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Positive Conflict

SPOILERS: Witness, Sideways, Speed, The Ice Storm, Die Hard, Alien, Se7en.

There are a lot of scripts out there, but then we know that. I don’t see every single script that does the rounds of course, but I do see an awful lot of them each year – and it’s always surprising how many times one script reader might mention a title of a script they liked or remember and another chimes in, “I’ve read that!” Then of course we recommend or refer clients to one another, so it’s not really surprising we often get to see the same work, albeit sometimes in different drafts.

What a non script reader might not realise is how many of those scripts have downbeat endings or are just downbeat in general. Now, I’ve nothing against the depressing and downbeat; I’ve written scripts like that myself. And sometimes the type of story you are writing lends itself to it. It’s difficult to write, say, a cautionary tale if it “all comes good in the end” for example (though as with everything, not impossible).

Yet so often a script not only could go either way, it would actually be a more satisifying end to events had the ending been positive rather than negative. I’m not saying that each script should have the kind of “happy ever after” we allot to childhood fairy tales either (though occasionally that would be nice, particularly in many of the Rom Coms I read where everyone breaks up and sometimes even dies).

What I would like to see more often is what I call “positive conflict” that leads to a “more positive” rather than “entirely negative” ending. Is conflict an entirely negative act? I don’t think so, from these varying definitions I’ve just rounded up on the ‘net:

When the desires of two or more characters are opposed to each other.

Disagreement or opposition; as of interests or ideas of characters in a play or story, when these disagreements reach their maximum tension.

The struggle within the plot between opposing forces. The protagonist engages in the conflict with the antagonist, which may take the form of a character, society, nature, or an aspect of the protagonist’s personality.

The struggle between opposing forces–eg, CHARACTERS, nations or ideas–that provides the central ACTION and interest in any literary PLOT. The struggle between the Capulet and Montague families in Romeo and Juliet is a classic example of conflict.

Of course, Romeo and Juliet may well be one of the major culprits for the downbeat ending: both teen lovers die and their families are devastated. Similarly, King Lear ends up in a similar state, losing his precious Cordelia, his kingdom and his sanity, not to mention a whole host of other protagonists in Shakespeare’s back catalogue of tragedies. But that was then; this is now. Do we actually want to watch tragedy? On the stage, maybe – and certainly at The Globe. But in film or TV? I’m unconvinced.

Just because bad things happen in film or TV does not mean your protagonist needs to be downbeat – and the ending needn’t depress us, even if there is no “way back” to where their lives once were. Characters can change because of bad experiences – and unlike real life where they would need counselling forever for many action adventures, thrillers and horrors, they can have a new appreciation for life instead, like Sandra Bullock’s character in Speed. Just because a character must go through obstacle after obstacle does not mean their spirit will be crushed.

Consider John Book in one of my favourite thrillers Witness; he’s a character and a half and some serious shit is thrown at him. His entire way of life is turned upside down, he must fight for the greater good and protect the innocent, particularly the child; he must live as a fish out of water in the Amish community, he’s betrayed by his trusted colleagues, he’s even shot by one and almost dies. Yet despite all this he keeps going – not in a passive way, not in an even “I suppose I better, I can’t let the bastards win” way, but with good humour and resolve. In short, he is a true hero I think.

Obstacles need to be “bad” because a protagonist needs to overcome them – but the reason I put “bad” in brackets is because it depends on your genre and the type of story you’re telling on how bad, “bad” gets. If it’s a Rom Com, chances are your hero isn’t going to literally die if they get jilted at the altar; for the thriller or horror characters however their fictional lives are on the line a lot of the time. However, just because life sucks or lives are at stake does not mean your character needs to be depressed about it. Sideways ends with Mile’s hope for the future with Maya, even though he managed to thoroughly alienate her with his saracasm and insecurity. Mikey might die tragically in The Ice Storm, but his death is what finally brings the feuding families together. Consider John McLane’s quips in the face of his own mortality in the Die Hard franchise. Ripley wasn’t going to die, thank you very much; she was going to figure out how to survive – and take as many as she can with her, even if that only amounts to the ship’s cat.

