CONFLICT: The Stuff Stories are Made of

Conflicts are the problems and headaches we strive to avoid: a flat tire, a layoff, a break-up, and of course, Killer Klowns from Outer Space (yes, that is a real movie!).  The many instances of conflict have different names: tension,  rivalry, struggle, obstacle, clash, etc.

Sadly for humans, society overflows with them.  But for filmmakers, these “situations” propel the plot in the movies and serve as inspirations! One needs only to open the newspaper to find some real-life examples. Here are some of the headlines in Los Angeles as of this writing:

  • “‘Nobody Wins,’ Prosecutor Says of Conviction of 2 Women in Death of Kim Pham”
  • “LAPD Seeks Help Solving ‘Tragic’ Death of Good Samaritan Who Came to Aid of 3-Year-Old Child”
  • “UC Irvine Police Looking for Man Who Asked Female Students if He Could Massage, Photograph Their Feet”
from KTLA News

Of course, the news tends to focus on the nastiest cases, but deaths, assaults, and any other kind of crime are only one extreme of the spectrum. Towards the other end of the continuum there are the more down-to-earth frustrations we experience on a daily basis like having to do overtime at work when you already made plans to meet with that old flame from college who stood you up many years ago to go meet with the president of the Chess Club.

That’s what screenwriters do: when designing stories,  writers have to frame conflict into relevant context, which usually means amping the problem: a flat tire on the way to work, a layoff when your kids just started college, a break-up right before the prom, and Killer Klowns from Outer Space when, well, pretty much anytime.

As Seen at the Movies: Shawshank Redemption  (1994)

220px-ShawshankRedemptionMoviePosterIn the prison drama Shawshank Redemption, the protagonist Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) is a banker convicted of murdering his wife and her lover.

Can you grasp how powerful this conflict is?

This is the kind of situation that affects every cell in someone’s body (pardon the exaggeration but think about it.) Not only does Andy have an external conflict (going to jail) but also an internal conflict (losing someone he loved). Andy spends the rest of the film trying to convince everyone that he is innocent, but how easy is that to do from prison?

If you haven’t seen this film yet, I highly recommended it. It is a master piece from top to bottom.

Types of Conflict

Here’s a couple of terminology that helps us define and classify the various kinds of conflict:

External vs. Internal

An external conflict is a physical obstacle that exists in the world of the story and prevents a character from achieving a goal, such as your computer crashing minutes before the deadline to upload your final exam.

In Little Miss Sunshine (2006), one external conflict the family has to overcome is the distance. They have to travel from Albuquerque, New Mexico to Redondo Beach, California.  But as a screenwriter,  what do you do? You throw even more obstacles their way:

little-miss-sunshine-van

On the other hand, an internal conflict is a psychological barrier or doubt that exists inside the character’s head that also prevents him or her from comfortably achieving a goal: Should I pursue the career of my dreams as a painter or obtain a more secure occupation doing something boring but that pays better like real estate? This is a dilemma many of us face.

It is worth noting that an internal conflict is not a mental issue (though it certainly can be). Many beginning screenwriters sometimes think erroneously that the internal conflict has to be some ailment like schizophrenia or depression. No so. All you need is a character torn between two impulses.

2) Source of Conflict

Another category for conflict is based on where the conflict stems from. Does it come from nature, society, a villain, or the protagonist himself? The writer has to know this from the get-go because the answer will be the primary driving conflict of the movie. I think these are self-explanatory, but here are some movie examples to help you understand this:

  • Man against Another Man (or a Monster/Villain)
    • High Noon
    • Any James Bond film
    • The Mummy
    • Silence of the Lambs
  • Man against Society:
    • The People vs. Larry Flynt
    • The Shawshank Redemption
    • 12 Angry Men
    • Gladiator
  • Man against Nature:
    • Jaws
    • Dante’s Peak
    • The Perfect Storm
    • Titanic
    • Gravity
  • Man against Himself
    • A Beautiful Mind
    • Good Will Hunting
    • The Lost Weekend

If these categorizations are not clear to you, or if you don’t know these movies too well and want me to elaborate more, let me know in the comments below this post, and I will try to make sense for you.

Bear in mind that these categories are not exclusive. You can mix and match them in anyway you think is suitable to your story. However, more often than not, one of these types will be more predominant. For instance: although I listed Gladiator under Man Against Society, I can definitely make an argument for Man Against Another Man as well. In fact, I think Man Against Another Man is more of the case for this film since the Emperor provokes most of the misfortunes in the protagonist’s life.

Compounded Conflict

It is your job as a screenwriter to create what I call Compounded Conflict, which is a simple nickname for conflict on top of conflict on top of conflict.

Why stop at Man Against Nature when you can have Man Against Society as well? It’s these combinations that make amazingly dramatic situations.

