Amp Up the Pressure

Nobody likes conflict.

Well, some people thrive on it. Come to think of it, I’ve dealt with people who wake up in the morning looking for ways to stir the pot. Ick. Us normal folks avoid conflict whenever possible. If you’re a writer, this is not a recipe for success.

Watch a movie. Watch television. See how much conflict they cram in, everywhere, all the time. Large and small. Have you seen DEAD TO ME? Netflix. They have so much conflict all over everywhere that, were you not totally sucked into the story, you’d think it was ridiculous. But it’s not.

See how many kinds of conflict are in each scene…

1. Character vs Character

2. Character vs Nature

3. Character vs Society

4. Character vs Self (all that internal angsty stuff)

5. Character vs the Supernatural

6. Character vs Technology

“Conflict” does not automatically mean “fist fight.” It can mean, “I can’t get this tube of paint to open. Dammit.” It can be as small as a paper cut or as large as running away from the bulls in Pamplona or an asteroid exploding. Characters who have no problems and live a happy life without woes or concerns… are boring. People don’t want to read about them. Actors don’t want to play them.

If character is action, which it is, then good drama is conflict. Don’t ever forget it. I often see scenes that are conflict-free. Things just happen. There’s no energy. Conflict-free scenes suck.

Here is John Le Carré’s idea of story.

1.) The cat sat on the mat.

Dull as dishwater. No conflict. No drama. No paycheck.

After the rewrite…

2.) The cat sat on the dog’s mat.

Bingo! Everything changes! For the better!

Your job is to tap your finger on that scene, or part of that scene, or line of dialogue, and slide it up the Conflict-O-Meter higher and higher until it goes into the red — where it becomes unbelievable. When the reader thinks, “No way! There’s zero chance this’d ever happen in real life.”, you scoot the Conflict-O-Meter down a notch, back into the realm of believability.

Scene by scene, do a conflict pass through your script. Ask yourself, “What can I do to make this more intense, even just a teeny bit?”

When I wrote Your Screenplay Sucks!, I did not understand how many writers have a crippling aversion to conflict. I see it constantly. You gotta have CONFLICT! If you don’t, your script won’t sell and your husband will leave you. Jam conflict into every crevice of your script, make money, stay married, live happily ever after.

Once upon a time I wrote a scene about a nebbishy hit man who goes into a men’s room to pick up a revolver hidden in the stall Michael Corleone-style. Fun movie reference! He finds the gun. He gets the bullets. He loads the pistol and goes out into the restaurant to take care of, as we say in the South, “bidnis.”

No conflict whatsoever! Yukko!

Being a superbly gifted rewriter, I realized I had written crap that needed improvement. Just like Aaron Sorkin! And most likely, you. “How can I add conflict to this miserable scene?”, I asked myself.

First, I made it more difficult to load the pistol. Our tyro hitman is nervous so he fumbles putting the bullets in the gun and one falls on the floor. Does he reach down and easily pick it up and slip it into the cylinder? He does not! He reaches down to the sticky bathroom floor, grabs at the bullet skittering across the tile and… misses!

To make it worse, I decided to have the bullet roll out all the way out to the sinks! That makes our hero more anxious! It makes the reader more anxious! I asked myself, “Can I make the reader even more anxious?!” Bien sûr! I made a list of all kinds of problems to make the hero’s situation worse! That was not hard work. Heck, it wasn’t even writing. It was just thinking of obstacles. A Pet Rock could do it.

I settled on a man at a sink, washing his hands. Who, OMG!, might see that bullet rolling by! Some actor somewhere might get a paycheck, when 16 seconds ago, that part didn’t exist… Then, the topper. I decided, “What if the guy’s a cop?!”

And… the bullet rolls right up next to his shoe…

You can always find a way, in every scene, to raise the conflict level. Just because you start at DEFCON 5 doesn’t mean you can’t get it up to DEFCON 2. Ask yourself, “How can I make him suffer more?” “What can I do to make this worse for her?” “What’s the most unpleasant thing that could possibly happen, right now?”

Have you read The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo? You should. Lisbeth Salander is such a great heroine. One night, she went to her enemy’s apartment, bent on taking him down.

“The plan began to go wrong almost from the start.”

Fantastic! The clever hero, in whom we have extraordinary confidence, faced awful problems. She’s super-duper smart, but her plan, no doubt superb, was collapsing. Guess who did that to her? Not her opponent. The writer!

Just because you wrote it, doesn’t mean you have to stick with it. Your first idea may be your best idea. But your 19th may be far better. Your mission, Mr. Phelps, should you choose to accept it, is to look at every single beat of every single scene and ask, “How can I crank up the tension for my characters and my readers?” You’ll be surprised at what you can figure out. It’s just about applying pen to paper, fingers to keys, butt to seat.

What scenes from your favorite movies stick with you the most? What was the conflict in those scenes? Make a list! Instead of just passively watching television, write things down. Scene analysis really develops your writing chops. Plus, it gives you a record you can go back to again and again.

One of the most intense scenes I ever saw was in THE KILLING FIELDS. The stakes were life and death. The conflict revolved around a small photograph and an errant, tiny… spot of glue.

