Writers, directors and producers want to tell a good story. But from what we see on our screens big and small, that is not so easy nor so common. Many years ago, I read a tip from screenwriter-novelist Ayn Rand about the key question a writer should ask to develop a story concept and then to plot it. To show how this question works, I will apply it to one of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic films, Notorious.
Rand argues that the key to writing a good plot is to first conceive a strong central conflict, what she called a plot-theme and what other creatives have called a situation, premise, or concept*. After a writer has conceived a good central conflict, Rand believed it became the seed from which the writer would logically grow a plot “tree.” Note that Rand’s key story creating question applies to both devising a central conflict and to developing it into a plot. In my words, Rand’s question is:
In this context and with these characters, what is the worst conflict they can be in?
Although a character in a story is a rounded person with traits, backstory, unique personality, and so forth, for this article I’m taking a writer’s point of view to focus on character motivation, their premises and values. By context, I mean a specific, current point in a story.
Let’s also be clear about another key term. Simply, a central conflict is the main conflict that forms the spine of a story. For example, in the classic Victor Hugo novel (and films and musical) Les Miserables, the main conflict is between Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert. Jean Valjean wants to remain a free man to help the poor, such as Fantine and Cossette, while Inspector Javert wants to find, expose and arrest Valjean as a parole violator. In the classic action flick Die Hard the main conflict is between John McClane and Hans Gruber. McClane wants to rescue his wife and other hostages held by Gruber and his terrorists in a Los Angeles skyscraper.
Notorious is a 1946 drama-thriller directed by Alfred Hitchcock and most importantly written by Ben Hecht, who many would claim to be the very best screenwriter to ever tap keys in Hollywood.
Let’s now apply Rand’s question to Notorious and its early set up. In this instance of developing a story, we will start with its characters:
We enter a party in 1946 America, soon after the end of World War II, where we meet the female host of the party and a male gate crasher who is watching her. The host is Alicia Huberman (played by Ingrid Bergman), the daughter of a Nazi who loves America but is also a party girl who desires to be loved and trusted by a man. The uninvited guest is T. R. Devlin (Cary Grant), an American agent who wants to protect America but doesn’t trust party girls and so could not express his love to one.
Note that in the opening of Notorious the significant values of these two characters (patriotism and love) have been revealed or strongly implied. All good stories involve the clash of important values.
From the context of just this brief set up of the nature and premises of these two characters, we can now ask the key question:
What is the worst conflict that these two characters with similar but also opposing traits could be in?
The answer: They fall in love.
We immediately see how a romantic relationship between these two characters would create conflict between them and within each of them. While we see that Alicia and Devlin are united in their patriotism and loathing of Nazism, we also see that they have contradictory traits or premises about love: Alicia in many ways is a good person, but she is a former tramp (and drinker) who desperately wants a man to express his love and trust. While Devlin, intelligent and moral, does not trust tramps and could not express his love to one. Similarities attract. Opposites conflict.
But this simple premise of attracted but conflicted lovers could make only a one-layer love story (or, dare I say, a chick flick) of a couple meeting, being attracted, talking, making love, arguing, reuniting and talking and emoting some more. Not much really happens. This “thin” plot situation needs an action element that will create greater conflict and drama, and especially be complex enough to form the core of a feature length film. This simple conflict needs some sort of action twist, complication or problem that both characters must face and overcome, a conflict that would lock them together but at the same time drive them apart and cause great personal conflict between them. From the angle of developing a drama (versus just a thriller), this thin premise needs a high value/stakes complication that forces Devlin and Alicia into a terrible self-conflict of having to struggle between their two highest values, patriotism and love. This new action-based problem must be the worst (greatest) conflict Devlin and Alicia could be in re their current dramatic context. That context is the premises and goals they have and that they are in love.
