Sunday, May 12, 2013

How to Build a Scene, Addendum: Do You Have a Surface Conflict and a Suppressed Conflict?

As I’ve been running movies through the checklist, and your helpful suggestions, certain questions seem to me to be less than useful.  I’ve stated before that one of my goals is to never ask a question that always gets a “yes” (This is one reason I don’t like the terminology “inciting incident”, because it’s impossible to write a story that doesn’t have one, in one form or another.)  Writers seek out these lists because they need something proscriptive, not merely descriptive.  Every rule needs to be breakable.

One question that hasn’t seemed very useful on the checklist so far is under “How to Build a Scene”: “Do they confront each other through sub-text moreso than through text?”  I generally answer “yes”, but the question is too vague to demand more explanation. Instead, let’s switch to this: “Do you have a surface conflict and an suppressed conflict?”  This forces the writer to identify both, which will help identify which one might be missing.

Now let’s look back at the eight scenes we’ve examined so far and identify the surface conflict / suppressed conflict.
  • Bridesmaids: Over whether or not she’ll get a ticket / Over whether they should date, why she’s a failure.
  • Silence of the Lambs: Over filling out the questionnaire / Over her desire to catch Buffalo Bill, over his desire to dissect her and to escape.
  • Donnie Brasco: Over who tipped off Sonny Black / Over their friendship, over Donnie’s splintering loyalties.
  • How to Train Your Dragon: Over how the students should kill this new type of dragon / Over crushes, over how to befriend the Night Fury.
  • Alien: Over whether or not to kill the Alien / Over Ash’s true motives.
  • The Shining: Over the stain, over whether or not he’s seen the butler before / Over the nature of the house, over whether or not he should kill his family
  • Casablanca: Over whether Rick will take custody of the letters / Over who killed the couriers, who Rick really is, whether Ugarte is worthy of respect
  • In a Lonely Place: Over lots of little things / Over whether or not Laurel will leave, whether or not any of them can trust Dix anymore.
So, in each case, the answer is “yes”, but I think we’ve uncovered a lot more useful information, and a more useful thing to consider in advance when crafting a scene from scratch.

In each of these cases, it would have been so much easier for the writer to simply have the characters walk right up to each other and confront each other about what’s really bothering them.  Such scenes are tempting, because they’re big, bold, packed with attitude and full of conflict.  But they ring false, and lack multiple layers, so they’re flat.

People avoid conflict, and use tricks and traps to get what they want.  It’s usually in the best interest of both parties to keep the suppressed conflict suppressed, and stay focused on the surface conflict.  It spares both parties pain, allows each to keep his or her own goals hidden, and gives each an excuse to ignore the other’s ploy to force them to do something they don’t want to do.

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