Positive conflict brings out an active protagonist – and their own actions bring them hope and keep the audience interested. A passive protagonist, depressed about their predicament and the plot then going on to end badly is a little like listening to the irritating friend everyone seems to have at some point: they *know* they should do something about their dead end job, life or partner, but they would just rather moan to you about it. There’s only so much you can take before you snap tell them to do something.

So next time you’re tempted by a downbeat ending, think: does your story need it? some do, but a downbeat ending *can* be indicative of a general downbeat script and/or protagonist. Is that the most dramatic thing you can do with this story? Can you increase your positive conflict? Can you present that story another way, are you just feeling downbeat and want to reflect how you’re feeling about life? I don’t think it’s any accident that downbeat endings seemed to have increased with a perception via tabloids that life is more scary or difficult now, especially when it comes to this UK credit crunch. But films and TV are about escapism as well, they’re only a representation of reality, not reality itself.

Having said all that though, sometimes a downbeat ending has a major impact and employed for that very reason as it goes against that *expected* ending – usually “good will overcome”, though not always. The killer one for me has to be Se7en: Detective David Mills discovers his dead wife’s head in the box and ruins his career and life by killing John Doe for it, just as the psycho wants. All is lost! I recall watching that as a teen and just being amazed Mills goes through with it, I was sure right until the very last second he would put the gun down and say “You’re not worth it.”

What about you?

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22 thoughts on “Positive Conflict”

  1. “A passive protagonist, depressed about their predicament and the plot then going on to end badly is a little like listening to the irritating friend everyone seems to have at some point…”

    Very good point, Luce. I have a long-developed script which I’m really thinking needs to be revamped or dumped. The reason? The protagonist is too whiny, self-absorbed and wallowing. Readers might have sympathised, but just haven’t liked him. A pitfall which is definitely worth bearing in mind.

  2. Ta Jase. Getting rid of a “whiny” protagonist goes beyond changing their dialogue unfortunately; it means giving them a whole NEW ATTITUDE which often means changing not only their obstacles, but their responses to them. So in other words, you probably need to go back to page 1 if you want to rescue the script; the good news though is that once you’ve realised this, getting rid of the whininess is quite straight forward. I had a script where readers for YEARS said my protag was too whiny, I tried everything with her and the bitch would not stop whining. So I switched the POV and made her boyfriend the protag instead. Worked a treat.

  3. Personally, I find a downbeat ending nearly always more effective. I can’t remember on which blog I read it recently but I liked someone’s point that movies can be divided between:

    a) someone wants something and they get it.
    b) someone wants something and they get it, but at a price.

    I consider (effective) downbeat endings in the latter category, e.g. Mills stops Doe, but at a price. Or in Pitch Black, she gets the survivors on the spaceship but then..

    I guess there’s a third category of ‘someone wants something and they don’t get it’, for no reason other than a harsh finish; to me this is downbeat for downbeat’s sake and doesn’t aid the story.

    So, I guess I’m trying to say that when a price has to be paid, downbeat endings are satisfactory.

    This in turn opens up the problem of ‘ultimate sacrifice’:

    Jack dies in Titanic to save Rose. Fine. Downbeat but believable.

    But consider the recent I Am Legend. After Will Smith’s struggle to stay alive, he gives up. Just like that. His downbeat ending, as compared to the book, felt like an easy/lazy option.

  4. Ah, that’s interesting. I see b) still as “positive” rather than just downbeat because they want something and get it, whereas in a lot of scripts I read characters don’t WANT stuff enough, which is why they might seem more downbeat if that makes sense.

    I don’t think that just because a character dies it’s depressing, hence my inclusion of The Ice Storm in the post. Pitch Black is a good example because Fry says she would “die for them” and does, but they do survive, so that’s positive, she hasn’t died for absolutely no reason. Same goes for Alien 3 – Ripley might die but she takes the queen with her, so WINS and that too is positive to me.

    I suppose now I think of it, by “downbeat” I actually mean more “futile” in that some scripts seem more depressing because it doesn’t matter what the character has done or (more often), not done?

  5. I Am Legend is a good example as there is an alternative ending where Will Smith manages to reach the humanity still left inside the monster and he lives. And it kinda sucks.

    The actual ending is flawed but I liked it better. While the main character’s demise was downbeat it ends positively with the woman and child safe and arriving at the refuge.

