Thursday, January 20, 2011

Conflict Resolution

Most writing teachers will tell you that stories and their scenes need to contain conflict. Most people have heard that an understand it. The problem is how they understand it. To most novice writers it means an argument. So I read scripts all the time with people fighting, but with no underlying conflict.

Conflict comes in a few forms. There is a kind of “super-conflict” which is related to the super objective—to borrow from Constantin Stanislavski.

Super objective, meaning that the story’s protagonist has a goal or objective that she wants and is after the entire time. This is what moves the story forward. The “super-conflict” is the big obstacle that keeps her from that goal. So this is one kind of conflict.

But as the story progresses, related objectives arise, as do their obstacles. For instance, the super objective may be to steal a billion dollars and run off to Acapulco. But along the way, the protagonist may need to get the combination to a vault or acquire a key from a guard. Or find a way into the bank after closing. These obstacles are conflicts, but they do not necessarily require that two or more characters have a screaming match.

In fact, our protagonist may smile and flirt with the bank guard to gain his trust and get close to the key she needs. There would be conflict in such a scene because there is a goal and obstacle.

There is internal conflict that can work very well. This kind of scene requires very little of a writer.

In the movie Fatal Attraction, Michael Douglas plays a man who has had an adulterous affair, but begins to regret the consequences. So the storytellers put Michael’s character in happy family scenes. While he is out for a night of bowling with his family, they are having fun and he is lost in thought and regret, but tries to put on a happy face. The conflict is internal. You can get a lot of mileage out of this kind of conflict.

Internal conflict is the most powerful form. Hamlet’s To-be-or-not-to-be soliloquy is testament to the power of a character in conflict with himself.

If you have a character who is a recovering alcoholic and has decided not to drink, find a reason to get her in a bar with people laughing, drinking and having a good time. Boom. Conflict. Internal conflict. After that you can write a pretty straightforward scene.

There is a great scene in Disney’s The Jungle Book where Baloo has to break it to the boy Mowgli that he needs to go back to the “Man-Village” to be safe from the bloodthirsty tiger Shere Khan.

This is a great scene because there is Baloo’s internal conflict, but the two characters also have different objectives. In the scene, the boy wants to play and Baloo has something serious to say. These are characters at cross-purposes and that is a perfect ingredient for dramatic or comedic conflict.

This is conflict, but not arguing. You could, for instance, have one character embarrassed by the behavior of a friend. But no one needs to argue. Not necessarily.

Another reason to use internal conflict is that a character may be uncomfortable in his or her skin—they could embarrass themselves. You could have a flabby guy at his first day at the gym surrounded by muscular men with perfect physiques and—to top it off—fill the place with beautiful women.

Or you could go the other way and put an overweight woman in a room full of wafer-thin super models and handsome eligible men.

Same thing. Put a poor person in a swanky country club. You get the idea.

There is also practical conflict, by which I mean physical barriers that must be overcome. The hero must defuse a bomb is a practical conflict. But if you throw in that this is his first day on the job and he’s nervous, you now have internal conflict, too. 

Sometimes conflict is in the form of an argument, but often it can take other more interesting and nuanced forms. If you apply these forms your stories will take on added dimension.

It’s true—don’t argue with me.


imyjimmy said...


Love your post!

I've always wondered how the pro's do it...conflict-wise.

First thing that came to my mind is that Hitchcock does this really well in Shadow of a Doubt. Once Charlie knows that her uncle is a murderer, the following dinner scene is unbearable.

It had me on the edge of my seat and it was just a dinner scene. A dinner scene!

On the other hand, I've seen "scary" movies that are actually funny because they're trying too hard to get me on edge.

Like when a woman goes to a scary mansion and then consciously decides to get naked and take a is that even scary?

And of course she gets hacked to pieces.

On the other hand, the utter lack of obvious violence in Shadow of a Doubt is amazing to watch.

Paul Chadwick said...

The embarrassing scene in the restaurant is so sure-fire it's used a lot. I find I'm sometimes disappointed when it doesn't show up. Scarface has a doozy.

I fear the Jungle Book video link doesn't illustrate the scene you reference, but it's a pleasure hearing Deja speak reverently, and analytically, of Frank Thomas's work.

I remember Joe Ranft telling me about Deja -- he knew from childhood he would be a Disney animator, and seriously taught himself the Disney style from an early age. He made his dream real.

Frank and Ollie were retired, but writing their magnum opus in 1980 when I was at Disney, and the young animators practically genuflected when they'd stroll down the hall. Living legends.

Brian McD said...

Hey Paul,

Thanks for checking out the blog.

You are correct, I was stretching it a bit with the Andreas Deja clip. I really put it up because I have so many followers who work in the animation field and I thought that the way that Frank Thomas approached the scene the boxing scene between Mowgli and Baloo spoke to a kind of conflict that is not quite an argument.

Deja quotes Frank saying that when you have two characters in a scene that think alike it will probably be a boring scene and that it works better to have contrasting attitudes.

That’s what I meant to illustrate, but perhaps I didn’t succeed in making that clear because I write the posts then I find clips and/or photos to support that post. So I screwed up by appearing to set up one scene and showing another. My bad.

I’m a big Frank Thomas fan – he’s my favorite animator. I used to study the drawings in the Illustration of Life book you mentioned and was drawn to Frank Thomas’ drawings because each one seemed alive to me. Each one seemed to be moving. He and Ollie were amazing. I’ll bet the inspired a lot of people with their book. I learned a ton from them.

Anyway, thanks for giving me a chance to clear up why I chose that clip.

And thanks again for reading.

-- Brian

Anonymous said...

A really good post, Brian.

I recommend your blog to many fiction writers I run across whom I think could benefit from it.

Brian McD said...

Thank you, Bill. And thanks for reading.

Anonymous said...

It's like you read my mind. I remember listening to my professors in college teach about how conflicts make for interesting stories. I literally got a visual of two characters yelling at each other.

I had to rewire my brain to think "obstacles" instead of "conflicts" before it could accept the brouder definition.

Thanks for putting this concept to words. :)

Ashley Armstrong said...

This reminds me of a Hitchcock class lecture. It was about how usually the antagonist was the outer symbol of the protagonist's inner conflict, and that the love interest also represented that conflict, but she/he was a conflict along side the protagonist. So there was usually 3 main conflicts, but are are related. I suppose in Notorious, the plot conflict is the espionage mission, but at the same time there's a conflict where the characters can't admit their feelings to another, Sebastain's mother, Sebastian's jealousy, getting the key and then wine, Alicia's feelings to her father, etc.
Surprisingly in the writing class I took, I never saw an argument conflict.
Andreas Deja is coming to my school Wednesday. : D This reminded me!

Brian McD said...

Andreas Deja! How lucky are you? Geez. I'm sure you'll learn a lot.

Brian McD said...

Thank you, Elise.

imyjimmy said...

What school do you go to? Wow, Andreas Deja...

Scott Wiser said...

Why would I argue? I completely agree with you!

It's a rare article that helps me see both how my current story is working AND how I can improve it. Thank you thank you for always breaking things down so "simply." Every time I revisit your writings I learn something new.