This is where Hitchcock and Hecht were especially brilliant in their story development of Notorious. In romantic Brazil, where Nazis are hatching a dangerous plot, Alicia and Devlin become lovers but then Devlin is called into his office and told specifically what his and Alicia’s mission is. So, let’s again ask a version of the key question:
After Devlin and Alicia have fallen in love, what is the worst situation these two characters can be put in?
The worst “situation” is that Devlin and Alicia must work together on a mission, but the big twist is the exact nature of that mission and their roles in it. Devlin’s bosses tell him that he must pimp Alicia to a dangerous Nazi, Alex Sebastian (Claude Rains), so that Alicia can learn the Nazi plot and then the Americans can stop it. The concept of Notorious therefore is: To stop a Nazi plot, an American agent must pimp the woman he loves to a dangerous Nazi.
This is excellent story development. Why?
First, the premise is now complex enough to create a dramatic feature-length film story. But more importantly, the premise now entails the worst thing that could have happened to characters with their premises and who are in love with each other. For Devlin, the worst situation for him is to help the woman he loves (but can’t forget was a tramp) to sleep with another man. And the worst situation that could have happened to Alicia is that the man she loves (but who doesn’t trust her because of her tramp past) wants her to sleep with another man, a Nazi she despises and fears. In short, the man Alicia loves wants her to become a tramp again, which is her worst nightmare. And Alicia becoming a tramp again is Devlin’s worst nightmare. But this is the only way Devlin and Alicia can achieve their mission goal.
That is the seed from which to develop a great plot.
Here is a longer central conflict statement such as a writer would use to write this story. It contains all the main conflicts and relationship clashes in Notorious:
An American agent who mistrusts party girls convinces a tramp who is anti-Nazi and wants to be trusted and loved by a man to help him on a mission against Nazis in Brazil. In Brazil, the agent and woman fall in love then learn that their mission is for him to help her become the lover of a dangerous Nazi. The woman wants her lover to reject the mission for her and tell her that he loves her. The agent cannot do this, so she meets the Nazi, who falls in love with her. The Nazi is afraid of his murderous co-conspirators, who would kill anyone they suspect is a spy. The romance between the agent and the woman worsens as the bitter lover encourages her further into the Nazi’s arms and bed to uncover the plot. The woman accepts this because she believes the agent doesn’t love her. She eventually marries the Nazi and lives with him, surrounded by his dangerous and suspicious co-conspirators.
Note that this dangerous undercover mission is also the best thing that can happen to Devlin and Alicia. They are both dedicated anti-Nazis and it is vitally important to them both that this Nazi plot be uncovered and stopped. Their patriotic, pro-freedom values unite them while their personal premises about love drive them apart. The mission that Hitchcock and Hecht have devised creates a bond and a division between Alicia and Devlin in an intensely dangerous situation.
And note the nature and importance of the self-conflict that each of the three leads in this love triangle now have in common and must struggle with. For Devlin, Alicia and Alex their two highest values are mission and love. For all three these values are in deep, irreconcilable conflict. As we leap into act 2, these are the lead characters’ big choices and their consequences:
*Devlin chooses the mission over his love for Alicia and when she accepts the mission, this pushes him to not trust her and makes it harder for him to tell her that he loves her.
*Alicia chooses the mission because she loves America but also because Devlin won’t tell her to not do it and that he loves and trusts her. This makes it hard for Alicia to choose Devlin over the mission.
*Alex falls in love with Alicia and chooses to pursue her while supporting the Nazi plot, while fearing his fellow conspirators.
So now, how would a writer grow such a good plot seed into a plot tree?
Developing a Plot
Let’s now be clear about another key term. Rand defined a plot as “a purposeful progression of logically connected events leading to the resolution of a climax.” In this context, “logical” can mean at least three important things: That all the plot events are developed from the central conflict, that each major event causally flows from the previous event, and that all the events logically drive towards a climax.
