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.
Remember that a story moves forward, always. Here, nothing moves forward.
Yes, on the surface, it seems like a lot of things are happening but in the dramatic context, everything stays the same.
Dramatic conflicts are therefore not obstacles. In fact, obstacles, hinder drama. They do not propel it.
And when you are in that situation, you will have a very hard time summarizing your conflict in once sentence.
First, because there is no conflict and secondly because the only way to summarize obstacles is to list them all, one by one, and that is hardly a summary.
A DRAMATIC CONFLICT IS NOT A FIGHT.
As we have established, dramatic conflicts are always active. But not all kinds of activity are usable in drama. The activeness we are looking for is something with a will. - a will that wants to do the opposite of the Hero.
A person who therefore faces obstacles in getting to work is not a conflict. But let us say that there was a someone, an Antagonist who tried to prevent him actively from getting to work.
Now, we would have something close to conflict, although not a fully-fledged one, yet. We would now have a fight but not a conflict.
He is trying to get to work, while a competitor who is also seeking the same position, is trying to prevent him from getting there.
That’s like a boxing match, rather than a story. In the left corner, we have a red boxer, in the right, Blue and off we go. That may be fun to watch but sports is not and will never be a dramatic story.
I see this mistake a lot in spec scripts. The writer seems to think conflict is a fight. And so, the Hero engages in a lot of fights. He fights his daughter, his boss, his colleagues, his lawyer, his antagonist, and his goons. A lot of boxing matches.
But boxing matches have the same problem as our unfortunate friend how woke up too late.
If you narrate a boxing match, as though it was a story, you would immediately see that it’s not a story.
Blue boxer hits red Boxer with a right uppercut. Then Red Boxer strikes back with a quick jab to Blue Boxer’s jaw. Then Blue Boxer hooks Red Boxer with a swift red strike. Then Red goes into a full crouch and eventually strikes back at Blue with a series of quick blows. Then Blue hits red. red hits blue. Blue hits red. Red, blue, red blue…
Do you get that this is not a story?
Then imagine a whole screenplay that’s like this. The Antagonist attacks the Protagonist. then in the next scene or act; The protagonist strikes back. Then the antagonist strikes and then to everyone surprise, the Protagonist strikes back but then the Antagonist strikes.... you get the point, right?
This is not a story because this is not a conflict. It’s a fight.
A DRAMATIC CONFLICT IS ONE DRAMATIC CONFLICT, NOT TWO OR THREE.
And while we are at defining what a conflict isn’t, let us move on to something I see in awfully many spec scripts: Too many conflicts.
So, imagine that you are reading a story that goes something like this;
A young police rookie, who just started out in narcotics, discovers by coincidence something that has eluded all of his seasoned colleagues; A drug lord is planning to land a huge shipment of heroin, next Friday. This drug lord is also a famous senator. And so, when our young hero tells about his discovery to the commanding officers, they meet him with condemnation and disbelief. His boss, in fact, almost fires him for even suggesting it. Now, our hero has left himself if he wants to stop the deal.
At home, our hero, let’s call him Jack, is having problems with his wife. He suspects she might be unfaithful to him and to make matters worse his teenage son is being a tad too rebellious. Fortunately, Jack is very close to his brother, Mike. He tries to seek solace but they end up in a fight about an old loan.
Ok, once again. Let me spare you this travesty.
This is just a pile-up of random fights, not conflicts, not a story.
First, there’s no conflict here. These are all fighting. But worse than that; they serve no purpose to the story and even worse than that; they are different stories, not one coherent story.
Remember that the story was about Jack trying to stop a shipment of drugs. It’s not a story about his sister, his brother, nor his wife or his boss. These are different plots, all together.
Piling fights up on top of each other does not make for a coherent story. Quite the contrary. This might very well be the definition of a non-story.
Dramatic conflict is one conflict only
Dramatic conflict is one conflict only. But that one conflict may have many complications, but more about that later.
So now that we have discussed why conflicts are neither fights nor obstacles, the time has now come to define just what a conflict is and why.
I will get right down to it.
Conflict is an active dilemma. Dilemmas create conflicts and obstacles. they move the story forward, they develop the story and last but not least; They expose character.
Yes, a dilemma does all these things all at once, which is why they are the cornerstone of dramatic storytelling and always have been. They are the eggs in an omelet, the bat in a baseball game, the engine, and wheels of your car.
And you can try as much as you want to with your fights, your obstacles but you will never get there without dilemmas.
So what is a dilemma?
A dilemma happens whenever a character is forced to make an unpleasant choice between two evils. More than that: each choice cancels the other one out. He can't choose both.
Let me give you some examples.
Remember this scene in Raiders:
Want to add a caption to this image? Click the Settings icon.
Here, Indy has finally got the Nazis and the Ark in his crosshair. He's gonna blow up the Ark if he doesn't get the girl. But Belloq is not moved by Indy's ultimatum. OK, Jones, he responds. "Blow it up !"
This puts Indy in a precarious situation. He can now choose between blowing the ark up or not blowing it up. Each choice has negative and positive consequences as in all dilemmas. If he blows up the ark, he will get the girl but lose the artifact he has fought so long to find. On the other hand, he could also choose not to blow it up. In that case, the Nazis will take the girl with them and but at least the Ark won't be destroyed.
