People thrive on conflict. There’s a reason why shows such as Jersey Shore and Real Housewives of (Name Your City) are so popular–they’re all about conflict. Feature films are no different. They need a strong central conflict that drives the story with a lot of little conflicts along with way. In its basic form, a story is simple–set up a conflict and then resolve it. The entire reason for a plot’s existence is to find a way to fix the problem.
The larger a problem, the bigger the film. Obviously, a movie about a woman sneaking away from her over-protective son to revisit her childhood home is going to be smaller than one where a hero has to prevent a nuclear bomb from detonating in a major city. In the latter, the stakes are higher so the plot must be broader and more complex. The former is a personal story, and the dramatics must be developed in tiny increments with human emotions at risk rather than many lives. But which plot will draw an audience in? Which has more meaning? In some respects, the nuclear bomb story is dehumanized, even though it’s about saving the lives of millions of people. Those masses are conceptual rather than real–you have an idea that an unimaginable number of people are in danger, but an audience cannot relate to them unless you give them specific individuals in which to connect. Then their personal lives become important; in fact, one character could be trying to reach her former residence, but may not succeed due to the impending atomic explosion. At this point, there are personal stakes at risk for the audience. We identify with her small crisis, with the larger one looming overhead waiting to destroy her desires. When the larger conflict is resolved, then the smaller, personal ones can be as well.
Whether your screenplay’s conflict is major or minor, it still needs to be treated with seriousness otherwise the entire story becomes weak. Maybe the problem one character faces is not large enough to warrant a blockbuster with a $200 million dollar budget and special effects from ILM, but it has to be important enough to make the audience care about the protagonist and whether or not he succeeds in his goal. Anyone who studied Literature in high school knows that conflicts come in various forms–man vs. man, man vs. nature, man vs. himself–so whatever form your protagonist’s conflict takes, it clearly defines the goal he strives for throughout the story. The choices he makes and the plot twists that are thrown at him must directly reflect his goal and the problems he faces in reaching that goal. The greater importance to the protagonist, the greater the importance to the audience.
The overall conflict of the story must be presented in Act 1 and must be made obvious to the audience by the first half hour (roughly 30 pages in a screenplay). By this point, we should know who our principal characters are and the setting in which they exist. Our protagonist is faced with a problem and a decision as to how to go about dealing with that problem. The choice the protagonist makes then leads us into Act 2, where other, smaller problems are thrown his way. Everything happening here deepens the problem, but brings us ever closer to ending it. Act 3, which can be anywhere from 10 minutes to a half an hour long, is where the conflict is resolved. The mistake many first-time screenwriters have is to resolve the conflict too soon and then let Act 3 just tie up loose ends. Yes, these dangling plot points need to be addressed in a timely manner, but they need to be done so efficiently and naturally within the story. When you strip away all the excess baggage, what you have is the primary conflict. That is your primary concern as a storyteller–how does the main character fix the primary problem in the story? When that question is solved, you have the climax to the story, and essentially the story is over. Give the audience a brief time to let everything sink in and minor concerns addressed–the denouement or an epilogue. After that, there really isn’t any more to be said.
Read more musings on film and television by Jamie Helton at FilmVerse.
This article was originally published at FilmVerse on October 16, 2011. Republished with permission.
copyright © 2011 Jamie Helton
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