  6. I haven’t seen I Am Legend, but it’s come up before on here and it certainly seems to divide people. Must get round to watching it, seems like I spend most of my time in the 80s nowadays music and film wise, all I need is a time travelling phone box or car.

    Plus Will Smith is like, well fit, innit.

  7. I had a different take on that ending Robin and generally thought it was better. My take wasn’t that Will Smith reached the humanity inside the creatures but that he (and therefore we) realised that there was humanity inside the creatures that he/we thought were only monsters. The ending as is doesn’t change the nature of what they were but the alternative ending has to make you re-evaluate everything that you’ve seen before.

  8. I agree about the ‘positive conflict’. Witness is one of my faves as well – caught it on telly just last week and got hooked in AGAIN for the umpteenth watch. The ending feels upbeat because Book succeeds in getting the bent cop AND protects the boy. But it works so well because it doesn’t have a twee happy ending for Book and Rachel. Their worlds are so different they cannot have a future together yet their story also feels upbeat – their relationship was brief but positive for both.
    I find downbeat endings generally very unsatisfying if there is no glimmer of hope anywhere to be found. Maybe it’s just a matter of personal taste. I don’t mind how terrible the ending is as long as someone has achieved something however small. Leon, another fave of mine, ends when he blows himself up. It’s a downbeat ending in that sense but he sacrificed himself to save the girl. So it’s not.

  9. Tom, I do feel that it was foreshadowed that the monster was more than that by being able to set that trap and by us realising he was trying to get his woman back. In the original ending I liked that when we thought Will Smith was getting through to him he turned out to be not as intelligent as we thought.

    I am by no means a fan of the logic-defying spectacular ending for the sake of it but while on an intellectual basis the alternative was better, the original version actually had more of an emotional impact.

    Ending’s are important as that experience is what’s going to affect theatrical word of mouth and DVD sales the most. For instance while there is the debate about whether the hero should have lived or died at the end, it was the genre shift from sci-fi thriller to religious fantasy at the end that turned me off.

    I was talking to a producer and he told he was looking for human optimism in screenplays. If our writers voice is human pessimism and we’re all doomed then it might be harder to sell.

    Caz raises another good point. I’ve also seen Witness millions of times, I’ve only seen Seven once, although I enjoyed it in the movie theatre.

  10. I absolutely adore Witness, it is possibly my fave film ever. It has so many layers and each character is so distinct. Even Book’s sister, who can’t be on screen for more than about three minutes in the whole film, makes her conflict known with Book – not only when he passes judgement on her for having her boyfriend at the house when her children are asleep upstairs, but via the Amish Mother who baits him at the cafe with what his sister says about him, whilst pretending to be innocently oblivious herself. Fabulous.

    I can’t pass any comment on I Am Legend obviously, but I’m with Robbo’s producer mate – I find “everything’s doomed” a terrible bore to read. Bad things can happen, it doesn’t mean everything has to be *all bad* – even if the character ends up dead.

  11. This may come across entirely weird but when I watch Se7en, I always think that maybe this time John Doe will lose. Maybe, like you said Lucy, Mills doesn’t shoot him or Somerset blows John’s brains out instead, which I think does happen in one draft. But because I have this reaction every time I watch it, I have no doubt that Andrew Kevin Walker made the right choice by going with a downbeat ending – it just seems true to the film for it to finish like that.

    My first ever feature script had a downbeat ending which I thought at the time was me being original because the good guys nearly always win in the movies. However now after reading your post and how common downbeat endings are, I think that perhaps what myself and other writers do when we first start out is get our central protagonists into such tricky situations that we struggle to come up with ways of how to positively resolve them. Therefore we take the easy option and go with a negative ending.

  12. I know exactly what you mean, Dave – when a film feels like it *could* change I think it shows what good writing it is too.

    I wrote an incredibly depressing first ever script myself as well, for the VERY SAME reason… Rite of passage maybe? My first ever feedback too was “I felt like I wanted to kill myself by the end.” I read again myself recently – the computer I wrote it on is long dead, so I only have a paper copy -and I couldn’t even finish it, it was such a downer. Maybe I’ll burn it one day.

