Writing About Writing: The Two Types of Conflict Every Story Needs

Stories need conflict. But then you knew that already, didn’t you? Everyone says that. So what’s my angle here?

Stories actually need TWO types of conflict. Or at least, it helps to think of conflict in two different ways. There are microconflicts and macroconflicts. MAYBE you can get away with one but not the other but when you can double team it that’s when real storytelling magic happens.

microconflict is an internal struggle within a single character that your audience can relate to. Some examples include:

– Work vs. family life balance
– A financially secure but boring career vs. a less stable, but more fulfilling career

macroconflict is a larger-than-life dilemma with high stakes for virtually everyone involved. Some examples include:

– A pyschopath trying to take over the world
– The mafia is going to shoot your whole family

Defining these two types of conflict and then forcing them to collide with each other is one of my favorite storytelling strategies. We need microconflicts because they’re relatable and let our audience put themselves in our characters’ shoes. But we also need macroconflicts because movies are supposed to take our audience on a journey their real life doesn’t. The macroconflict serves that purpose, giving our story a heightened level of suspense and drama.

Oftentimes a microconflict is something that’s been boiling under the surface for years before our story begins. It’s something mildly annoying to a particular character, but nothing they would ever fix on their own. The macroconflict shows up and forces the character to face it.

So maybe you have a timid soccer mom who’s always chosen to put the opinions of other soccer moms over her kid. She’s too self-conscious to live her life any other way. That’s a microconflict.

But then 10 minutes into your film, someone kidnaps her kid and suddenly the opinions of other soccer moms don’t matter, just getting that kid back. THAT is a macroconflict. If we really want to raise the stakes, we’ll throw in a ransom note or something like that. We make the soccer mom team up with some less popular mom who’s kid is in the chess club. We see her skip out on an Avon party or something stupid in order to focus on the mission at hand.

By the end of the movie, she gets her kid back, but she’s also learned how to live life on her own terms without letting the opinions of others govern her or the relationship she has with her kid.

Another interesting strategy is to give different characters different microconflicts and then have them face the same macroconflict. In Finding Nemo Marlin’s microconflict is that he’s too anxious whereas Dory’s short-term memory loss often leads her to recklessly pursue adventure.

When you think of conflict in these two types of categories it helps you figure out both your characters and your story. It’s not enough to have a really cool idea for a macroconflict if your characters don’t have microconflicts. You also need a macroconflict that is going to help your characters overcome their microconflicts. Likewise, it’s totally fine if you want to explore some dude’s struggle with work-life balance in corporate America, but odds are it’s not going to be terribly interesting until you introduce some cool new conflict like aliens or ghosts or drugs or  something that people DON’T deal with in their day-to-day life

Writing About Writing: What Makes for A Good Scene?

I’ve written a lot about character development and story structure shenanigans. However it crossed my mind that I haven’t focused on the building blocks of a script: scenes. If you can’t write scenes, you can’t write a script. Period. Sometimes mapping out the big picture is actually easier than writing scenes. So let’s talk about the characteristics of a good scene. (Scene-eristics? Maybe?)

1. It should take us somewhere we haven’t been before. 

Is this scene showing us something we haven’t seen before? Is it revealing new information? When evaluating scenes as individual units it’s important to ask if the story serves the story. Maybe it’s revealing new information about a character. Maybe it’s giving us more insight into to the challenges facing our characters. But try to shy away from “oh I think this would be funny” or “oh I think this would be cool looking” if that scene isn’t actually advancing the story.

2. It should give us some indication of other scenes to come.

An expertly crafted scene makes us excited to watch another scene. You could write the most interesting conversation between the most interesting characters but if there isn’t at least a hint at other plot points to come it’s easy for audiences to feel like “Where are we going with this?”

If two people meet and set up a first date, now we’re waiting to see that date.

If our villain lets a monster loose, now we’re waiting to see if that monster attacks anyone.

You need to build tension, which means that most of your scenes should leave your audience waiting to see how the scenario will play out.

3. It should fit the tone of the overall film.

There’s a little bit more flexibility here, but in general comedy films should have funny scenes. Action movies should have scenes with action. While it probably will do more harm than good to try to make EVERY scene overly scary/funny/adventurous, at the very least you need to avoid violating your chosen tone.

Not every scene in a horror movie should be scary, but you definitely need to keep funny scenes to a minimum. You don’t necessarily need to be consistent 100% of the time, but you at least can’t go so far in the opposite direction that you confuse your audience about the tone.

4. It should entertain. 

At the end of the day, we watch movies to be entertained. Therefore, scenes should entertain. I’ve seen some movies that take the notion of setting up other scenes too far. You spend 90+ minutes just WAITING for stuff to happen. Making your audience excited for other scenes is important, but there’s also something to be said for making your audience love the moment that’s unfolding right now. The journey needs to be just as exciting as the destination.

So try to ask yourself, “what, if any entertainment value does this scene have all on its own?” if it is a relatively boring scene but is necessary to set up something else, try to find a way to have your cake and eat it too. Challenge yourself to find entertaining ways to set up all the plot points you need to advance your story.

I know it sounds hard, but the ability to write good scenes and the ability to write good outlines is what separates writers from people who have really good outlines. I know some of this advice seems contradictory, but in a lot of ways screenwriting is a precarious balancing act. You’re constantly trying to solve story problems without creating new problems for yourself. But if you think you’re up to the task, go ahead and write some. It’s the only way to get better.

Writing About Writing: Love Actually Syndrome

It’s that time of year again when people are more likely to to watch the 2003 film Love, Actually, since many people believe it to be a Christmas film. I am grateful to this film not because I like it but because it is one of those films that taught me an important lesson of writing. It has such a bad case of a certain problem that when I encounter other films that have this issue, I will say the other movie has “Love Actually Syndrome.”

Image result for love actually

The problem is that Love, Actually has so many unrelated plotlines going on that it forces audiences to pick favorites. It has roughly 9 different plotlines? I think?

– Laura Linney has an office crush but also has to take care of her mentally ill brother
– Alan Rickman is being seduced by some chick in his office and his wife (Emma Thompson) grows increasingly suspicious about it.
– Some dude named Collin who’s played by a non-famous person travels to the United States to cash in on his British accent.
– Hugh Grant is Prime Minister and crushing on some pretty girl in his office.
– Some dude has a crush on Keira Knightley which presents a problem since Keira Knightley just married his best friend.
– Liam Neeson has to deal with the death of his wife while trying to bond with his young stepson.
– Bill Nighy tries to get a Christmas #1 song.
– Colin Firth tries to write a novel while falling in love with the housekeeper who does not speak English.
– Martin Freeman is a porn stand-in and falls in love with the chick he has to pretend to have sex with.

None of these stories are really BAD. Each one has everything it needs in order to be the cute little love story it’s intended to be. The problem is that NO ONE is going to watch all 9 of these stories and become equally invested in all 9 of them. No one is going to be just as curious about all plot lines. No one is going to find all protagonists equally likable or all antagonists equally despicable.

Whenever I watch the movie, I always have moments of “Yeah, Colin Firth is cool I guess, but what’s happening with Hugh Grant?” There’s an adverse effect on the viewing experience when you have to spend an inordinate amount of time waiting for the movie to go back to a plot line you actually care about.

If you want to juggle several different plot lines, it’s not completely impossible, but I definitely think you should stop short of 9, and I also think it helps to make a more obvious connection between them. One movie that I think does this decently well is Zach Braff’s Wish I Was Here. There’s several different plot lines happening but all the different characters are still part of the same family. It’s hard to have a “favorite” plot line, because each plot line has an obvious impact on the others. It’s hard to just not care about how much Kate Hudson hates her job because that job is directly connected to Zach Braff’s ability to stay home and homeschool the kids.

That’s different from Love, Actually where the characters are TECHNICALLY connected, but one mini-story often doesn’t have a direct impact on the well-being of characters outside that mini-plot. Sure, Collin the dude who can’t get laid in the UK was invited to Keira Knightley’s wedding, but it’s not like his excursion to the states has any real impact on anyone other than himself. Sure, Emma Thompson and Hugh Grant are siblings, but how does Grant’s ability to woo his subordinate actually affect Rickman and Thompson?