For example, the main conflict in Jaws is killing the shark (Man Against Nature). But how does that goal come about? Sheriff Brody merely wants to protect the citizens in his town. The easy solution would be to simply close the beach, but the Mayor is worried that reports of a shark attack would ruin the summer tourist season, so the Mayor overrules the Sheriff (Man Against Society and Another Man). Brody still wants to protect the townspeople, but the solution to hunt the beast himself is not an easy decision because he’s aqua-phobic  (Man Against Himself). When his son nearly escapes a shark attack, Brody finally decides to take matters in his own hand, finally placing the Man Against Nature front and center.

Look for it, and you will see Compounded Conflict in most movies. It does wonders for your story.

Conflict According to Irwin R. Blacker

I have this little book titled the Elements of Screenwriting, which I really like for its simple, unpretentious writing. The book itself is kinda small, which makes it great for writers learning the craft or anyone who wants a quick crash course. It was written by Irwin R. Blacker, a screenwriting professor at the University of Southern California, and here’s what Mr. Blacker has to say about conflict:

  • The premise is the basis of the conflict: The premise must be clear to the writer before he begins to write the script, although it will not be stated in the script
    • What is the premise in King Lear? Blind trust leads to destruction.
    • What is the premise in Macbeth? Ambition leads to its own destruction.
  • Locking conflict into a time frame heightens tension: The time lock adds suspense to the basic conflict by adding a fight against time.
    • The bomb will explode at six tonight.
    • Unless the carrier is found by two o’clock, the plague will spread.
    • Unless he is proven innocent by midnight, he will be executed.
  • Conflict need not be locked by violent action: The details of the conflict need not be stated, but the viewer must know there there’s a conflict and have some idea of its nature.
    • A boy asks if anyone knows where his father can be found and gets only shrugs and sneers.
    • A girl in worn clothes stares at a “Help Wanted” sign.
  • Domestic conflict is the most universal of conflicts: Tragic action is often not against enemy, or among neutrals, but among friends or family.
    • Oedipus kills his father and marries his mother.
    • Blanche du Bois (A Streetcar Named Desire) is raped by her brother-in-law and goes mad.
  • Conflict in drama is not necessarily violent: while violence makes for good scripts, a script need not be violent, not even emotionally violent to work
    • The failure of the father and daughter to understand each other On Golden Pond.
    • The inability of Marty, an ugly, 36-year-old butcher, to get a date.

-Irwin R. Blacker

These are just short citations from Mr. Blacker’s book. If you are interested in screenwriting, I highly recommend the Elements of Screenwriting. Obviously, Conflict is just one of the many elements featured in the book. To be honest with everyone, I think the retail price of $16 is a little too much. Unless you are buying it as a gift for a friend, I’d just buy an used copy from Amazon (costs 1 cent plus shipping and handling).

And don’t forget, conflict is the root of all comedy:

Exposition & Backstory

I remember when I started writing screenplays in my teens, Exposition and Backstory were two concepts that used to really baffle me. The reason being because everyone always tells you that when writing a screenplay you have to  “always move the story forward, always move the story forward.”*

For the longest time, I didn’t understand how I could move the story forward and at the same time deliver backstory. In my mind, forward and backstory were two contradictory notions: how can you go forward and backward at the same time? I thought (erroneously)  that forward meant future-centric, that I should focus only on what was gonna happen in the next minute, or the next day, or the next week in the lives of the characters. I thought that talking about the character’s past was taboo. But that’s not true. Revealing the character’s past is an essential part of screenwriting. This makes the audience connect to characters in ways that wouldn’t be otherwise possible.

*Move The Story Forward

The gist of the always-move-the-story-forward adage is that the writer can never waste the audience’s time with pointless or irrelevant scenes or beats. In this sense, it’s totally possible to move the story forward while delivering backstory as long as the backstory is relevant to the scene or character.

The Purposes of Exposition

Though exposition comes in a variety of colors and shapes (more on this below), their goal in most scenes is one these:

  • Teach the audience about a character and his or her world: is the story world quaint and peaceful or scary and violent? Did all the relatives of the main characters die of old age or were they shot during a bank hold-up? Think Batman. How did Bruce’s parents die?
  • Allow the audience to connect with a character by learning more about his or her traumas and pains: dissatisfaction is something that everyone feels sooner or later. Whether we are unhappy with our careers, love life,  level of education, what have you, everyone is unhappy with an aspect of their lives. Remember Luke Skywalker in the beginning of Star Wars: A New Hope (1977)? The adventurer in Luke has his hands tied due to his obligations in the farm, although he really wants to travel and explore. Many of us have been in Luke’s shoes at some point in our lives. So here we are watching this sci-fi about intergalactic wars, and we understand exactly what the main character is feeling. That’s a connection.
  • Inform the audience of a specific fear or skill a character possess: this is a kind of foreshadowing that reveals a trait that will be relevant as the story unfolds:  Indiana Jones is afraid of snakes, Romeo and Juliet discuss death, Ripley can operate a powerloader, etc.

