What Screenwriters Get Wrong About Meaningful Conflict – Erik Bork

What Screenwriters Get Wrong About Meaningful Conflict – Erik Bork


Film Courage: What is ‘meaningful conflict’
and why do so many screenwriters get this wrong? Erik Bork, Author/Screenwriter: So meaningful
conflict…conflict to me is synonymous with problems. So I remember early in my screenwriting endeavors
I remember people saying to me “Your script doesn’t have enough conflict.” And I was like “I don’t understand what
that means?” I thought like that just meant people fighting
and arguing or beating up on each other. But then I came to understand that conflict
and problem mean the same thing so in any story the audience is most interested and
engaged when there is some active problem that someone is actively trying to resolve,
That’s pretty much like Scene Writing 101 / Story 101. You always want to be focused on that. And when there isn’t a problem to be solved
or whenever no one is trying to solve it (even if it exists) audiences emotional engagement
tends to sag a little bit. So meaningful conflict just means conflict
that is related to the overall goal of the story. Every story begins with something that makes
us go “Oh…here’s what needs to be solved. Here is the outcome that is being pursued
that I’m hopefully emotionally invested. I want to see them reach that outcome. So meaning conflict would be conflict in scenes
then which have to do with that outcome and how’s it going trying to get to that outcome
because you could have conflict that doesn’t really relate to the larger story goal, it
would just be conflict that wouldn’t be so meaningful. It would just be conflict for the sake of
conflict. Ideally it’s conflict that matters to the
story and you might also have a “B” story like there’s a conflicted relationship with
somebody who is the ally or the love interest and so you might have meaningful conflict
that is advancing the “B” story. It doesn’t always have to be about what
the “A” story or goal is. But to me the most important thing is you
do need constant conflict which means constant problems and it should be meaningful to whatever
we’re all there to try and see and work out. Film Courage: What about when people put too
much conflict right away. I know using this film is really dating myself
but the movie STAYING ALIVE. It was great to see…it’s just such a great
film I just have to go there…when John Travolta’s character is sort of strutting down the street
and he bumps into Sylvester Stallone’s [cameo appearance] character and it shows okay this
is New York city and it’s tight and you’re up against all of these people and a little
bit contentious but it works because it shows this. But then I’ve seen shows where there is
an argument which doesn’t belong. How do you balance this? Erik: My feeling about the beginning of a
movie is that you’re mostly trying to get the audience to understand the main character
in their status quo life and emotionally get invested in who they are. What there basic life situation is before
the big problem has emerged which will then occupy the rest of the story. That big problem tends to emerge as the catalyst
or the inciting event or the inciting incident, maybe about 12 pages in if you use the Save
The Cat [Author Blake Snyder] page count. Once that thing happens that rocks their world
and sets them on a mission ultimately for the rest of the story to revolve whatever
happened in that catalyst. Prior to the catalyst you are just introducing
the audience to the main character and their world. And you’re hopefully getting them understanding
enough about that character that they can start to feel that they know them and they
know their situation. Writers often have issues with this where
they don’t really do that very well. They don’t stay with the main character
and take the time to illustrate what their current life is and make them emotionally
accessible to the audience, make us have a reason to want to follow them. That term ‘save the cat,’ the idea that
if they save a cat in the first 10 pages we will care ago them is kind of half joking
but the idea that we get invested in the character for some reason that the audience is led to
by the writer. Give us a reason to care because we tend to
not care about some stranger in a movie unless you make us care. So that’s the writers most first and foremost
job, make us care and so it starts at the beginning. To me the opening scenes of a movie the first
ten pages or so should have conflict in them because every scene should have conflict in
them. But that scene should have the normal conflict
of that character’s everyday life kind of up until the catalyst hits. Even a movie like SAVING PRIVATE RYAN which
opens with the biggest conflict you can imagine (the storming of Omaha Beach) ultimately that
is just illustrating what Tom Hanks’ life was like right before the catalyst of the
movie. The catalyst being he gets the order that
you’ve got to go save Private Ryan, right? That sets I motion the real story problem
for the rest of the movie (the outcome that we all become invested in). Prior to that we’re all seeing well what’s
Captain Miller’s life and his unit’s life like before they get that order? How do we get up to speed with who he is and
what he’s dealing with and what’s going on in his life right now? He’s got a very special version of that
but that’s kind of the same thing for every movie. So you can have conflict, you should have
conflict but sometimes people want to open with something really big where they are already
launching the story on page one. In other words like the catalyst even is already
happening at the very beginning before we have any idea who is who or what the world
of the story is and I think that tends to be a mistake because the audience needs some
time to get up to speed and get invested first. Film Courage: Right and even with let’s
say BIG LITTLE LIES you have Reese Witherspoon’s character and it’s a very manicured life
but there are these little dilemmas throughout like going through the school carpool and
someone is in her way and she’s not getting what she wants from her child and you see
these little mini-conflicts being set up even though it doesn’t seem like the same intensity
as a war scene. Erik: Yes, conflict but not the one big conflict
that’s going to drive the rest of the story from that point forward. And in a story like that you’re also doing
that times four different characters I think. Where each one of those characters gets some
of those scenes in the beginning which makes us go here’s this person. Here is their life situation, here’s the
basic conflicts for them. Here’s their basic desires and what’s
the way of those desires. Nothing huge has done anything to rock their
world and start the story but I know who they are. I get who Nicole Kidman is, I get who Shailene
Woodley is, etc. That’s part of why writing a pilot can be
harder because you have to set up multiple characters and you gave to do it quickly. So you have to find the right way to make
the audience go “I get who they are and I’m kind of intrigued and I kind of care
about them a little. I want to see where life is going for them.” Whereas in a movie you usually only have one
main character and just 10-12 pages to do it just for that. You don’t have to do it for anyone else. In fact you shouldn’t be trying to spend
times on scenes for other characters in the first 10 pages in my view because the whole
goal is to get us caring about the main character because we’re going to subjectively their
point of view. So it’s not about showing us those other
people and what is going on with them, it’s about get us inside of their world and their
psychology looking out through their eyes as they live their life. Film Courage: Right so going back to STAYING
ALIVE, so John Travolta checks in “Any messages?” He’s staying in this weekly motel where
he’s a struggling actor/dancer. And of course the guy [at the front desk]
is “No messages.” So it just shows here is this guy [our main
character] humble and broke and that sets off his world because that’s basically before
he meets the Finola Hughes character [the main star of a Broadway show]. ErikL Yes, it’s this is my normal life and
here are the problems in my normal life that are just the status quo situation and it makes
you care about him because he’s got this undeserved misfortune (you always feel for
the underdog). The person who wants something that they can’t
have where they are working toward and nobody cares. So that’s classic way to make an audience
want to invest in those opening pages.

