Updated: Dec 23, 2019
(Part II of "Is your screenplay ready to market?")
By Dan Hoffmann
I don't think, I've ever met a spec writer who thought they couldn't answer this week's screenwriting question. Everyone thinks they can. But very few, actually can. And that's one of the reasons why so many scripts get rejected.
But this story begins a long time ago. More than 30 years. I was interviewing for the position of script reader. The executive producer asked me if I was really prepared to read bad scripts. He then stressed the fact that reading bad Spec screenplays can be very tedious and frustrating. He just wanted to make sure I was really ready for that.
I answered him and said:
""Bad spec scripts? I didn't know there were any other kinds of spec scripts"
He smiled and signed me on to the team of studio readers.
Many years later, I am sitting here, once again, reading spec screenplays. This time around, I am doing it as a favor for a friend. He is a producer for one of New York’s largest independent production companies. They asked me to evaluate the potential of some of their spec scripts. Something I do from time to time.
I am not at liberty to reveal anything about the scripts or the company that hired me to read them but I will give you one reason why I, sadly had to reject them all this time; and also tell you, what the screenwriters should have done.
When we reject screenplays, there are always many reasons why we do it. It's a compound of many reasons. So, this article will only focus one of those, but it's a crucial one. Conflict.
If you've been reading part one of this series, you will know that I write these articles as a series of question that I think you should ask yourself- questions that my long experience, working with the industry, tells me will improve your script's marketability.
So if you haven't read the first in the series, I recommend that you read it here on the blog, for context.
Anyway...here we go.
Today's question is one that most screenwriters get wrong.
CAN YOU SUMMARIZE YOUR STORY’S CONFLICT IN ONE SENTENCE?
All screenplays, ever sold or optioned, have one thing in common.
Their conflicts are very easy to grasp. In fact so, easy that a child should be able to grasp it.
Don’t get me wrong. This doesn’t mean that your story can not be complex. But the nature of the conflict, itself has to be easy to grasp.
Mind you, I am not referring to the story here. I am just referring to the conflict in your story.
When I started out many years ago, there was a very common phrase in Hollywood that every producer recited like a mantra. The saying went:
Does it play in China?
What it means is this: Would someone who does not understand English, nor reads subtitles, be able to understand the conflict?
A lot of spec writers get the whole thing about conflict wrong. Terribly wrong.
You probably think you’ve got it right but I can almost bet you, you haven’t and that’s because so many writers, most, in fact, get the whole thing about conflict, wrong. And I will almost bet you, that this includes you.
So, let me start by defining what a dramatic conflict is and what it isn’t.
OBSTACLES ARE NOT CONFLICTS
Most spec writers think conflicts are obstacles. - That the two terms are interchangeable.
Let me explain;
"A man woke up this morning and to his great shock, realized that he had overslept. This was supposed to have been the most important day of his career. He had, after years of trying, finally landed himself a job interview with the job of his dreams. And now, his alarm had failed him. It would take, a miracle to get him to the interview in 15 minutes.
He threw himself into his car, turned the ignition and then. nothing happened. The Battery was dead. He then darted down the street, as fast as his feet would take him, hoping to catch a bus. After 6 minutes spotted a slip, stuck to the bus stop and informing him that the bus did no longer stop at this location."
OK, let’s stop this travesty here.
The spec writer would probably say that this sequence has plenty of conflicts; There was the alarm that didn’t go off, the car that didn’t start and lastly; the bus that did not stop.
The professional writer though should recognize that none of that counts as conflict.
These are just obstacles, and tame ones if you ask me. (I’ll get back to that in a bit)
Obstacles are anything that puts a roadblock in the protagonist's road. Conflict is a different animal altogether.
Conflicts are active - all the obstacles in the story, above, are inactive; The car that DIDN’T Start, the Bus that DIDN’T stops. The Alarm that didn’t go off. - its a whole lot of things that didn't happen. Screenwriting, however, is always about things that do happen.
Dramatic action is always active. It moves. And because it moves, it moves the story forward. And if there’s anything a writer should always aim for, it is to move the story forward, in every beat, every scene. - always forward. Like the great Greek philosopher
Heraclitus once said it;
“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man”
The same is very true for drama. In dramatic storytelling, a story always moves forward and it can only do that if the conflict itself moves.
Therefore, A bus that never arrives, is not a conflict but a bus that drives right toward you, from behind, is.
But moving obstacles, although better than static ones, are still not dramatic conflicts.
I see this all the time in spec scripts:
The Hero has a goal. He wants to rob a bank, catch a killer, find true love, uncover a conspiracy or flee a maniacal serial killer. You get the picture. The hero has a goal.
And now for the Second Act, the next full hour of the story, he encounters one obstacle after the other, and; Obstacles are not conflicts.
So for one full hour, we have no conflict. Boring.
And why, you may ask, are these obstacles not conflict?
For one, because, as I’ve said, obstacles are not active. Yes, you make them move but that still makes the conflict itself, inactive.
Let me explain why;
Remember the example with the man who is late for his interview?
Ok, then. Let us try to make those obstacles active. This time it’s not, his alarm that doesn’t go off.
It’s his wife who did not wake him up. - That will make her an active obstacle, you would think. And this time, his car does not do not start. It just drifts. Something is wrong with it. He then takes the bus. This time the bus does, in fact, stop but it runs right past him.
So, now all these obstacles are active and moving but they do not move the story forward.
Let us break it down in terms of the dramatic situation he is in.
At first, when he wakes up, he fears that he might not get to work on time. That’s his situation.
And now, let us then look at if this situation changes by the events that follow.
The next event is: His car fails him. Now, where does that put him, in terms of his situation? Has the situation changed?
He is still late for work. Same situation.
And the same goes for the next situation; the bus does not stop. His is still late for work.
And so, I could have gone on a piled on even more situations that put him in the same situation as before. None of these situations has changed anything and are, therefore, superfluous.
All the events made no difference to the story.
Imagine if someone were to tell you a story like that. If you narrow it down to what actually happens, it would sound like this:
"This story is about a guy who was late for work"
"Yes", you reply and then add: "..and what happened next?"
Your storytelling friend pauses reluctantly and then finally adds; "well...then he was late for work"
Yes, you already said that you growl at your friend. "But what happened next? Didn't anything happen?"
Oh yes, something else happened, your friend says and then adds: "He was late for work...
I hope you are laughing now. But have you noticed whether your script is doing the same thing?
Does every scene, every beat change the direction of the story? does it move it forward or is the hero, at the end of the scene, exactly where he was before it?
Because if he is, then you can insert your own hero onto the comic strip, above.
Remember that a story moves forward, always.