As a writer, I think you have somewhat of an obligation to tell your audience who their favorites should be. Yes, those feelings can evolve over the course of a story. Yes, sometimes it can be interesting to have intricate ethical dilemmas where reasonable people can disagree about who’s “right.” But don’t just throw a bunch of characters at your audience and let the chips fall where they may. Don’t give your movie Love, Actually syndrome.

 

 

Writing About Writing: The Struggle Is Real (Also a Bohemian Rhapsody review!)

I just came back from seeing one of the numerous movies on my “I should probably see that” list. On today’s episode of “Anne ruins a movie everyone else liked by being too analytical,” is Bohemian Rhapsody, which tells the story of Freddie Mercury and his bandmates.

Image result for bohemian rhapsody movieI can’t say the movie was BAD or that I regret seeing it, but I also didn’t really love all the storytelling decisions either. The basic problem is that this movie makes becoming Queen look freakishly simple. The band forms and almost instantly signs a record deal, starts performing on tv, charts in the US, and is touring the world. There was no struggle. The movie dove almost immediately into a “happily ever after” phase. This became an issue later on when the band starts to butt heads with each other. Losing what they had didn’t mean as much because we didn’t see how hard they had to work to get to that level.

Stories are about struggles. This is one of those pieces of conventional wisdom that truly is non-negotiable. Make your characters work for their success. Make them work hard enough that it really hurts when you take that success away.

When you write ask yourself: “what parts of this movie do I want to make truly painful? What parts should overflow with triumph?” and then write your conflict accordingly.

We need enough struggle to make success feel triumphant. Conversely, we need enough time to enjoy the highs of our stories before we hit the lows.

I wish Bohemian Rhapsody had put more time into developing the relationship of the band. There was occasional conflict, but it always dissipated in the next scene with no real struggle. We bounced back and forth between scenes where the band hated each other and scenes where they were fiercely loyal to each other and it was often unclear as to why. Towards the end of the movie as the band actually started to fall apart, I felt like I didn’t have a sense for what the band was truly losing. You need to ask yourself:

“What will I take away from my characters? What do I need to establish about that thing beforehand to make sure it’s a real struggle when they lose it?”

AND

“What will my character gain over the course of their story arc? How do I make sure it’s enough of a fight that my audience isn’t sitting around wondering why they didn’t have this all along? How do I make sure that this victory exudes euphoria?”

THAT is how you write. You make the struggle real.

Writing About Writing: Let Other People Read Your Stuff

Yesterday, I had the horrifying pleasure of letting other people give me notes on a script I’m working on. It was not finished, nor was I exceptionally proud of what I had written. However, I had agreed to share some work in my writing group so I did.

One of the things that was both helpful and humbling is that I had broken some rules I had professed in earlier blog posts. Most notably, I Guess I Should Talk About Tone. The work as a whole is going to be a rather light-hearted fantasy/comedy set against a political back drop.

The problem is that my first scene was a rather intense scene of government officials denying food to starving people. The logic was that I wanted to establish my villain as the villain he is so as to make my heroes more sympathetic. Unfortunately I essentially lied to my audience about what sort of tone they should expect from the rest of the script, and this is going to be something I need to change in future drafts.

I tell you this story because I KNOW on an intellectual level that this is a bad idea. You need to be clear about your tone. I’ve criticized other movies that broke this rule. I lectured you all on this topic just a few days ago. And yet I made the same mistake in my own writing. It’s ridiculously easy to separate abstract knowledge about good writing and bad writing from your actual writing. The way your brain works in the moment writing scripts and piecing them together is different than the way it works when I’m critiquing other people’s writing or trying to brainstorm writing tips for all of you.

No matter how much you think you know about writing, you are not immune to making mistakes. No matter how much you think you know, you will never be able to write a perfect first draft. Giving trusted critics the opportunity to call you out on your bullshit is an integral part of the process.

All too often, writers think they can revise without this outside help. They’re scared. They don’t want to show their work to anyone until they’re confident it’s perfect. And I suppose this is fine if you’re only writing for personal enjoyment and fulfillment and are not terribly concerned with the quality of your writing. But if you’re actually looking to improve and be somewhat good at this craft, you NEED the input of others. It will not matter how many books or blog posts you’ve read about writing. It will not matter how many times you’ve read your own writing. You need to have the courage to ask for notes and the humility to take those notes seriously.

Writing About Writing: Ideas Are Overrated

Yesterday, my recently retired father started asking me about writing. He was considering taking a creative writing class but was worried about his ability to come up with ideas. His question seemed so simple.

“How do you come up with your ideas?”

And my eyes lit up. I rambled on and on about different scripts I’d written and how those ideas came to me. I encouraged him to just start writing without fear of criticism. Take that class! Seize the day!

What I did NOT do was give a straightforward answer to that simple question.

“How do you come up with our ideas?”

And the reason is I don’t know. There’s no particular method that I feel is more likely to generate awesome ideas than another.

But as I’ve given this question more thought today, I’ve realized something. Writing has virtually nothing to do with your ability to come up with good ideas. I imagine this is a common misconception among non-writers, but seriously. You don’t need good ideas to be a great writer.

Writing is not about having good ideas. It’s about having the skills needed to turn any idea into a good story. 

We’ve all seen movies that had a promising premise but fell flat. I can also think of some movies that seemed like they shouldn’t work but somehow they do. It was never about the initial premise at all. It was about execution.

Perhaps the best example of this is Lin-Manuel Miranda’s masterpiece known as Hamilton. No, it’s not a movie but the example will still work, trust me. On its surface “let’s make a rap musical about Alexander Hamilton” really isn’t that great an idea at all. “Let’s write rap songs about central banking policy” is an absolutely dumbass idea.

The genius of Miranda is not that he had these ideas in the first place, it’s that he had the ability to make something great out of ideas that would’ve probably been a hot mess in anyone else’s hands. Furthermore, he had the confidence to know that idea COULD turn into something special if only he worked at it. He had the fortitude to power through the process of writing and re-writing and then re-writing some more. It’s that process that separates people like Miranda from the rest of us, not his ideas.

An idea is only as good as the work you’re willing to put into it. Supposedly “good ideas” are worthless if you’re unwilling to put in the time to make that idea into something. Supposedly “bad ideas” still have potential if you play around with them and write and re-write until they become a worthwhile script. If an idea inspires you enough to pour your blood, sweat, and tears into it until it’s good, THAT’S the idea you should write, not the idea that you don’t want to commit to but seems interesting at first glance.

So if the thing currently holding you back is a lack of belief in your ideas, that’s fine. Don’t believe in your ideas. Believe in your ability to do something with them.

Writing About Writing: Likable vs. Interesting Characters

There are the characters that you want to drink a beer with, and there are the characters that you fear could throw a beer across the room at any moment.

These are the two types of characters that every work needs: A likable character, and an interesting character. Now of course these two things are not mutually exclusive. However I’ve seen certain people allege that your protagonist needs to be “likable,” other people allege that they need to be “compelling” and I think both schools of thought SORT OF get it but are not quite there.

A few years back I went through a rather intense Scandal phase which helped prompt this revelation. I had two favorite characters on this show: Olivia and Huck. I liked these two characters for two entirely different reasons.

Image result for olivia popeOlivia was a badass. I want her to be a real person who will be my best friend. She’s inspiring. She’s fierce. She’s the exact type of character that made Shonda Rhimes famous.

Huck is different. It’s hard to say exactly why he’s so interesting without revealing some spoilers, so SPOILER ALERT. Huck likes killing people. Like, genuinely enjoys killing and torturing people. But he’s not evil. He understands how unethical these actions are, but it doesn’t lessen his enjoyment. This causes internal strife within Huck that is matched by very few other characters. All of this is the result of a rather tragic backstory where he was part of a super secret government spy program. Unlike Olivia, I really DON’T want Huck to be a real person. I’d like to believe there is no super secret spy program turning otherwise normal people into psychopathic torturers.

Image result for huck scandalBut Huck had something Olivia didn’t. Huck felt like a character I had never seen before, rather than Olivia, who’s amazing but also not terribly different from the Super Publicists of other DC political dramas. Huck made the show as a whole more intriguing. And while I never got around to watching the last couple seasons of Scandal, the desire to know what ultimately happened to Huck would probably motivate me to go back more than my desire to know what happened to Olivia.

