Former Los Angeles producer/showrunner Scott McConnell shares advice on how to develop strong central conflicts for a drama.
The key reason most scripts/films fail is that they were not properly conceived. That is, when the central conflict of the film’s story was being created, not enough thought was put into to finding the best dramatic ideas in it. However, by asking the right dramatic questions, writers, producers and directors can create central conflicts that are strong enough to be developed into first-rate stories. Following are ideas showing how to develop a strong central conflict for a drama.
The first key to creating a dramatic story in any genre is to make the values in the conflict big ones. For example, which of the following stories would interest you more?
A) The struggle of a seamstress in a French village in 1485 to finish sewing a garment.
B) The struggle of a time traveller to stitch together the fabric of time so the universe won’t end.
B! Because the values being sought or at risk are large scale, they literally are of a life-and-death nature. If you look at most films that enrapture an audience, you will see that the character goals, problems, stakes are always big. Study of Die Hard, Gladiator, Casablanca, High Noon, and, In the Heat of the Night, to cite just four well-written films, will attest to this. In each of these classics, the values in conflict or at risk are large.
What are Values and Stakes?
A writer must be clear in his or her understanding of values and stakes. A value generally is what a character acts to gain while a stake is a value that he risks losing. Values and stakes can be physical, but they can also be psychological. A character can desire and act to achieve big physical goals, such as winning a Golden Boot in the World Cup, or rescuing his daughter from kidnappers, or revenging himself against the Roman emperor who murdered his wife and child.
But good characters in many films also fight to gain or defend important psychological values such as honour, pride, integrity and self-esteem. In life, as in art, we constantly struggle to attain (or keep) psychological values that enhance our self and support, our happiness here on earth. Such psychological values can be part of any type of story, but they are especially the norm and the stakes in dramas.
What is a Drama?
Let’s be explicit about the nature of characters in a drama. In dramas, the characters are often deeper than say the typical character in an action story. Rick Blaine (Casablanca) vs. Thor; Virgil Tibbs (In the Heat of the Night) vs. The Flash. (This is not to say that Thor and The Flash are not good characters, they are, but their stories don’t focus deeply on their psychological states.)
In essence, the key attribute of a drama is mental or psychological: The internal conflict and choices of the characters. Rick Blaine must choose between being a cynical isolationist regarding the world (and especially the woman he loves, Ilsa), and fighting against the Nazis and loving Ilsa. In In the Heat of the Night, Chief Gillespie, a racist southern chief of police, struggles with the choice of solving a big murder in his town and accepting the help (and superiority/individuality) of the only man who can solve the crime, a northern, black police detective. In High Noon, Will Kane struggles between keeping his integrity by saving his town from a gang of killers and quitting to save himself and to live with his new bride.
How Self-Conflicts Create Drama
The key way for a writer to develop an internal conflict in a drama (and give his characters depth) is to give his protagonist a conflict between his two highest values. Let’s look at an instructive example of this, the classic film Notorious, directed by Alfred Hitchcock and written by Ben Hecht, one of the greatest Hollywood scenarists. Notorious is both a suspense thriller and a drama. This is its premise: To stop a Nazi plot, an American FBI agent pimps the woman he loves to a dangerous Nazi. Immediately you can see that the story has danger but also that the two characters have serious internal conflicts and choices to make, ones that will seriously impact their lives and cause turmoil in their minds. Let’s see in more detail how Hecht and Hitchcock created drama in Notorious.
When developing their script for Notorious, Hecht and Hitchcock masterfully established their two lead characters’ highest values: their mission against the Nazis and their romantic love. The film’s two leads are FBI agent Devlin (Cary Grant) and former party girl and daughter of a Nazi, Alicia (Ingrid Bergman). Both characters act on their high-value goal of stopping the Nazi plot, but what Hecht also does is to give each of these lead characters specific premises (their beliefs that they choose to act on) regarding their romantic love. The two lovers’ romance premises are: Devlin can’t forget Alicia’s tramp past, so he won’t declare his love to her. While Alicia in turn believes that because Devlin won’t declare his love, he doesn’t truly love her. It is these specific premises about their love value that are intrinsic to Devlin and Alicia’s internal conflicts and that cause the relationship conflicts between them. These premises also impacting their mission to stop the Nazis.
As the film’s main plot line of Devlin and Alicia working together to defeat the gang of Nazis progresses, Alicia and Devlin become torn between their values and premises. On the one hand, both support the mission to defeat the Nazis, Alicia because of her patriotism, and Devlin because of his patriotism and career as a federal agent. But this mission value directly conflicts with Devlin and Alicia’s premises about their love.
