Since the day you thought about writing screenplays, you've no doubt been told that they must have conflict. As I've said, this is only half true—connection is equally important. And this advice about conflict is not very helpful if you're trying to learn the craft of screenwriting. It gets you obsessing about the wrong thing. You begin to think that conflict is some secret ingredient in a screenwriter's potion—the dramatist's eye of newt—and you wonder where the heck you can find some to throw in your script. But you don't find conflict, you create it.
Like so many others, Linda Cowgill insists in Writing Short Films, "Action in drama and fiction depends upon conflict, which is the starting point of all drama."
With all due respect, this is backwards.
Conflict is not the starting point of drama, drama is the starting point of conflict.
Drama done well is complex, but the root of all drama is simple. Again, the word comes from the Greek dran—to do. To perform, execute, bring about, effect, cause, take action. We do because we want something badly. You'll hear different words for it—want, will, desire, intention—but it's all the same thing. Want, if you will, or will, if you want, is the heart of great drama from Oedipus Rex to Pulp Fiction to Shakespeare in Love.
Oedipus wants to end the plague in his country.
Marsellus Wallace wants to get his briefcase back.
Colin, the director in The Making of "Killer Kite," wants to finish his film and he goes to great (and illegal) lengths to do so. Earl wants Maybelline. Aadid wants Adela. Charles wants to marry Rachel. Hannah wants connection. So does Melissa. Buzz wants reconnection. Whatever the story, desire motivates doing.
"An action is an activity designed to bring about an 'end,'" Colin Hardie says, explicating Aristotle's Poetics, "We have a desire or wish for a certain state of affairs. From this we argue back by a chain of means, until we arrive at something we see to be in our power here and now."1
We desire, deliberate, decide, do. And where conflict's concerned, doing always runs into trouble. Will hits obstacle. That's the dramatic paradigm.
Why is this so satisfying? Why have we gathered for centuries to see it played out over and over? Because it's half of our story. Unless we're fully realized bodhisattvas, we also want badly. Sometimes we don't get what we want. Sometimes we do, and being human, we want something else. We strive, fail, suffer, strategize, and strive again. So we find it fascinating—and a whole lot more entertaining—to see others do the same thing. It's a major umbilical point between us and the characters we're watching up on the screen. They want. We want. A connection is created between us.
And conflict is created when will meets obstacle. Again, it's useful to remember the root of the word confligere—to clash or strike together. There is no conflict until human will clashes with or strikes an obstacle. We want something badly, but life has other ideas. It thwarts us, comes out of left field, hurls obstacles in our path. Or we hurl them in our own path, like Earl's self doubt in Slow Dancin' Down the Aisles of the Quickcheck. There are all kinds of obstacles—external and internal—and great drama, like Hamlet, like life, offers a rich mixture of both.
Say you're late for class (or work). You rush to campus (or your workplace). You try to park. If you're a student, you've no doubt paid a whopping fee for a parking permit which is, you discover, little more than a hunting license. All the parking spaces are taken. First obstacle. Your will is thwarted. Conflict is created. You could park illegally, but you're not that kind of person. Or maybe you are, but you're broke and you already have a half-dozen parking tickets to pay before you can graduate. But you won't graduate if you're late for this class
Suddenly—aha!—you see a car pulling out and you race toward it only to realize a van is heading for the same space from the other direction. Oh, no way! you think, and you floor it. So does the van. But your car is faster, and you get there first. A little amazed at yourself (or a little ashamed, as I was one day when I did this), you turn off the engine, glance in the rear view mirror, and see the other driver pull up behind you with a look on her face that says, I want to eat your intestines
The conflict increases in energy, intensity—and interest—when another person comes on the scene. Why? There are two wills at war. Two agendas. One person wants. The other opposes. Dramatists call this a boxing match— one character wants what another character does not want to give—and the best dramatists use it over and over to create compelling conflict. In Pulp Fiction, according to my calculations, Tarantino (with his co-story-writer, Roger Roberts Avery) creates thirty-eight boxing matches. The screenplay opens in the middle of a boxing match between a young man and young woman. The opening line presents the first obstacle to the young woman's desire to rob liquor stores:
YOUNG MAN No, forget it, it's too risky. I'm through doin' that shit.
But her will is strong; she won't take no for an answer. So the boxing match continues as she tries to persuade him to do it anyway, but he won't.
YOUNG MAN ... It ain't the giggle it usta be. Too many foreigners own liquor stores. Vietnamese, Koreans, they can't fuckin' speak English. You tell 'em: "Empty out the register," and they don't know what it fuckin' means.
She wants/he opposes, and we understand why. Conflict is created. So is audience interest, because the outcome of the boxing match is unknown.
It's important to note that boxing matches are not arguments. An argument is "a discussion in which disagreement is expressed about some point," but a boxing match is a pattern of change. Change does not necessarily happen in arguments; in fact, as Harriet Lerner argues in her book, Dance of Anger, we often have the same argument over and over to avoid changing. Characters often argue in a boxing match, but change is also occurring. In Pulp Fiction, the young woman discovers that the young man has another idea— robbing the restaurant they're in—and she decides they should do it.
YOUNG WOMAN I'm ready, let's go, right here, right now.2
And they do, though Tarantino decides to postpone showing the robbery until the end of the film—thirty-seven boxing matches later—when the robbery has the greatest dramatic and ironic impact.
Whatever the situation or character or will or obstacle, the point is the same: Conflict isn't the root of drama, it's a by-product of drama. Once you understand this, you can create all the conflict you want.
Was this article helpful?
Devoted as I am to popularizing amateur boxing and to improving the caliber of this particularly desirable competitive sport, I am highly enthusiastic over John Walsh's boxing instruction book. No one in the United States today can equal John's record as an amateur boxer and a coach. He is highly regarded as a sportsman. Before turning to coaching and the practice of law John was one of the most successful college and Golden Gloves boxers the sport has ever known.