“A relationship, I think, is like a shark. You know? It has to constantly move forward or it dies. And I think what we got on our hands is a dead shark.”
Alvy Singer (Woody Allen) in Annie Hall
Have you ever had a boyfriend or girlfriend break-up with you? Raise your hand if you’ve gone through a nasty and emotional break-up? Wow, look at all those hands.
The Social Network opens up with a scene that builds up to a break-up.
“You are probably going to be a very successful computer person. But you’re going to go through life thinking that girls don’t like you because you’re a nerd. And I want you to know, from the bottom of my heart, that that won’t be true. It’ll be because you’re an asshole.”
Erica Albright (Rooney Mara) in The Social Network
If your goal is to be in a healthy, loving relationship and the person you’ve been with calls you an asshole right before they break-up with you have three basic options:
- Work through those issues with that person (and perhaps yourself) and eventually kiss and make up.
- Shake the dust off your feet and move on to another relationship (or at least begin looking for one).
- Listen to the Phil Collins song I Don’t Care Anymore 426 times and swear off personal relationships as impossible and get a dog, throw yourself into your career, or travel to Tahiti and take up big wave surfing.
We could call those three options complications, roadblocks, and reversals. On Scott Myers’ screenwriting blog Go Into the Story here’s how he defines those three things:
Complications: A complication is an event or circumstance which slows the Protagonist’s progress toward their goal.
Roadblocks: A roadblock is an event or circumstance which stops the Protagonist’s progress toward their goal.
Reversals: A reversal is an event or circumstance which reverses the Protagonist’s progress toward their goal.
Now granted screenwriters/screenwriting teachers have plenty of confusing names for various writing techniques that can muddy the water. But I think complications, roadblocks and reversals is simple and helpful way to look at scenes you’re writing.
In the fictitious movie version of Mark Zuckerberg’s life, screenwriter Aaron Sorkin uses the break-up to change not only the computer wizard’s life, but the lives of quite a few people. In the movie, that break-up led to a major reversal that changed the world.
After the break-up Zuckerberg could have walked around campus and thought things over and then taken his ex some flowers and tried to make up. In that scenario the break-up was just a complication.
Or after the break-up he could have said “Fine, there’s more fish in the sea” and spent a few days or weeks looking for a new girlfriend. The break-up was a roadblock in his quest for a healthy, loving relationship.
But what Sorkin had the Zuckerburg character do is head back to his dorm and with a little computer know-how, a few beers, a couple of friends, and a lot of bitterness launch the “hot or not” website to get back at the woman who broke-up with him.
That leads to he and his friends to starting The Facebook, now known as just Facebook. In that version the break-up led to a major reversal in not just Zuckerberg’s life, but in the way that over a billion people live their daily lives.
As of this writing there are over 1.79 billion active Facebook users and over a billion of those log onto Facebook daily. Talk about disruptive. Facebook is up there with Henry Ford’s Model T, and the birth control pill, as far as disrupting the way people live their lives. (And according to some reports Facebook could be classified as a modern form of birth control.)
Ultimately when you boil it down, complications, roadblocks, & reversals—slow down, stop, back-up (or change directions)— when done right are all in the family of conflict & emotions, and are part of engaging an audience in your story.