15 thoughts on “What Screenwriters Get Wrong About Meaningful Conflict – Erik Bork

  1. Is there any meaningful conflict in "Two Weeks Notice"? I guess so, but the movie isn't worth the watch, at least in my opinion.
    I was told my pacing is great, inciting event is where it should be, however, my protagonist isn't flawed enough and lacks a clear and defined goal.

  2. Or just watch Breaking Bad . Watch all seasons and learn . Or there has to be a stake in every conflict . What resolving the conflict gets is important .

  3. Avengers Infinity War has a lot of conflicts but very confusing. When too many characters are trying to solve a problem, it's difficult to follow and I get dizzy. I dozed off in the middle of the movie, can you believe that?

  4. If you want conflict just watch the news media that's trashy enough – As for "inciting incidents" and "a call to action" thats formulaic nonsense, a lot of great films don't have Hollywood formula nonsense, make your own films, tell your own stories, don't copy lazy writing with forced outcomes because of "rules".

  5. "Whenever no one's trying to solve the problem, whatever it is, audience engagement tends to sag a little bit." I get what he's saying, but I also his way of thinking is an error that causes many filmmakers to go awry.

    You mentioned Spielberg, he got famous because he understood that a movie shouldn't be wall-to-wall conflict. There should be pauses in the conflict – yeah, the conflict's still out there, but now is the time to recharge, to rest, to remind our audience what makes our character worthwhile, to take a break, like a healthy rhythm of life.

    There's a scene in E.T. that epitomises this idea, where they've got all these problems going on, but then it's night and E.T. is looking through the slits of the closet at a beautiful harmonious family. Just showing us who the protagonist is at the start is cynical, but taking pauses to come back to who your protagonist is won't sag your audience's engagement, it'll triple it.

  6. Could we, as adults, please stop using the childish phrases "basically", "kind of", and "sort of"? These are the verbal toys of children. Grow up.

  7. And that's why my opening scene(s) just fall flat. I started with a bang on page 1. I always thought the main conflict had to be established by page 10, not shortly after.

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