Tuesday, May 27, 2008
The Rules of Screenwriting #2
2. Movies are CONFLICT!
You see, it is really the CONFLICT that audiences are paying attention to. This is really important: EVERY SCENE SHOULD CONTAIN MULTIPLE LEVELS OF CONFLICT. The more the merrier. Leave out obvious conflict, and your movie will be boring. Now, conflict does not have to mean super-heightened karate battles, Uzi pounding heavies, bank robberies, car chases, kidnappings, gorenography, or mass murder. I know these are staples of the movies, but good action does not necessarily make good conflict.
Conflict only comes from character and situation, and not from action. Action is best as a reaction to a great conflict of character and situation. What does that mean?
Two people face off at high noon. They both draw their pistols, and shoot. One falls.
Who cares? Yes, that is action, but as a script, that's really boring because all the conflict depends on the action. However, if one of the guys is a good guy trying to save the innocent townspeople from the bad guy, the wicked gunslinger, now we have a conflict which is made of character and situation. When these two get into the situation of facing off at the end of the movie, the action springs from their built up character conflict. This really should be obvious, but it never hurts to go over the obvious. Why? Because movies are obvious!
But remember, conflict that comes from character and situation doesn't necessarily have to lead to action. Action is a standby for movies because movies are a visual medium. However good conflict can be obvious yet subtle and full of surprises, and contain very little action.
Let's take a closer look at THE BREAKFAST CLUB and examine Brian's first line again. He's obviously telling the audience the plot of the movie, but he's telling it in a way that is dripping with conflict. Let's break it down.
Saturday...March 24, 1984. Shermer
High School, Shermer, Illinois.
60062. Dear Mr. Vernon...We accept
the fact that we had to sacrifice a
whole Saturday in detention for
whatever it was that we did wrong.
What we did WAS wrong.
This part of the line sets up a conflict of situation and a conflict of character. The situation conflict is that the characters Brian is speaking for would rather have been anywhere else in the world than in detention on this Saturday. They were stuck there. Then there is a great internal character conflict set up about right versus wrong, and knowing the difference. And there is also a hint of a WE vs. Mr. Vernon conflict, which is about to get a whole lot sharper:
But we think
you're crazy to make us write this
essay telling you who we think we
are, what do you care? You see us
as you want to see us...in the
simplest terms and the most
This solidifies the WE vs Mr. Vernon character conflict and raises the stakes by refusing to write the essay he ordered. It goes so far as to question his motives, and accuse him of being lazy and unconcerned with how things really are. This is now a direct challenge to Mr. Vernon's authority -- it is the verbal equivalent of stabbing him. Then it gets even more interesting:
You see us
as a brain, an athlete, a basket
case, a princess and a criminal.
Correct? That's the way we saw each
other at seven o'clock this morning.
We were brainwashed.
Ah, so the conflict introduced here is that Mr. Vernon (and society as a whole) tends to view these kids as stereotypes. They even view each other this way. But the kids AREN'T stereotypes. The movie is about these kids grappling with that conflict. Now that, as a concept for a movie, naturally leads to little action. I mean, a movie about kids dropping stereotypes probably isn't going to contain lots of bloody karate. Yes, there is some action in THE BREAKFAST CLUB - a wrestling tussle, some running around - but the action springs from the conflict of these very different characters being stuck in the detention situation together on a Saturday.
While this voice-over is telling us the obvious plot of the movie, it is doing so in a way that sets up the primary conflict of the movie. Notice again how this is all done in the first line. Why? Because movies are... well, you know, OBVIOUS.
But it serves a deeper function. Once the audience knows the plot, they can relax and expect the writer to deliver on the conflict she or he promises.
Movies tend to get into trouble when there is no obvious conflict onscreen.