  13. I’m definitely from the school of b) someone wants something and they get it, but at a price.

    Of course, the first time I watched Se7en, I was pleasantly relieved by the ending…


    When the box got delivered, I figured it was going to have the foetus of Brad Pitt and Gwyneth Paltrow’s unborn baby inside.

    When it was just Gwyneth’s head? Not so bad – hence, relieved.

  14. Yes I did wonder that, but I suppose what Manson’s Family did to Sharon Tate was still too fresh a memory in being under b30 years’ previously, especially given the film connections via Roman Polanski?

  15. Hmmm… downbeat endings. Well, leaving aside Shakespeare and his tragedies for now (but come on, so much better than his happy ending cross-dressing-apalooza-fest comedies) let’s see:

    Thelma and Louise, Gladiator, Saving Private Ryan, Scarface, Carlito’s Way, The Exorcist, Casablanca, The Lives of Others… I’m sure there are many more. But all of them have optimistic messages. I feel downbeat endings and nihilistic messages have their place but mainly in the horror genre – you can get away with “We’re all going to die!” if it’s less human drama and more “Oh noes! The monsters are coming!” because it’s meant to be scary.

    And now I want to discuss a film in particular – one I know Jason likes – but can’t because it will definitely involve spoilers and it’s too new to do so.

    (This comment was brought to you but the letters W, I, N and E of which too much has been consumed to be useful)

  16. For me, Thelma and Louise as you say Tom has that optimistic msg, so doesn’t count as “downbeat” for me – downbeat would have been them abandoning the chase and giving themselves up and going to jail. By doing what they do, they WIN, it’s the best thing for them.

    Downbeat to me means no optimistic msg, no happy after in *any sense* – in Se7en, Mills is completely, royally screwed, life in bits, the antag has won.

    So yeah – I suppose it’s about winning and losing for me: if you win, even if you die, then it’s not downbeat I reckon.

  17. The thing about Se7en is that there is an optimistic message that’s normally overlooked because everyone’s so completely taken aback by what happened to Mills. But ask yourself who the protagonist actually is and what the last line of the film is?

  18. I take your point Tom; though I don’t remember the last line of the film, we see the action through Somerset’s eyes, not Mill’s. However I would counter your point with the thought that if people “normally overlook” the optimistic message in Se7en, is it that successful?

  19. The last line of the film is Somerset saying “Hemingway once wrote ‘The world is a fine place and worth fighting for.’ I agree with the second part.” The film opens with Somerset about to retire to a house in the country because he’s so disillusioned with his job and the way the world is so awful – he’s even teased about it by his boss. At the end of the film it’s clear that he’s not going to resign because he’s found new purpose in a world “that’s worth fighting for”.

    Contrast this to No Country For Old Men which has one of the most talked about (and downbeat) endings of recent time.

    Your point is good though – Somerset’s revelation is overshadowed by the onslaught we just had to go through and it’s so subtle that we can miss it. Does that make it unsuccessful? It depends on whether you think that was the point of the film or not. If the film made you think about your own life and about the sins that you commit every day and how you might improve your life so as not to become a victim of “John Doe”, would that be successful? Or is it simply enought that we’re here discussing the film 13 years on and still saying “About that ending! Wow!”

  20. I think as movies go, Se7en’s excellently written, interesting, memorable, thrilling etc. Did it make me think about how I live my life? Not in any way.

    Thelma & Louise did though, so did Witness. Guess it’s the whole boat-floating thing.

  21. Se7en has a very positive outcome: John Doe sets out to kill 7 people and succeeds- compare with Jame Gumb!

    More pertinently, moving from the more specialized arena of feature film into TV, a number of doctors I’ve known and a policeman revealed that programmes like Casualty, Doctors, etc. and numerous detective series are widely disliked within their professions due to the highly improbable number of happy (i.e. successful) outcomes. They are regularly confronted by people who can no longer understand that people die and crimes remain unsolved. They even get people saying ‘but it works on Casualty’. People die, murderers get away with it, children stay lost- television has been indoctrinating us to forget this… and now when the worst happens people can’t cope.

  22. Jon, I think that’s an argument against thick people not happy endings.

    Surely most people know full well that happy endings are not guaranteed in the real world but watch drama for an escape, where good does triumph over evil.

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