Whatever choice he makes, moves the plot forward. In one scenario Indy will be united with the love of his life and that would take the story in a new direction. Love conquers all. In another scenario, the Nazis would retain both ark and the girl, leaving Indy with two problems to solve.
And that's one of the many great things about dilemmas. Whatever choice the character makes, he will face a whole new situation. And that is precisely what story is; a string of situations, each one entirely new.
As you will recall, this is, in no way what happened in the story with the guy who was late for work. Here, we saw how it was all the same situation being repeated over and over again. That's what you get when you are using obstacles rather than dilemmas. But let's look at another example:
This is, as I am sure you'll recognize, 'Speed'.
And in this scene, Keanu's character has finally cornered the psychopathic terrorist. The only problem is, he's got Keanu's best friend in a lock. If Keanu kills the terrorist, his best friend dies. If he lets the terrorist go, he will be facing a maniacal killer on the loose.
What will he choose: His friend and a killer on the run, or; To catch the killer and sacrifice his friend.
As before, no matter what choice he makes, the story will change.
In one scenario he will capture the killer but have a dead friend. He would have saved a lot of innocent people but be scarred for life by the tragic loss of his friend. A turn for the tragic.
In his other option, however, he will save his friend but now have to deal with catching the killer, wherever he might have escaped.
Two very different developments. - and that's why dilemmas work; they always change the direction of the story and prevent it from getting stuck in its own repetitions.
Yes, there is. Much more.
So dilemmas move the story forward and also, they create conflict. Real conflict. But they also do another thing.
They expose the character.
Yes, dilemmas are the best way we know of to expose your character.
I bet that if you’ve ever written a screenplay, you would have encountered problems with that, whether you know it or not.
Most spec scripts are marred, severely by bad exposition: Long expository dialogues, monologues, soliloquies about the character, who he is, what he feels and thinks.
You must know this is not the way to write screenplays, don’t you?
Did you see any of those things in any greatly written movie ever? Did we learn who Indiana Jones is as a character, through long scenes of lengthy dialogue? - or through any dialogue?
Of course not.
That’s not how screenwriting works. But this is how it works:
Remember the scene?
Ok. let me refresh your memory.
The situation is this; The Nazis suspects that Rick is engaged in illegal gambling in his café. If they are right (and they are)they will shut him down for good and he will lose the place. Then, a young woman and her husband approach him. They are refugees from the Nazis, who are hot on their trail and they haven't got the money they need for a ticket out of the place.
They ask Rick for help.
And that puts him in a dilemma. He can't give them money, because then we would be aiding refugees and the Nazis did not particularly like people who helped their enemies. Giving them money is then not an option for him.
However...If he helped the woman's husband cheat on the roulette, they could win the money, that way. Its a good option but it puts him in a dilemma;
If he helps them cheat, the woman and her husband would be able to escape but the Nazis would have evidence that there is cheating going on, as they have suspected all along)
On the other hand, he could refuse to help them, in which case, he will be able to keep his café but the young couple would die.
As before, each of those choices would create a whole new direction for the story. In once scenario, he would save the couple but endanger himself. In the other, he would become a killer, by proxy, but retain his livelihood.
But here is the important thing; each choice also reveals who Rick is a human being.
Is he a cynic, like he pretends to be? Or is he, at heart a good man with his priorities in place.
Rick chose to help the couple cheat, and that is how we come to know who Rick really is, as a character.
The same can be said for Indy or Keanu Reeve's character. Yes, Keanu chose his best friend over his need to catch a killer. That shows us who he is.
Dilemmas, not only moves the story forward, but it also reveals character.
And this leads me to answer a question that I get a lot;
HOW MANY DILEMMAS ARE THERE IN A SCREENPLAY?
It's a very good question but not easy to answer. You see, every beat of a story is a mini-dilemma that builds into a central dilemma. I won't get too detailed about all that here, but suffice it to say that every movie, every story is built around once central dilemma. Some writers call it the central conflict, or the main conflict.
But by any name, it's really a dilemma and the whole story can be seen as a build-up to that dilemma and a payoff. Like this:
The main dilemma is what the whole movie is about. It is a dilemma that is the engine of the whole story, what drives all conflict from beginning to the end. It’s like gasoline in a car.
For instance, the conflict in “The Godfather” can easily be summarized like this:
Godfather is a gangster movie about a young man who is torn between whether he will help take over his dad's crime empire or follow his fiance and his own desire and leave crime to lead a normal life”
As you can see (hopefully) this is the central, the main conflict of Godfather. All other conflicts can be traced directly back to this dynamic.
And as you can also see, it’s a dilemma.
Let’s take another example:
“Wall Street is a drama about a young stockbroker who is torn between his need for success, and his morality”
As you will remember, this conflict drives the whole story, and everything the protagonist, Bud Fox, experiences in it.
Strong conflicts are simple conflicts. But if you want to build a strong conflict that you can stick to without going astray, and having to invent new conflicts every scene, design it as a dilemma.
That’s the secret to all great dramatic stories from Sophocles’s ‘Oedipus Rex’, written in 429 B.C, to “Cold Pursuit”, Written by my good friend, Kim Fupz, in 2019.
In the next article we will look at one of the most misunderstood concepts in all of screenwriting;Concepts.
If you have any screenwriting questions, that require a professional answer, click on the free signup button on top of this blog page to receive free lessons, newsletters and shoot me a mail with your questions.
Happy writing !!!