Without conflict, there is neither progress nor change. It’s as true in screenwriting as it is in life. Would you pay twelve dollars to spend two hours of your life watching a movie where the characters all agree on everything, and at the end of the film, are all exactly the same as when they began? Yeah – neither would I.
And that’s why it’s so vital to embed every single scene of you script with conflict.
That conflict can come in many forms – sometimes, it is literally a fight between two characters. Other times it’s a struggle against nature. Hell, in a classic episode of Breaking Bad it’s between Walt and a fly he can’t manage to kill. The point is, conflict keeps your story moving forward, and the faster and more engaging your story moves forward, the more likely a reader or development executive is to keep turning those pages.
Remember: Boredom = death.
That’s really what it boils down to. Don’t give your audience the opportunity to realize they’re bored. They’ll leave you for something more entertaining quicker than TLC will sign a dysfunctional family to their own reality show.
But how do you this? How can you take something as bland as…let’s say…a legal deposition, and shove that scene chuck full of conflict? Glad you asked. Let’s take a look at…
Conflict and The Social Network
Aaron Sorkin is a screenwriter. You may have heard of him. He’s either the messiah of scribes come to save us all, or the devil incarnate who spends his time overwhelming the audience with the chatter of uber-intellectuals that don’t talk like real people – depending on who you ask. The truth is somewhere in the middle (though I admit to being significantly more on the messiah side of the argument), but no matter what your thoughts are on the man, he can write a mean scene.
With The Social Network, Sorkin tackled a project that had absolutely no right to be interesting – the origin of Facebook. The script is filled with nerds writing computer code and techno-speak. And when we aren’t with Mark and company in front of their computers, we’re in law offices for a set of legal depositions. That’s right. Two of them.
The funny thing is, it’s absolutely captivating stuff. You can’t look away, and I bet you can guess why - Conflict. Here’s one of my favorite scenes from The Social Network.
In the 32nd e-mail you raised concerns
about the site’s functionality. Were you
leading them on for six weeks?
Why hadn’t you raised any of these--
It just started snowing.
Mr. Zuckerberg, do I have your full
Do you think I deserve it?
Do you think I deserve your full
I had to swear an oath before we began
the deposition phase, and I don’t want to
get arrested for perjury, so I have a
legal obligation to say no.
Okay. “No” you don’t think I deserve your
I think if your clients want to stand on
my shoulders and call themselves tall
they have a right to give it a try. But
there’s no requirement that I enjoy being
here listening to people lie. You have
part of my attention—the minimum amount
needed. The rest of my attention is back at
the offices of Facebook where my employees
and I are doing things that no one in this
room, including and especially your clients,
are intellectually or creatively capable of
doing. Did I adequately answer your
By inserting this terse exchange between Mark and Gage (legal counsel for the Winklevi), Sorkin creates conflict where there wasn’t any and ups the stakes on what is otherwise simply a bunch of mundane exposition.
Now, we all can’t be Aaron Sorkin. But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from him. Read back over this scene and apply it to your own script. Do you have a scene where the conflict level is low - Maybe, your war hero stops on his way to the final battle to drink a nice cold glass of lemonade. Add a pinch of conflict and stir!
Maybe all the glasses are dirty! Or it’s tarter than he likes, and he can’t find any sugar! And then when he finally finds the sugar, he turns around and sees another soldier lifting the glass to their lips!
Okay – maybe that scene should just get cut – but you get the point.
The key to learning to write a great script is simple. Keep writing - Learn from every mistake - Get better every day. And never, ever, be boring.
- The First Ten Pages of a Screenplay
- Ask the Expert: No Shortcuts to Success
- Story Talk: Aaron Sorkin Critics vs. Reality
Tools to Help: