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June 24, 2013

Conflict vs. Resolution: The Importance of Putting Your Characters Through Hell in Your Screenplay

If you've ever gone through your 1st, 2nd, or even final draft of your screenplay and felt like it was just falling flat, you're not alone. Many (all) screenwriters struggle with giving their stories and characters dimension and substance, but much of the time the cause of a stale script is lack of conflict. Independent filmmaker Dylan Tuccillo shares the importance of conflict as well as resolution, and how the two occupy their own very important place in narratives.

This is a guest post by writer and filmmaker Dylan Tuccillo.

This graph looks pretty simple -- something you'd find in a 3rd grader's notebook. But what exactly does it mean? Can it help you write an awesome, meaningful screenplay? And what does all this have to do with popcorn?

Conflict

Conflict is not only important, it's the very foundation of films, novels, and mythology. “Bad” things happen to our poor main character. A colossal storm of obstacles appears out of nowhere and engulfs him/her in a heated battle against an opposing force -- a battle so fierce that escape seems impossible.

It's not very difficult to add conflict to our stories. Guns, knives, grenades, Nazis, zombies, or missiles will do just fine. Throw in a bit of unrequited love, a sprinkle of misunderstanding, and a splash of poverty, and now you're cooking. Don't forget: a ticking bomb of some kind always helps.

Our own lives are full of difficulties, so it's not too difficult to come up with ways to make our protagonist's life a living hell. Throw your character in a giant trash compactor filled with alien tentacles, or force him to fight a team of terrorists barefoot. These cruel events may sounds like torture, but you're actually helping your protagonist. Your hero needs all this drama in order to reach a resolution.

Resolution

It's the bit of the story that happens at the end, right before the director's name comes onscreen. A good resolution can be tricky. I think writers often downplay this aspect of storytelling for three reasons: 1.) It takes up very little screen time 2.) It's less exciting and 3.) It's hard to do well.

Typewriter close upYes, it's true that our story's resolution takes up very little screen time -- often less than 2% of the entire film. Sometimes, the entire resolution takes place during one ten second shot -- you see this a lot with action films. But here's the thing: all that conflict that we've been throwing at our protagonist is there to spark a change. The entire film exists for the moment of resolution! Everything boils down to a transformation of some kind. Why else would we force our hero to endure guns, swords, and asteroids if not to be better in the end?

Conflict transforms

When you put a bag of popcorn into your microwave, all that heat causes the kernels to change. Moisture inside the kernel expands until the pressure is too great and BAM -- it explodes. But this event is not a disaster -- far from it. All that heat (conflict) has permanently changed our boring popcorn kernel into something amazing and delicious (resolution). The “bad” stuff that happened to it turned out to be a good thing in the end.

Conflict causes resolution

Near death experiences help us realize the importance of life. A bad break-up teaches us the value of love. A debilitating injury forces us to explore our internal landscapes. Flowers grow from a pile of dung.

This issue came up a lot when I was writing my feature script, Out of the Trees. My goal was to make a dysfunctional family come together, for these really solitary characters to venture out of their bubbles and learn to love each other in some way. But first I needed to drag them through the dirt, set their stuff on fire, arm them with guns, start physical fights between them, and generally screw up their lives.

Dylan Tuccillo Out of the Trees banner

As I went through five different drafts, friends and mentors advised me to add as much conflict as possible. This was good advice, but it was tricky to find the right kind of conflict. I realized that I couldn't set a building on fire for no reason, it had to lead to the ultimate transformation. My hero had to endure a lot of grief, and that grief had to directly cause her to transform. Without the conflict, the resolution could not happen, and without the resolution there would be no need for conflict. A 50-50 relationship.

So here are some questions to ask yourself as you thumb through that screenplay:

  • Does my script have enough conflict to cause a significant change in my character?
  • Does all that conflict directly lead to the resolution and transformation of my character?
  • In the end, is my character inspired to be better than when the film began?
  • Will the audience be inspired to transform as well?

As you chew on those, I'll chew on some of this popcorn. Mmmm -- buttery resolution. If you'd like to learn more about my film, I'm currently raising funds for it on Kickstarter.


Dylan TuccilloDylan is a New York City-based writer and award-winning independent filmmaker currently raising funds for his feature film Out of the Trees, a thriller about a pair of identical twins and a buried secret. It will be his first feature film. Check it out on Kickstarter.

Your Comment

19 Comments

Great article! I will be keeping this in mind when I write from now on. Thanks for writing this!

June 24, 2013

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BrandonClay

Great read! Even here your writing shines through. Thanks for sharing some great story tips!

June 24, 2013

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Kyron

And you wonder why every script is exactly the same.

June 24, 2013

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André

I agree with everything except the fact that it has to be a positive change the character is going through. Breaking Bad wouldn't a huge cultural hit if it weren't about a man going from good to evil, nor would any Shakespeare tragedy. Character trasformation is essential, but making it always about someone becoming 'bettter' can often get blande.

June 24, 2013

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cubitfox

i second that big time!!

June 27, 2013

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Tom

Excellent advice, and a really useful perspective.