Again, it’s totally possible for a character to be both likable and interesting (Olivia Pope is still interesting in her own right, just not to the extent that Huck is.) But I find it helpful to look at these two types of character appeal as separate entities. It can allow you to figure out what’s missing from a protagonist, and make sure that if you want a character that’s only one or the other, at least it feels deliberate. It can also help inform what other types of characters you need in your script. Unlikable protagonists like Rick Sanchez oftentimes only work if they’re interesting, and a super likable but not-so-interesting sidekick like Morty certainly helps balance the equation.

Once you realize that it’s possible for a likable character to be uninteresting and it’s possible for interesting characters to be unlikable, you can ask yourself the important questions. Who do I want to be likable? Who do I want to be interesting? Then take the necessary steps to make it happen.

Writing About Writing: I Guess I Should Talk About Tone

I’ve just passed the halfway point in this project and it crossed my mind that I have yet to dedicate a post to the rather important topic of “tone.”

“Tone” is what makes the 1971 Mel Stuart film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and the 2005 Tim Burton film Charlie and the Chocolate Factory entirely different movies. They have essentially the same characters following along essentially the same story beats. Yet, I challenge you to find a person who would say “Yeah, those films are one in the same. I’m equally happy watching either one of them.”

Now tone, like anything else, is not 100% in the hands of the screenwriter. The director has a lot to do with it too. However, it’s still important to have a tone in mind as a writer. Tone gives you the sort of clarity you need to zero in on what your writing will be. If I gave you a simple prompt of “Describe the setting of your film” that’s not as clear as “describe the setting of your creepy, horror film” or “describe the setting of your family comedy.”

The best question I can think of to ask yourself when considering tone “how do I want my audience to feel during this two hour experience?” Please note that that’s not “how should this particular scene make my audience feel?” Some movies help us relax, while some movies are intentionally designed to make us uncomfortable. Some movies are designed to stimulate us intellectually while others focus more on touching our emotions. None of these are right or wrong choices, but I think it’s important to ask yourself not only “does my story work?” but also “what do I want this movie to really do for people?”

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory strikes me as pure escapism. It’s fun. It makes you want to live in this wonderful candy world and forget the miserable world you actually live in.

Regardless of whether or not you enjoy Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (I know I prefer the 1971 version) I just can’t help but think that Tim Burton wasn’t TRYING to do what the 1971 movie did. He wanted to make his audience feel a little uneasy. Perhaps he was trying to make some statement about how fantasy worlds are never all they’re cracked up to be or how being a creative genius means nothing if you don’t have a loving family. I’m not sure what he considered his mission to be, but I definitely think it was something beyond just “make a movie that’s fun.”

What do you want your movie to do for an audience? Once you know that, you can figure out what kind of tone you want, and then can help you fill in some of the nooks and crannies of your script beyond main story points.

Writing About Writing: Make Your Protagonist Active

So I consume a lot of different movies/television of a lot of different genres and over the years I’ve noticed there’s one quality that can make or break a protagonist. I like my protagonists active. Passive protagonists bore the hell out of me.

What is the difference, you ask? Passive protagonists are defined almost exclusively by whatever situation they’re thrown into. Active protagonists are defined by the choices they make in those situations.  Passive protagonists are victims of circumstance. Active protagonists create new circumstances for themselves.

Lately, I’ve been watching some of the earlier seasons of American Horror Story. Now due to this show’s ensemble-y nature one might disagree with me as to who THE protagonist is, but I’m going to say that in Season 1 it’s Vivian (played by Connie Britton) and in Season 2, it’s Lana.

Image result for vivian ahsVivian is a passive protagonist. Sure, life is tossing a ton of different challenges at her, but it is those challenges rather than the way that Vivian handles them that makes her life even remotely interesting. At no point does Vivian ever make a choice other than the predictable choice any other ho hum character would make if they moved across the country into a haunted house. Vivian does not dictate her story, but rather the story dictates Vivian.