Let’s focus on the first. Rand states that “a plot-theme is a central conflict that will determine the events of your plot.” The key to developing a plot is to escalate or worsen the conflicts and stakes of the lead characters as set up in the central conflict. Because Notorious is both a thriller and a drama that means worsening both the physical danger and the internal conflict and choices that the leads are struggling with. (While making sure these plots are integrated.) Regarding the physical danger, as the plot progresses, we see the Nazis becoming more and more threatening to Alicia, Devlin and even to Alex. But the greater drama in Notorious results from the increasing consequences of the choices that the three leads must make between their two top values.
To stress the creative process of plotting, let’s look at it from this angle: Plotting is essentially the act of escalating, complicating, worsening the basic conflicts in a central conflict. What a writer is in effect doing when plotting is to make it harder and harder for all the characters until their final and hardest clash and choices in the climax. The writer is greatly aided in doing this by asking our key question again and again, each time in a new dramatic context:
In this context for these characters what is the worst conflict they can be in?
The plot of Notorious is essentially the answers to this question in four logically related and increasingly harder dramatic contexts. Briefly, these are:
1) Alicia choosing to meet Alex, with a torn Devlin watching and Alex smitten. Now the relationship between Alicia and Alex grows while that of Alicia and Devlin suffers.
2) Alicia choosing to sleep with Alex, again supported by Devlin, who is even more torn and increasingly distant from Alicia. This hurts Alicia and throws her further into the arms of Alex and his dangerous Nazi allies.
3) Alicia choosing to marry Alex, to the patriotic approval of Devlin but to his greater romantic angst and increased mistrust of her. The danger to Alicia grows with her now living with Alex and nearer the increasingly suspicious Nazis plotters.
4) And in the climax, a bitter, jealous Devlin struggling with a final choice of leaving the mission, Brazil and Alicia or telling her that he loves her. If Devlin leaves, this will result in Alicia being killed by the Nazis. If Devlin stays and tells her that he loves her, he can save her from Alex, who has uncovered her betrayal.
The plot of Notorious is thereby essentially the development of each of these choices, the struggle of making that choice and the escalating consequences of the choice, which then leads to the next even harder choice with greater stakes.
In the climax of a plot, the final hardest choice often has life and death consequences, physically and spiritually. In Notorious these life and death choices inspire great suspense in the audience: Will Alicia die? Will the Nazi plot succeed? Will Alicia and Devlin fail in their love?
To stress my key point about plotting: In each of these four major conflicts, the two lead characters are increasingly torn between their mission and their romantic love while the danger to them increases. That is, Alicia and Devlin’s ever riskier and higher stakes fight against the Nazis worsens their romance. In turn, Devlin and Alicia’s romantic problems complicate their fight against the Nazis, finally endangering Alicia’s life.
The plot of Notorious is the logical development of its central conflict. Its plot structure is determined by its plot-theme.
Caveat: Be aware that just knowing to ask this key plot question is not enough to create a great plot. To do that, there are many other techniques and much knowledge that a writer must have and apply, especially knowing what values and conflicts to use. But I believe the question technique is the most essential one for creating a good central conflict and plot. At the very least I hope my interpretation of Rand’s advice has inspired you to read her chapter on Plot-Theme (in her book on writing, The Art of Fiction), which is certainly the single best piece of fiction writing advice I have ever read.
Every writer, director and producer can learn from the brilliant storytelling in Notorious and from Rand’s question. All the intense drama in this classic film flows from how well Hecht and Hitchcock constructed and complicated a value-laden and multi-layered central conflict. And as we have seen, crucial to creating a strong central conflict is to ask the most important plot question of them all:
What is the worst conflict these characters can be put in?
Former producer/showrunner Scott McConnell is a now a script developer and script consultant. Let him help you develop your story. Contact Scott at firstname.lastname@example.org Read more of Scott’s articles on writing on his LinkedIn account.
*A log line is like a central conflict statement but is a version of it written after the script is finished and used for pitching purposes.