my SUV up and load everything at once. It was such a ridiculous amount of gear that I stopped and took a picture. And I don’t think my 72 pound Arri IV light kit is even in this shot. I’ll see what the specialist says tomorrow about my neck, but thankfully I’m in post production this week so no heavy lifting scheduled.


Who knows, maybe that accident will cause me to embrace some of the smaller cameras some are already using. A couple of weeks ago I was interviewed by the Orlando Sentinel because of my micro-doc on Tinker Field, and was interested at the simple small camera set-up the one-man reporter/cameraman/editor used. That followed by my renting the mirrorless Lumex GH4 camera that shoots stills and 4K video and feels like it weighs as much as a box of Animal Crackers.  And seeing footage of the newest GoPro shot with the Steadicam Smoothee is impressive. The technology—and high quality— available in small packages these days is stunning.  (And everything I listed above will be relatively outdated in two years.)

All that to say, have a happy Labor Day—and drive safely.

P.S. Just to keep it movie related; car crashes are such a major part of American movies because cars are such a integral part of American culture and they also fit the bill for conflict on many levels. The car crash scene I thought about after my accident was the one in Sweet Dreams (1985) written by Robert Getchell and starring Jessica Lange as county singer Patsy Cline.

Related posts:

Everything I Learned in Film School (tip #1)
Neil Simon on Conflict
Screenwriting’s One Unbreakable Rule
Screenwriting Quote of the Day #16 (Richard Walter)  “Planes that land safely do not make the headlines and nobody goes to the theater, or switches on the tube, to view a movie entitled The Village of the Happy Nice People.”
Juno Has Another Baby  “I guess when you’re coming from the middle of the country and you’re not part of the industry and you’re just telling your own story, I think it’s easy to be more original.”—Diablo Cody

Scott W. Smith   


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“Usually the characters are where I start [the writing process] and then I continually ask myself, ‘what’s the worst thing that can happen to this character?’ I love finding the worst things happening at the best moments of a person’s life.”
Paul Haggis

“Trust is the most important thing in any relationship. Never lie to an actor. Often as directors we are asked to lie, because the producer says, ‘you can only shoot for 10 more minutes,’ because of this reason or that. And you want to keep the actor on your side. You don’t want to tell them you can only shoot for 10 more minutes because it’s a budgetary thing. And so you say, ‘no, no it’s this reason’—and it comes back and bites you in the ass each time. You got to go up and say, ‘I’m really sorry, we just took seven hours shooting the other side on her coverage, and now we have to turn around and do yours in 10. That’s what we got.’ And then the actor can deal with that and go, ‘OK.’ So trust is incredibly important. The great thing about hiring really skilled actors is they can take it to a level that you never imagined. And if they trust themselves they’ll discover things in those moments that they didn’t know was going to happen and you didn’t know. And you just hope the camera’s in focus.”
Two-time Oscar-winning producer/director/writer Paul Haggis (Crash)
The Dialogue: Learning from the Masters interview with Mike De Luca

Here’s the trailer from Crash (2004) which is full of horrible things happening. BTW–Horrible things=conflict. Followed by a well written, acted and directed scene from Crash.

Related posts:

Everything I Learned in Film School (Tip #1)
Conflict: What? vs. How?
Neil Simon on Conflict
On What Makes a Director—Kazan
Protagonist = Struggle

Scott W. Smith

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This has been an unusual week for plane crashes. First there was the guy who jumped out of his plane to fake his death and then the crash yesterday of Flight 1549 that landed in the Hudson River.  When was the last time the news was about two airplanes crashing in the same  week where there wasn’t a single person killed? 

All of this reminds me of a quote by UCLA screenwriting professor Richard Walter who wrote, “Planes that land safely do not make the headlines and nobody goes to the theater, or switches on the tube, to view a movie entitled The Village of the Happy Nice People.”  (That’s from memory and I’ll double check it later.)

So always keep that in mind when you’re writing. Something must jolt us from our everyday lives to peak our interest. And the things that tend to jolt us are full of conflict. 

To read a longer post about conflict check out the post Everything I Learned in Film School.

Scott W. Smith

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Here’s everything I learned in film school (and in screenwriting workshops and books)…boiled down to one word. But before I get to that one word let me say that I went to film school so long ago that Orson Welles was in my class. Okay, not that long ago, but back when film schools only used film.

I mention that because I think the average film school student today (heck, high school student) is much more film savvy then when I was in school. Because of DVDs and the Internet students today generally can converse about film directors and writers on a pretty sophisticated level. (The Tarantino factor?)

At least in Florida in the early 80s film school was a little off the chart. After I told a high school friend I was going to film school he asked, “What do you do with that?” (I’m still trying to answer that question.)

Before everyone wanted to be a film director young people just wanted to be rock stars. I knew nobody who had any connection to the film industry when I decided to go to film school.

I mention all of this because the one word I’m going to tell you is so basic. But it is the single most important thing I learned in film school. It may not be a revelation to you, but it’s important nonetheless.

And as professor and writer CS Lewis said, “We need to be reminded more often than we need to be taught.”

The most important thing I learned in film school was the importance of (here it comes) conflict. Not just any conflict, but meaningful conflict.

A few years ago I went to a writing workshop with Alfred Uhry, the writer of Driving Miss Daisy. I believe he’s the only writer to win an Oscar, an Emmy, and a Tony award. I thought that it was sure to be a wealth of writing information.

This was when I lived in Orlando (Anyone remember Hollywood East?) when a theater group was performing Driving Miss Daisy that he was coming to see and agreed to do a master class on writing.

One of the first things he said was something to the effect of — I’m not sure why I’m here. I’m not sure why they asked me to speak on writing. I’m not sure there are any rules to follow.

This is what I paid money to hear?

I raised my hand and asked, “What about conflict?”

He agreed conflict was important and he began to talk and we were off to the races. He didn’t have a prepackaged seminar, but it was a wonderful day of hearing his antidotes and experiences in the film business.  He said something that has stuck with me all these years and that I think would be helpful for all writers to hear. It was about his expectations after writing Driving Miss Daisy. He had little expectations.

He was in early fifties and he just wrote the 62 page play as a tribute to his grandmother. That’s all. He wasn’t trying to change the world. He wasn’t trying to get rich and famous. He wasn’t trying to write the great American screenplay and win an Academy Award. His starting place was small–almost obscure.

When he found out it would have a six-week run at a theater in New York so far off-Broadway that you had to walk up three flights of stairs to see the play, he was thrilled. He was glad it would have a long enough run that all his relatives could see the play.

Kind of reminds me of Sam Shepard’s early plays that were performed in a church basement in Manhattan. (Speaking of Shepard, let me get in an Iowa plug. The movie Country, about the farm crisis in the 80’s, starring Shepard and Jessica Lange was filmed right here in Black Hawk County.)

Uhry didn’t know that his story of an elderly Jewish woman and her black driver would strike a chord like it did. (It certainly wasn’t a high concept story.) But the play became a Broadway hit and then it was off to Hollywood.

To borrow the words of Jimmy Buffett, Uhry “captured the magic.” May we all be fortunate enough in our life to have that experience one time. Driving Miss Daisy was Uhry’s equivalent of Don McClean’s song American Pie. It’s become a part of the fabric of our culture.

Uhry captured the magic with a story that was small in Hollywood terms, but one full of conflict as well as meaning.

From the opening scene when she had an accident while backing her car out…until Miss Daisy died it is a story full of meaningful conflict.

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 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.” “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small (Sunset Boulevard). “She’s my sister and my daughter.” (Chinatown)—Conflict, Conflict, Conflict.

“Plays are about conflict. Plays are about people not getting along.”
Edward Albee

“Nobody goes to the theater, or switches on the tube, to view a movie entitled The Village of the Happy Nice People.”
Richard Walter

“Never put two people in a room who agree on anything.”
Lew Hunter

Look AFI’s list of heroes and villains. All full of conflict.

AFI’s100 Years…100 Movie Quotes is full of meaningful conflict. (“Houston we have a problem.” Apollo 13)

So there you have everything I learned in film school boiled down into one word — conflict.

I just saved you tens of thousands of dollars. (I hope you’ll buy my book when it’s published.)

Now all you have to do is sit down and write a story full of meaningful conflict. That’s the hard part.

In every scene you write there should be some level of conflict. It could be rising conflict (the calm before the storm) or resolution afterwards. But conflict is at the core of your story. Conflict with self, conflict with society, conflict friends and family, conflict with nature…but have conflict with something.

Meaningful conflict usually is conflict on at least two levels. The town has conflict with the shark eating people, and an economic conflict if tourist are kept away which leads to conflict in society with leads to conflict within the family. And to top it off the sheriff has his own conflict because he is afraid of the water. Jaws was not just a run-of-the-mill special effects movie. In fact, the special effects weren’t all that special.

The reason conflict is such a powerful piece of filmmaking is because we can relate to that in our own lives. Mike Tyson said that, “Everyone has a plan, until they are punched in the face.” Country music singer Deana Carter has a song titled, “Did I shave my legs for this?” We can relate to conflict. Every day we have to deal with conflict on many levels. It’s part of living east of Eden.   

Driving Miss Daisy wasn’t written in Iowa, but it takes place far from Hollywood in a small town in Georgia.  And that’s at the heart of Screenwriting from Iowa.

The state of Georgia is no stranger to conflict. (I’m not just talking about the Civil War or the Florida Gator’s football team.) Read the sermons from Ebenezer Baptist church by its former pastor Dr. Martin Luther King.  And think of these songs and stories rooted in Georgia history.

Gone with the Wind

Forrest Gump



The Color Purple

Midnight of the Garden of Good and Evil

The Devil went Down to Georgia

The Night the Lights went out in Georgia

Rainy Night in Georgia

Midnight Train to Georgia

Any short story by Flannery O’Connor.

Write stories about where you live. And like Alfred Uhry don’t set out to write the great American screenplay. Just write screenplays full of meaningful conflict. 

© Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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