Conflict in Genre: Not Just the Bad Guy

Beginning screenwriters truly seem to have trouble understanding that conflict is essential to drama. While they are usually aware of the necessity of an antagonist, what they typically forget is that conflict should be everywhere in a story, and not solely originate from the bad guy and his minions. This problem is especially evident in the works of those trying to write genre pieces, because the tired clichés of genre dictate that characters are either good guys or bad guys but cannot be somewhere in the middle. The worst choice you can make as a writer is to have all of the good guys get along with each other. Where’s the drama in that?

A few great examples of what I mean:

  • Star Trek (original series)
    Kirk, Spock, and McCoy constantly debate over right and wrong. While Kirk wrestles with his conscience, the other two act as either advocate or detractor for his commands and bicker between themselves all the while. And occasionally while under alien influence, the three of them even try to kill each other a few times. This ongoing argument creates a triad of intellect, conscience, and action that mirrors the decision-making process of the human brain.
  • The Matrix (1999)
    The biggest threat to the resistance members ultimately turns out not to be from the Agents, but from inside the group. When Cypher turns against the team, he kills more of them in a few minutes than the Agents do in years. And even when Neo first meets the resistance and isn’t fighting the Agents, he is being tested by Morpheus — mentally by coming to grips with the nature of the Matrix and his fate, physically during his combat training.
  • The Professional (1994)
    Although Leon, the assassin, and Mathilda, the 12-year-old girl, do become as close as family, it’s a rocky road, as she wants revenge on the men who killed her family, and asks Leon to train her to kill. Leon, actually a shy introvert, is constantly tested by Mathilda’s determination, resilience, and emotional neediness. Most of the onscreen time centers around these two, and there is always new conflict between them which continually develops their relationship.

Beginning screenwriters who attempt to write straightforward human drama (for example in the vein of American Beauty, Ordinary People, or Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) often avoid the problems of establishing conflict that genre writers encounter, because they already understand that their stories center around interpersonal conflict. Yet just because you want to write a war movie, a gangster flick, an action film, or a sci-fi epic, doesn’t mean that your stories are suddenly exempt from the rules of functioning drama. All stories are really about personal disagreements — genre is merely the setting, not the story. The difference in genre pieces is that often the personal conflicts are overshadowed by external forces. That doesn’t mean that the personal conflicts disappear, it just means that they take up less space in a genre piece than in a human interest story.

In Jaws, for example, the plot conflict centers around an antagonist who has no dialogue, a huge serial-killing shark with a taste for human flesh. Yet the scenes that actually involve hunting the shark take up very little screen time, and most of that is in the last act. The main thrust of the story’s conflict actually centers around two subplots. One of these is is about Sheriff Brody’s concern for his family, shown by many scenes with his wife and children, which establishes his personal motivation to catch the shark. The other, and more important subplot, is about how the small-town political machine in Amity thwarts Brody’s efforts to either warn the tourists from danger or catch the shark. When Brody finally hooks up with the the nerdy shark expert, Hooper, and rough-edged shark hunter, Quint, the three of them don’t initially agree on how to best kill the beast. During the hunt, Quint constantly bickers with Hooper, even after you think that they’ve finally learned to get along. When the shark does appear, his function, from purely a plot standpoint, is to raise the tension another notch.

Jaws provides a great example for how to differentiate scene functions. Plot scenes typically move the action forward because either the antagonist or protagonist subjects their opposition to direct physical and/or psychological pressure. Subplot scenes typically deal with the emotional reactions of the main characters to the plot, or their interactions that highlight their differing philosophies on how best to deal with the situations presented by the plot. It is especially during these subplot moments when it is crucial to keep conflict alive. Once the safe has been blown, or the king assassinated, or the car crashed, then the external, plot-based conflict has had its moment for the next few minutes. Then the internal, interpersonal, subplot conflicts need to rush in to fill the vacuum. The main characters need to mix it up, fight, argue, disagree, tease each other, not speak because of bitter feelings, express their thoughts inappropriately, fall in love at the wrong time and place — do anything but get along perfectly.

The long and the short of all of this is that when writing in genre, you need to find personal disagreements for your characters to chew over during those few free moments when they’re not saving the world or fighting the bad guy. Conflict should constantly surround your characters; that’s what drama is about.

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