We watch in suspense as Devlin and Alicia are forced to make choices between their mission and their love. Each choice and action Devlin and Alicia take to attain their mission goal escalates their internal conflicts and the romantic problems between them. For example, because Devlin can’t express his love to a former party girl, his silence presses Alicia more and more towards her dangerous assignment to befriend the Nazi villain Alex (Claude Rains): From meeting him, to sleeping with him, to finally marrying him.
As Alicia makes these ever harder and more dangerous choices to support the mission, Devlin’s mistrust of her romantically becomes more entrenched, pressing him to further support her assignment and to reject the idea of her as his lover. All while, as Alicia becomes more deeply involved with her assignment, the threat to her life from the Nazis increases.
Great suspense flows from the dramatic high-stake questions that Hecht and Hitchcock press into our minds: Will Alicia be found out by the Nazis and killed? Will Devlin reject his insecurity and save Alicia? Will Alicia reject the mission and thus save herself and love Devlin? Will the Nazi plot succeed because of Alicia and Devlin’s romantic problems?
Alicia and Devlin’s internal conflicts are fundamental to Notorious. They are what make it a drama, rather than just an excellent suspense thriller. The film’s great conflict and drama, however, would not be possible if Hecht and Hitchcock had not so explicitly conceived and so well set up and conflicted their lead characters’ values and premises. Many scripts and films today would be much more dramatic if their writers and producers more carefully developed their characters to have explicit high values and premises and knew how to complicate these.
Self-Conflicted Protagonists in Other Dramas
To highlight the importance of writing layered and conflicted characters to create drama, let’s look briefly at some other famous stories.
As shown above, a good central conflict is often much more than a clash of Character A vs. Character B, such as Maximus vs. Commodus in Gladiator, or Batman battling the Joker to save Gotham City. This last one-layer conflict, however, could be developed, for example, so that Batman is fighting a villain who has always defeated him, so he is insecure, or that the villain is the woman Batman loves. Now Batman is in conflict with himself. This self-conflict adds layers of complications for our hero. And creates a deeper drama for the audience.
To even further stress the point, consider the literary example of Les Miserable by Victor Hugo: Jean Valjean wants to help the miserable ones of France, such as Fantine and Cossette, but in doing so he risks revealing his true identity as a parole violator to Inspector Javert and so being arrested and sent back to the galleys. Valjean’s internal conflict between helping the downtrodden and his own safety is fundamental to the plot and drama of Les Miserables, one of the greatest stories ever told.
Psychological Self-Conflicts Between Values and Premises/Traits
As one last example, let’s consider a story from the most successful West End playwright of all time and at one time the highest paid screenwriter in the world. High-value, internal conflicts are the core of the dramas of English playwright and screenwriter Terence Rattigan.
What Rattigan does in his works is to drop his characters into situations that bring their values and traits into their worst possible conflict, especially within the characters. For example, in Separate Tables, the 1958 Academy award-nominated film, starring Burt Lancaster and Rita Hayworth, the protagonist John Malcolm is tormented by desire for his frigid, manipulative former wife, Anne, but he is also driven to keep his peace of mind by hiding from her. Part of John desires Anne, part of him fears and loathes her. The best and worst thing (and most dramatic!) that can happen to John is for Anne to reappear in his life. When she does, his love for her and his fear of losing whatever mental equilibrium he has found while hiding from her lock him into a terrible self-conflict. John cannot pursue one value or trait without deeply conflicting with another. We see part of him want to ravish Anne out of love and another part of him want to bash her with loathing and fear. And the conflict is worsened when the vain and insecure Anne desperate to win John back because of her need for his love uses lies and deceit to manipulate this honest man. These conflicts between and within John and Anne form the core of their intensely layered and dramatic story.
Good Stories Start with a Great Central Conflict
As seen in Les Miserables and Separate Tables, high-value, internal conflicts are the seeds from which poignant dramas are grown. To stress this main point: The core of many great stories and typically of dramas is the protagonist’s high value self-conflict. These big value conflicts and the choices characters must make between them is the key to the writing and appeal of dramas.
So, when you are developing your story, especially if it is a drama, begin where writing a story should always begin: Carefully devising the story’s central conflict. And when doing this for a drama, you must focus on creating characters tormented between two of their highest values or premises/traits. There are of course many other important things you must do to create a good drama plot but by creating a central conflict focused on a self-conflicted lead character you have taken the first fundamental step to creating a drama that audiences will want to experience and that will move them emotionally.
Former Los Angeles producer/showrunner Scott McConnell is currently a script consultant and story developer in Melbourne Australia. To hire Scott to help you develop or edit your story, write to firstname.lastname@example.org.