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The Value of Conflict

By Matt van Onselen · March 12, 2018

When we sit down to write our very first script, at whatever age, we tend to take our everyday experiences of having conversations, making decisions and taking action and throw them on the page. Then, as we run through the dialogue and action in our head, it all seems to make sense. This is how people talk and behave! This is how real life happens! But screenplays shouldn’t give us the luxury of “real life” dialogue and action. It’s so slow, predictable and lacks conflict. And when you lack conflict, you lack one of the most important aspects of a script.

Now, when we talk about conflict, you might instinctively think of arguments, confrontations or physical combat. These can be very important and provide highs and lows for your characters within particular scenes, or they can just be a lot of fun. However, there is a broader sense of conflict that relates to how information is relayed. This doesn’t necessarily mean people come to blows, but rather that there is an ever-present tension that exists between characters at every moment.

Information should never be offered to the audience without some sort of conflict. When it’s offered too easily, it comes across as either forced or extraneous. Whether they know it or not, your audience is extremely well-versed in how information should be presented to them, and if you don’t earn these expositional revelations through conflict, they’ll sniff it out instantly. This is why when we watch the flower shop scene in The Room we get shivers down our spine:

There is no conflict, and indeed, not even any information offered. Johnny, the protagonist, simply gets on marvelously with everyone in the shop (including the dog). No one is applying pressure to him, and he applies no pressure to anyone else. Because there is no pressure, there is no conflict, and as a result, no natural mechanism through which information can be generated. We also learn nothing about the characters and what drives them. What a waste of everyone’s time.

Consider how the scene may be adjusted, even slightly, to include conflict: The woman declares that they have no roses in stock. Johnny demands to know why this is the case, seeing that it’s a flower shop and all. The woman says that Johnny should just buy another bunch of flowers, but Johnny angrily insists that he has a red-rose ritual with his fiancée that means everything to them. As contrived as this conflict may be, it allows information to organically arise from the dialogue. Now we know just exactly what these roses mean to Johnny’s relationship, and we know that the flower seller is insensitive and bad at her job.

Now let’s take a very, very different scene from The Social Network in which the Winklevoss twins (Mark Zuckerberg’s much aggrieved former collaborators) complain to Harvard President Summers about Zuckerberg stealing their idea for a social network.

Here we see a beautiful example of pressure and conflict. The twins are deeply rooted in the idea that they are in the right, and speak arrogantly to Summers. The president, however, sees their grievance as having nothing to do with him and infantilizes and ridicules them. This meeting goes so badly that one of the twins vandalizes the president’s door on the way out in frustration.

But what do we learn from this conflict? Is it just an angry shouting match that ends up offering nothing by way of exposition or character traits? No. Every character ends up learning something, as does the audience. We learn that the twins are fastidious and demanding, having memorized Harvard policy just for the sake of the meeting. We learn that Zuckerberg has been avoiding the twins for two weeks, going so far as to run away from them when seen.

From Summers’ point of view, we learn that the university has no interest in dealing with what it perceives as “petty” squabbling. Behind this is Summers’ inability to accurately assess the financial significance of the Facebook project. Summers also thinks that the twins, who are evidently well connected, are demanding that they be treated differently from other students. Lastly, we learn that the twins differ from one another: one has respect for authority, the other is rude and far more direct.

Why are we drawn to conflict as opposed to cooperation? The deeper explanation is unclear, but we can say for certain that it’s a profoundly instinctive reaction to have. When we hear people disagreeing, arguing or actually fighting, our ears prick up. When we hear them talking in low tones about how much they agree with everything, our brains seek out something more exciting. So when you’re writing, be sure to keep the tension up or suffer the nightmare of a bored audience.

Matt van Onselen is a South African screenwriter living in Los Angeles and a graduate of the UCLA MFA Screenwriting program. He focuses on comedy writing, but will do anything for money.

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