Exposition Through Dialogue

The most common way to give exposition is with conversations. Lines of  dialogue can offer important information about a character’s background.

Early in Little Miss Sunshine (2006), the family comes together in the exposition-packed dinner scene. That scene offers great backstory and explanation on the behavior of many characters: Dwayne (Paul Dano) doesn’t speak because he’s made a vow of silence as an attempt to show his devotion towards becoming a test pilot. Richard (Greg Kinnear) is a motivational speaker and a life coach, who’s been trying get a book published. Uncle Frank (Steve Carell), by far the person that gives the most exciting speech while explaining to Oliver (Abigail Breslin) why he tried to commit suicide, traces back to a ruined academic career and a devastating break-up with the man of his dreams, also revealing his sexual preference.

In L.A. Confidential (1997), a conversation between Sergeant Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) and Lieutenant Ed Exley (Guy Pearce) reveals the reason why Exley became a cop: his dad was shot six times by a criminal who thought he was above the law. To the question “Why’d you become a cop?”, asked by Exley after his poignant discourse, Vincennes simply replies, “I don’t remember.” This dialogue separates both men, as their motivations to become cop were different, implying their different, perhaps even conflicting senses of justice.

In an early scene from Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), Captain Benjamin L. Willard (Martin Sheen) gets ups from his bed, approaches the window, looks through the blinds, and utters: “Saigon… Shit.” A two-word line is enough to present the location of the movie and Willard’s overall satisfaction about being there.

Exposition Through Mise-En-Scene

A less used but equally acceptable method is exposition through the creative use of décor and props. Any object that bares information on a character can be considered expository. A certificate on the wall may indicate that so-and-so is a lawyer or a doctor. Photographs can denote past involvement by a group of people.

In one scene from Danish short film The Charming Man (Der Er En Yndig Mand, 2002), Lars Hansen (Martin Buch) is shown applying for a job. While filling out an application form, he checks the “single” box, thus establishing his relationship status.

 

As Seen at the Movies:
High Noon (1952)

High noon mise-en-scene

Notice the grime and dust on the wall, where the flag was. This careful construct of the set implies that the judge has been there in that office for a long time. But now that Frank Miller is coming, the judge is leaving. It may indeed be just a detail, but the grime and dust communicate something. Moreover, the judge’s action indicate that the situation is serious and potentially dangerous. Thus, he is running away.

This is visual storytelling. The judge could have said something like “I’ve been in this town for a long time… Now I must leave.” But instead, this information is suggested through the elaborate mise-en-scène and his actions. This allows the dialogue to be more powerful by not being redundant.

 

Exposition Through Text

The most obvious type of exposition is through the use of text or title cards. This incarnation is purely expository and rarely dramatic.

A famous example is the static title card followed the crawling text in the intro to George Lucas’ Star Wars (1977). The title card first introduces the time and space:

The subsequent crawling text establishes organizations (the evil Galactic Empire) and characters (Princess Leia). For a movie this complex, these title cards are a welcomed device.

A simpler version of text exposition is “once upon a time” or “three months later.”

Texts are also preferred when exposition on a more formal matter is necessary. Quentin Tarantino makes good use of it in the beginning of Pulp Fiction(1994), when a title card defines the word “pulp.”

Exposition Through Narration

Narration is one of the most emotional ways to give exposition. Narrators can be either an omniscient, disembodied person that sees all, or they can be characters that exist in the world of the movie, sometimes narrating their own story, sometimes narrating others’ stories.

In The Shawshank Redemption (1994), Red (Morgan Freeman) describes how he sees Andy (Tim Robbins) – a technique that allows for a better scrutiny of Andy’s persona. If Andy were talking about himself, the narration would come out as awkward and maybe self-important. But Red offers a third-person view that matches what the audience sees. Also, since Red had been in prison longer, he can share knowledge about life behind bars and predict what Andy is going through:

RED: “The first night’s the toughest, no doubt about it. They march you in naked as the day you were born, skin burning and half blind from that delousing shit they throw on you, and when they put you in that cell… and those bars slam home… that’s when you know it’s for real. A whole life blown away in the blink of an eye. Nothing left but all the time in the world to think about it.”

Note that the voice-over allows for a more poetic tone of the descriptions (“naked as the day you’re born” and “those bars slam home”). Writing narration is extra hard because it allows the characters to be more colorful than they would in a dialogue. The writer must never be redundant to the point where he shows and says the same thing. Crafty narration enhances picture and elaborates the story.

