What is conflict in scenes?
Bang2writers often ask me this question. Many believe – erroneously – that characters have to ARGUE to put the idea of conflict across. This is because I’d wager MOST writers think scenes are principally about dialogue, which as we know is a HUGE problem for the spec pile and makes for highly theatrical, dialogue-led scripts.
We often hear the old screenwriting adage, “characters are not what they SAY but what they DO”, but writers don’t always get what this means, or how to implement it.
So my advice is: think instead about how each scene takes your character towards a bigger goal, that “end point” in the story … Within that individual scene then, it has to have a point, not via dialogue (though it obviously plays its part, where applicable), but ACTION.
Here are 3 examples of conflict within scenes and how they play out via ACTION, rather than dialogue:
1) GRAVITY (2013): Debris Hits Explorer
I picked GRAVITY to illustrate in the first instance because its central conflict is obvious: the story is about a character who must try and survive a space mission that’s gone horribly wrong. That’s it. No big secret. Ryan Stone must GET HOME: that’s the end point of the story and she must make her way through various obstacles in various scenes in order to do that.
So, ten minutes in, the catalyst: the Russians have shot down one of their own satellites which has accidentally set off a series of catastrophes … Not least the destruction of space shuttle Explorer.
Watch the clip, HERE.
1. Houston: “Mission Abort”
2. “Stand down” – exposition re: debris
3. Debris hits / comms blackout with Houston
4. “Man down!” Third astronaut Sharif dies
5. Explorer is hit and spins
6. Hubble’s arm breaks off with Stone
7. Kowalski: “DETACH!”
8. Ryan Stone spins off into space / “I’ve lost visual on Dr. Stone“.
In terms of dialogue versus action, we should note screen-time for this sequence is approximately 3 minutes; it’s slightly longer in terms of page count in the screenplay. This is not surprising considering there is a significant amount of exposition regarding the problem of the debris itself. This is warranted, on the basis the “chain reaction” Houston talks about signposts the focus of the action and the adversity Stone faces in the REST of the movie.
Also, don’t forget, whether 3 OR 6(ish) pages, the average SPEC screenplay rarely delivers a high octane sequence like this, even in TEN (or more) pages I’m afraid! What we can learn here is balancing exposition and action is tough, but it can pay dividends.
2) LIAR, LIAR (1997): Fletcher Versus The Pen
In comparison to GRAVITY, this sequence is not a high octane blast. Instead, it’s the exact opposite: one guy versus a pen of all things! Yet it’s still a great example of conflict in a scene that does not rely on two characters simply arguing. It should also be noted that like GRAVITY, Fletcher delivers sign posts via dialogue over what is going on, but crucially, these lines are MATCHED with physical happenings.
Watch the clip, HERE.
1. “I can beat this … it’s all a matter of willpower!”
3. First try – failure.
4. Second try – failure.
5. Third try: “Rrrrrrrrroyal blue!”
6. Collapse in chair / exposition: “One lie and I can’t say it!”
7. “I’ll write it!” – but he can’t!!
8. Trash the desk / fight with own arm
9. The pen attacks!
10. Secretary comes running … Fletcher: “The goddamn pen is blue!
The sequence is approximately 2.5 mins long of screen-time. I’ve written before the infamous “rrrrrrrrroyal blue” line does not seem to appear to be in the original screenplay, plus Jim Carrey is of course known for improvising and insisting on many, many takes so it’s difficult to know if ANY screenplay we can find online is remotely like the one they had on set. Even so, writers can still learn from this sequence, which is possibly the most famous from the whole movie and still manages to surprise us, when Fletcher’s head emerges from behind the desk.
3) NATURAL BORN KILLERS (1994): The Death of the Cook
As openers go, the diner scene in NATURAL BORN KILLERS sets the tone for what comes next: a rip roaring, violent gorefest of a ride. But it’s The Death of The Cook Mabel at the END of that opening sequence in the diner (just one minute approx of screentime) that actually sets up the characters of Mickey and Mallory as a unit: they’re ruthless; they’re crazy-violent and they’re hopelessly in love … Wait a minute, WTF??
Watch the clip, HERE.
1. Mabel, the cook tries to escape. MALLORY: “No! There is no escaping here!” MICKEY: “Who’s the lucky one …?”
2. Mallory plays eeny meeny miny mo with Mabel and the Fat Cowboy
3. Mabel thinks she’s spared … but Mallory isn’t finished yet
4. MALLORY: “You … are … it!” Mickey kills Mabel.
5. Exposition, links to beginning of scene: Mallory tells customary sole survivor Fat Cowboy to tell the authorities who did the diner massacre. He obviously agrees.
6. Young love: “I love you Mickey! / I love you Mallory!”
Again, the versions of the screenplay available online vary, so it’s hard to know how much of this sequence was reimagined on set. That said, the end result shows writers that a helluva lot can be established in just over a minute of screen-time.
The subversion of a child’s game eeeny meeny has horrifying consequences … But it’s important to remember Mickey and Mallory ARE children! Fucked-up violent children for sure, but children nonetheless … So this dialogue in conjunction with their propensity for extreme violence works beautifully. MORE: Top 5 Dialogue Mistakes Writers Make
As we can see from these three examples, conflict in an individual scene needs to serve a PURPOSE, which is serving up exposition and taking us, piece by piece, towards the resolution. Writers need to do this in such a way that it’s not OBVIOUS. This is why it’s a great idea to ensure we use action, rather than simply “talk” (arguments or not).
But as we can see from these three examples then, it’s fine to use talk as well (and can even be advisable as “sign posts”) but dialogue hardly ever stands on its own. That really is the secret of writing great conflict in scenes.
This is even more subtle when these are not action scenes: the conflict is about influence, domination between each other, this doesn’t go through dialogues which can tell the contrary of the images, and the protagonist can even be unaware of what is going on. E.g. Basic Instinct:
– the police “grilling”,
– the final scene.
Every scenes don’t necessarily hold conflict. Conflict causes adrenaline and tension, but this is not the only things we look for while watching a movie. Great scenes are also about various other emotions: happiness, sadness, belief, trust, serenity, safeness, relief, awkwardness, excitement, love, arousal, amusement… without any conflict, and are however much necessary to make the plot going forward, either as main scenes or as a counterpoint to adrenaline scenes. E.g. Pretty Woman:
– Arousal, awkwardness… the piano scene,
– Belief, trust, serenity, safeness… Vivian’s pillow talk to Edward,
– Belief, trust, relief… Edward’s secrets to Vivian in the tub,
– Surprise, conflict, sadness… first tour of Rodeo drive,
– Excitement, happiness… second tour of Rodeo drive, the evening at the San Francisco Opera,
This is a great thing when movies are not only about conflict, action…
There should be conflict into a scene only if the writer knowingly put it in. Otherwise they don’t master what they are writing IMO…
I love this list, especially because it includes the scene from Liar Liar. When I hear the word conflict, I automatically think drama or thriller, and I’m probably not the only one. So it was really helpful to include a funny conflict. Liar Liar is one of my favorite comedies of all time, and Fletcher’s physical inability to lie, as well as his verbal inability, cracks me up every time. I also loved it when he just showed all his unpaid tickets to the officer, and of course there’s the legendary self-beating that yields so no favorable results:)
Hi Pinar, yes loads of writers think conflict is specifically genre-related, but as Jean-Marie points out, it’s STORY-related … we need it to get on board the journey, full stop! 😀
A very helpful post! Thank you so much! I’m learning a lot!
Great to hear, glad it’s useful 🙂