Image result for lana ahsIn Season 2, Lana is an active protagonist. She is a lesbian journalist in 1964 who has decided to try to write an exposé on an insane asylum. Just the first episode shows Lana making a lot of interesting choices. She’s chosen to to be in a same-sex relationship despite the taboos of the era, when others with similar inclinations might have chosen to suppress their urges. She chooses to chase down a story about Briarcliff Sanitarium. And while no, she doesn’t commit herself to the sanitarium as a patient, she does continue to make interesting choices once she’s inside. Which alliances will she form with other patients? What will her escape plans be? Lana doesn’t just sit around and wait for shit to happen. Lana is the reason shit happens.

For the record, I don’t think passive characters as a whole are a bad idea. Perhaps a passive character might learn to take control of their own destiny over the course of the story. Perhaps you need a more passive supporting cast to really demonstrate just how active your protagonist is, as is the case with the second season of American Horror Story. But I do think it’s incredibly difficult, if not straight up impossible, to make your central protagonist overly passive and still have a strong story. In film and tv, we learn about characters largely by seeing what choices they will make. A character who only makes boring, predictable choices is destined to be a boring, predictable character.

Writing About Writing: The Well-Informed Mystery Paradox

There’s a great paradox that exists in screenwriting. How do you keep an audience in suspense while also keeping them informed? How do you make sure they understand your story without spoon-feeding it to them in a way that feels patronizing and belittling? How do you make sure they’re in the dark about enough things to keep them guessing while also making sure they care enough to guess?

Your script needs to be mysterious. But your script also needs to be informative. It’s a bit of a pickle, isn’t it?

I do not claim to have mastered this paradox in all my own writing myself, but it is something I’m constantly aware of. I long for my writing to be unpredictable. But I am also constantly asking “ok but what does my audience need to know in order to really get it?” So here’s a few strategies I’ve come up with.

I’ve already said in The Four Things You Need To Know what I consider to be essential for telling a good story:

  • What does my character want?
  • Why does my character want that thing?
  • What is my character’s plan to get this thing?
  • What will happen if this particular plan doesn’t work?

I think it’s INCREDIBLY difficult to write engaging if you are attempting to keep one of these factors a secret. Though it is worth mentioning that not necessarily ALL characters’ motives need to be evident from the get go. In a current piece I’m working on, I have a protagonist with a relatively straightforward mission while the antagonist has goals and plans far more sinister than they first appear. In general, I think it’s pretty much always easier to make the situation mysterious rather than making your main characters mysterious. If your audience knows enough about your protagonist to become invested in them, they’ll care when that character wanders into a mysterious house and we’re unsure

I also think this is another issue where you’re better off picking one extreme and then sticking to it. I’ve enjoyed some movies that falsely lured me into believing I was watching a formulaic, predictable story only to throw in a twist at the very end (Disney’s Frozen is a great example of this).

On the other end of the spectrum, we have one of my favorite films of recent memory, Bad Times at the El Royale. This one avoids giving you any background info until the exact moment that the story requires it to move forward. You watch with this constant feeling that anything can happen at any moment. There’s a confidence in the mysteries being laid out, as if the writer says “I know I’m not explaining much, but trust me. It’ll all be worth it.” Both are totally fine strategies that make for unpredictable movies.

What doesn’t work though are those stories that give you a lot of information, except it’s not all that relevant, or at least not relevant right now. While it’s kinda an apples-to-oranges comparison because this is a series instead of a film, American Horror Story: Murder House has this issue for me. I will grant you that the season is unpredictable, but it also gives you a fair amount of information that either doesn’t really need to be there at all or won’t be relevant for several more episodes. There were enough plot points on the table that I felt like I SHOULD be able to piece them together into a story and got confused and pissed off when I couldn’t. I got even MORE confused and pissed off when I reached the end of the season and realized just how much of it was pointless diversions. All the while the writing failed to give me information it probably SHOULD have given me. I wasn’t emotionally invested in most of the main characters and this was largely because every episode spent a fair amount of time on less relevant characters in an attempt to establish mystery.

Not every script really NEEDS a super dramatic plot twist, but it does need just enough mystery to make us say “hmm, I don’t know what will happen next but I want to.” When writing your script, ask yourself at the end of each scene “have I established a question about what will happen in another scene?” But also make sure you’ve made your characters interesting enough that people care enough to ask.