In Billy Wilder’s The Apartment (1960), C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) opens the movie with a humorous narration about the population of New York, narrowing it down to the company for which he works and, finally, himself, disclosing his work hours and even salary.

Jane Campion’s The Piano (1993) brings a twist to the norm. The main character, Ada (Holly Hunter) is mute, but she’s also the narrator:

ADA: “The voice you hear is not my speaking voice – but my mind’s voice. I have not spoken since I was six years old. No one knows why. Not even me.”

In all the films above, the narrators are also characters in the movie, thus having influence on the plot. The other type of the narrator is the omniscient or disembodied narrator, who’s not part of the filmic world, but that “knows all.”

Network (1976) opens with a lengthy exposition by a disembodied narrator. The 2-minute narration condenses more than six years of a character’s live. Observe how much information and backstory is revealed in so little time:

NARRATOR: “This story is about Howard Beale, who was the news anchorman on UBS TV. In his time, Howard Beale had been a mandarin of television, the grand old man of news, with a HUT rating of 16 and a 28 audience share.

In 1969, however, his fortunes began to decline. He fell to a 22 share. The following year, his wife died, and he was left a childless widower with an 8 rating and a 12 share. He became morose and isolated, began to drink heavily, and on September 22, 1975, he was fired, effective in two weeks.

The news was broken to him by Max Schumacher, who was the president of the news division at UBS. The two old friends got properly pissed.”

 

Exposition Through Flashback

Another alternative is exposition through flashback, a technique that should be used mainly to replace major story moments that cannot be reduced to a simple conversation.

Casablanca (1942), for instance, has a lengthy flashback that shows how Rick (Humphrey Bogart) and Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) met, plus the romance they lived in Paris. There’s no way an exposition so long would be accomplished with such mastery through dialogue – flashback was indeed necessary.

Another possibility for flashback is when a character thinks something so intimate that he or she doesn’t talk about it. In The Silence of the Lambs (1991), a couple of flashbacks show Clarice’s (Jodie Foster) memories with her dad.

A Word of Caution

Quite often, we talk about “show, don’t tell” which is one of the most enduring notions in filmmaking and screenwriting. But I wanted to warn you that you shouldn’t use that concept to justify flashbacks. What I mean is that, although you may think that flashbacks (showing) should replace dialogue (telling) this is not always the case because flashbacks are sometimes a detraction to the flow of a scene or sequence. Remember, move the story forward.

So when should you resort to flashbacks? Like everything else in filmmaking, there are no fast-and-hard rules. My advice is avoid flashbacks when you can and use them sparingly. For instance, if you can reveal backstory through dialogue, then maybe dialogue is enough. However, if you think that you can dramatize it better in a flashback, then flashback could be the way to go. Decision, decision, decisions. Isn’t storytelling awesome?

 

Exposition Through Music

Another great way to reveal backstory is through music. This approach, however, may not be called upon by the writer, unless music is an essential part of the plot. More often than not (as we see occasionally in Disney movies) the director or composer will select key moments of the plot to augment through music. From Snow White to Frozen, Disney has always amazed everyone in this department.  But here’s one of my favorite non-Disney example.

During the initial credits of High Noon (1952), the Academy Award winning-song Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling plays and introduces the plot:

Do not forsake me O my darlin’
On this our wedding day.
Do not forsake me O my darlin’
Wait, wait along.

The noonday train will bring Frank Miller.
If I’m a man I must be brave
And I must face that deadly killer
Or lie a coward, a craven coward,
Or lie a coward in my grave.

Remarkably, before any of the characters utter a single word, the second stanza from the song already establishes the premise: A deadly killer is coming in the noonday train, and the main character must kill him or die.

Some Thoughts…

By its very nature, expositions are about the past. And thus that means that they could slow down the progression of the story. Therefore, screenwriters must be aware of when to use them, and the effect each of them has in the story.

Film Trivia

During principal photography of The Silence of the Lambs, director Jonathan Demme and his crew were ready to fly to Montana to shoot on location the flashback of a young Clarice attempting to runaway, when, after shooting the dialogue between Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), in which Starling mentions the runaway attempt, Demme realized there was no point in cutting to another location when the exposition worked so well through the actors’ acting and dialogue, so he canceled the flight. In this case, less was more.

The main purpose of exposition is to transform characters into 3-dimentional creatures by allowing the audience to understand them and therefore participate in their emotions. However, sometimes exposition can be used to foreshadow or justify someone’s skills or behavior.

In Thelma & Louise (1991), Louise (Susan Sarandon) shows great fear towards going to Texas, a place that brings undisclosed bad memories to her. It is later implied (but never revealed) that Louise was raped in Texas, which explains why she shot the man that was seconds away from raping Thelma during the first plot point. In this case, a later exposition validates an earlier act that would otherwise be considered arbitrary and implausible.