Phnom Penh, Cambodia. 1975. The government is slaughtering citizens by the tens of thousands. For next to no reason. Or no reason at all. A terrifying time to be alive and to be attempting to stay alive a day longer. In the scene, at the Embassy, the character’s goal is to glue a photograph into a forged passport so he can get out of the country on an airplane. If he can finish the passport, he has a prayer of survival. There is time pressure because the Khmer Rouge are coming.

Nice story element: a ticking clock! Steal it for your own work.

I saw the movie 36 years ago and the scene still affects me. As I write this, my palms are sweaty. Because there is only one photograph and one passport, he’s only got one chance at it. There can be no mistakes or failure. The slightest slip up equals death.

He carefully puts the glue on the passport and pushes the photograph down, squeezing evenly to get it fully cemented. Then, oh fuck!, a small blob of glue oozes out the side!! I cannot adequately describe how terrifying that was. Now he has to clean up the glue without marring the photograph. If he gets glue on the picture, he dies. And the bad guys are closing in!

Watch the movie. See how it turns out.

Hell of a film, based on a true story. It would be interesting to know if the photograph and glue incident happened in real life or was it invented by Bruce Robinson, the screenwriter, to jack up the conflict?

Except… Oops

Full disclosure. At it turns out, the scene didn’t happen in real life nor was it thought up by Bruce Robinson.

It was invented by me.

To make sure I had the story order correct, I rented THE KILLING FIELDS. To my surprise, the scene doesn’t exist. There’s a scene about a photograph but it has nothing to do with glue. Funny how your memory messes with you. I searched to see if there’s another movie with a passport photo and glue and turned up nothing.

Here’s what actually happens… Oh so tense, but different.

Sam Waterston plays Sydney Schanberg, an American journalist. Haing S. Ngor plays Dith Pran, his journalist interpreter and friend. John Malkovich and Julian Sands are photographers. If the Khmer Rouge get Ngor, there’s no way he’ll survive. They kill every journalist.

Sands tells Malkovich that he has an expired passport, but the visa is still good. They just need a photograph of Ngor and they can stick it on the passport. Malkovich hopes Ngor has a photograph of himself, because he has no film.

Nearby, the bad guys round up citizens.

Across town, Ngor is leaving to escape with dozens of his friends. Waterston says, “Give me an hour. I need some time to think.” Ngor hasn’t got time and starts to go… Malkovich runs up and says, “I’ve got an idea.” Ngor’s friends all leave.

At the Embassy, Malkovich and Waterston ask Ngor if he has a photograph of himself. Old passport picture, press card photo. He has nothing. The bad guys took everything. Malkovich says they’ll find the film somewhere at the Embassy!

They need to find chemicals they can make into photo developer. Worse, the water in the Embassy has been shut off. A friendly contractor says they can drain the air-conditioning units to get the water.

Malkovich runs up to Waterston. He’s found a roll of film! He can use the men’s room as a darkroom! He and Waterston hug, intensely happy.

They are ready to shoot the photograph of Ngor. It’s difficult to keep him from smiling. Conflict! Malkovich takes the picture. CUT TO: the darkroom.

Malkovich and Sands have developed the film. From a wee black envelope, Malkovich removes a square of photo paper.

Outside in the hall, Ngor rehearses his new name out loud. Over and over.

In the darkroom, they make a contact print. They put it in the developer. They get an image! With extreme care, Malkovich moves the little photograph into the fixer. But, the photograph turns completely gray. Crud! They have to start again.

Waterston and Ngor wait. Ngor paces, terrified.

Another try developing a picture. This time, it fades to white. They have to adjust the chemicals. This is a disaster. They are crushed. Wound tight, Malkovich sends Sands out. The bathroom is too small and driving him crazy. He has to do this alone.

Waterston and Ngor sit on a swing. Ngor is so afraid. Waterston smiles encouragingly.

In the darkroom, Malkovich has printed another photograph. This time, it does not fade. “Yeah!”

CUT TO: A knife blade scraping the old name off the passport.

Malkovich tells Ngor he’s going to New York! They got it! Huge hug! Huge relief!

A British government official collects everyone’s passports preparatory to beginning the journey home. Outside, heavily armed bad guys search a car. Waterston turns in his passport along with Ngor’s. Winks at him. We feel good.

CUT TO: Pouring rain, bad guy trucks and cars roll into the Embassy compound. Armed Khmer Rouge get out.

Inside the crowded Embassy, a Frenchman brings Sands a piece of paper. Sands reads it aloud and says that the trucks are there for everyone’s evacuation. But, that has to be confirmed. Waterston and Ngor stare at each other, afraid. Happy French people sing their national anthem.

Pouring rain. Sands and the helpful contractor are digging up bodies. The Frenchman comes, takes Sands off to the side under his umbrella. He gives Sands Ngor’s passport. The photograph has turned completely gray. The Frenchman says he’s sorry and walks off. In a wide shot, Sands stands in the rain. In CU, it comes down on the now useless passport.

Embassy. Ngor is still rehearsing his new name, out loud. Waterston comes and shakes his head. No dialogue! It’s over. Waterston pats Ngor’s hand. We feel terrible. Now, Ngor has to escape overland, through the jungle. The worst possible outcome.

Either I saw the scene with a passport photograph and glue in a different movie, or I imagined it.

Fascinating.

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