Write Conflict that Counts

The night is cold. In the moonlight, the leafless branches appear like arthritic fingers, poised to drag aimless wanderers into the underworld. The four hobbits hide in the dirt, careful not to even breathe as the Ring Wraiths creep by. If they’re seen it’s all over—what are our heroes to do?

They remember the nearby Bucklebury Ferry, and if they can make it, they just might live to tell their tale. They race for the dock, but the Wraiths have noticed them, and they’re galloping towards our powerless heroes. Frodo, with the ring, has begun to lag. Ahead, his friends have already set the ferry adrift. They scream for him to hurry—a Wraith is hot on his tail. Frodo’s heart pounds as he tears down the dock with all his might. His legs ache. His chest burns. It’s too far. He’s too tired! There’s no way he’ll make it.

Then he leaps from the dock, lands safely, and they’re on to the next leg of their journey.

And you’re basically left to wonder: what was the point of any of that? The way our characters conveniently escape this ostensibly inescapable danger—doesn’t it almost seem like a neatly disguised *gasp*—deus ex machina?! Well, it may not quite fit that definition, but the tidy resolution of a conflict like this is only a half-step above that sin of all dramatic sins. And yet we see this all the time—even in cinematic classics! How is this possible? And how can we avoid it?

Writing drama often gets reduced to “add conflict.” Where’s the conflict?  Start with the conflict! Put conflict in every scene! We get it: conflict is important—paramount! But not all conflict was created equal, and without direction, this generalized rule can lead our plots towards shallow obstacles. So I’ve stopped asking, “How can I add conflict?” and started asking, “How can I give characters choices? And how can I give those choices consequences?”

This is the result:

Frodo races for the ferry—there’s no way he’ll make it! But his legs have found a momentary strength he never knew they had, and they catapult him safely onto the ferry.

He can relax.

But a funny feeling overtakes him—a lightness he didn’t have a moment ago. He checks his neck. The ring is gone…fallen off during his jump, and as he looks back towards the dock, he sees it sitting at the Wraith’s feet. He could almost puke as he watches the hooded figure pluck it up and disappear with it into the night.

Their escape comes at a price. The stakes have been raised. And now our heroes are forced to take action. But wait—there’s more!

Frodo is so distraught, he hardly notices the gasping, sputtering Sam beside him. Looking over, he notices Sam has been badly wounded in the escape—a sword straight through the belly. If they don’t get him to a doctor immediately, he’s surely dead.

We’ve exited  the scene, but we’re neck-deep in plot. Does Frodo go after the ring, or does he save his best friend? He can choose either (and his choice will reveal who he is as a character), but here’s the really important part: whichever path he takes, more consequences should follow.

You don’t have to focus so exclusively on choice and consequence, but it’s a method I’m comfortable relying on to turn gratuitous action into purposeful plot points—because conflict that doesn’t forward your plot or test your characters really isn’t drama at all. Compare the following scenes—both from Spielberg flicks:

1. Dashing archaeologist is afraid of snakes, so—naturally—he falls into a pit of snakes. He hesitates. Then he navigates past the snakes and on to the next lurking danger.

2. A man’s children have been captured by his pirate nemesis. To save them, he need only climb one-hundred feet of ratlines—but he has an immobilizing fear of heights. Try as he might, he chickens out. His children are subsequently brainwashed by his sworn enemy.

Which one involves choice? Which one has consequences? Which one compels you to dive headfirst into the story? Only the second. To which you scoff. “Raiders of the Lost Ark is beloved! Iconic! And far more successful than Hook ever was.” Well, yes. But was it more dramatic? It’s here that I think you’ve got to concede that movies are a collaborative art—from the set design to the stunt department. A desperate escape from a giant boulder is just as visually stunning and fun to watch as a Ring Wraith chasing a hobbit through a forest—particularly with a fantastic score and state-of-the-art VFX. But do you want to be the writer that relies on other departments to compensate for your sloppy beats? Or do you want to write the most tightly woven, compelling script you can? If it’s the latter, drama is your number one concern. Well, it’s my number one concern, anyway. And I’m of the belief that a conflict that can be safely removed without affecting the story is really just a waste of time, and a missed opportunity to test your characters. Yes—that includes giant boulders.

And I think you’ll agree. In today’s market, in which the writing is the best it’s ever been, does Raiders’ stunt-filled opening still compete? Are you more compelled to watch Indy narrowly outrun a boulder, only to narrowly escape a closing tomb, only to narrowly flee a jungle ambush…or to watch Walter White choose to let Jane die? For me, the choice is clear—though I fear Lawrence Kasdan will take vengeance upon me for saying so.

Then again, he may just write me a narrow escape out the window.

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