June 24, 2013

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Luke

So many good movies have been ruined by bad resolution. "Dark City" comes to mind. But it's so often not just what the resolution is, but how it happens. (Spoiler Alert) In 'Dark City' they create such an interesting world and unique types of conflict (or at least a unique box for it to sit in) and the resolution comes after the opposing forces shoot mind energy at each other. It was cheap. It was the easy Hollywood answer, and didn't serve the complexity and difficult nature of conflict that had been built.

For me the best conflict resolution I have ever seen in fiction is in the "The Lord of the Rings" (the books). The way the ring ends up in Mt. Doom had to happen the way it did. If it didn't we wouldn't have believe it. It would have gone against all the set up Tolkien had done showing us the power of the ring, and it's ability to corrupt. All of a sudden, the ring would have become weak. ti would have been a lie.

And then what follows is a very long denouement. There are many other smaller conflicts to resolve. Some to tie up in a neat bow and some to leave open but at least address. In the book the length of this is easier to take than in the movies. That's why many complained about the end of Jackson's 'Return of the King', it was too long for a movie.

But for me, it's more often the form of the resolution, the how or why, rather than the time. That's why it's difficult. It has to honor the nature of the conflict you have built, and it has to serve the story and characters. And of course the 'easy' happy endings of Hollywood rarely do this.

June 24, 2013

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Gattaca and Oldboy and Rounders and V for vendetta are perfect examples of well scripted "conflict and resolution."

June 24, 2013

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Greg egan

Funny reason why World War Z is not fantastic exactly explained here.

June 24, 2013

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Darren Orange

Great Post!

June 24, 2013

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Aung Aung

A successful resolution needs an equally strong introductory image to show explicitly that the character and their world has changed. These intro scenes are usually longer and sprinkled across the character introduction but they must present a very strong thesis or any subsequent conflict loses meaning and focus. Most of the story then follows the antithesis where the opening image is challenged culminating in synthesis (resolution) where the character has changed their original situation and hopefully the world.

A good recent example of this can be seen in How To Train Your Dragon. Thesis and opening image: Dragons, the enemy of mankind, attack the viking village at night. Antithesis: Hiccup learns the dragons are just animals terrorized by a giant evil dragon. Hiccup uses the trained dragons to defeat the evil dragon and show his father and village that most dragons are actually good. Synthesis (resolution and closing image): Vikings riding dragons in the day.

A strong opening image doesn't just introduce your character and story world, it sets up the entire conflict of the story. The B story, where all the romance, fun and games usually are, teaches the character the lessons they need to change. Most of the key points that make a story work are not the big action scenes that are shown in the trailers but the small moments that actually move the character forward. Of course if you string enough of those big action scenes together to make a great trailer off of a known intellectual property you will probably make much more money...

June 24, 2013

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Dan

Great post budy, I really liked How to train your dragon.

June 27, 2013

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Tyro

"Creation is a bird withouth a flight plan, that it will never flight in a straight line" Violeta Parra (Chilean musician).... just keep following recipes, and you will never be able to create something new, keep the recipe in mind but do not start from there, otherwise you will end up doing the same shit as everyone else...

June 24, 2013

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blablah

Also thought the same, about a script I'm writing right now

August 12, 2014

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Nicolas

I'm having trouble agreeing with the idea that a story should have "as much conflict as possible", surely substance is more important to good story telling than some kind of conflict to resolution ratio.

Personally, I'd rather see a movie without any resolution and really substantial character and conflict development than some hodge-podge of disasters ending in another overplayed (and typically obvious) transformation. That's not what really life is like, that's not what ALL movies should be like. Maybe instead of sending your character through hell you should make them a real person, which is often hell enough on it's own.

August 12, 2014

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josh

So you disagree with Aristotle and his theories on dramatic structure?
Have you read Poetics?

August 16, 2014

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John

Walter White went through a positive change at the end, and his resolution for cleaning up what he could of his mess exactly matches the two pie charts.

August 12, 2014

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John

Tragedies are a rare thing nowadays, especially in films. I agree 100% that not all movies should end well and that a mix of comedies (in a classical sense, not the sitcom type) and tragedies is healthy for the filmindustry.

I made a short film recently and it's a tragedy for the protagonist, with only the open ending being a bit of a 'spark of hope' thing of another character.

August 13, 2014

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Hank Schrader

I'm sorry, but your pitch pitch reel for "Out of the Trees" is absolutely terrible. You spent 3 minutes of gimmicky flabbergasting about what kind of movie it is and why you want to make it, but between that and your extremely generic logline, I really have no sense of what it is about. Your "scene" was unbelievably short and didn't provide any real substance, and the airhead actresses bumbling around for their own explanation really just made it worse. People investing money don't care about your little comedic intro for what seems like a movie completely absent of comedy. If you want to sell this thing, redo your pitch reel, give us some substance, shoot a scene that gives some insight into the plot and makes us care about the characters, and for god sakes, leave out the campy stuff with your mom and cat...glad you wanted to include them, but they make your reel look less professional and more like you're messing around with a cheap home video camcorder.

August 13, 2014

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Busta