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 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.
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.
Yes, 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?
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.
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 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.