Scott McConnell

Developing Drama and Conflict: 10 Tips for New Screenwriters

Developing Drama and Conflict: 10 Tips for New Screenwriters
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Scott McConnell offers “back to basics” advice for screenwriters new and old.

Two friends recently told me that their teenage daughters had become interested in writing fiction, and asked if I had any advice for them. Many fiction writing skills can be learned, and learning them in your youth can save a writer a lot of time and struggle. So I sent them these following tips, influenced by my favorite book on writing, Ayn Rand’s The Art of Fiction.

But these tips are not just useful for teenagers. I believe they can be helpful for anyone with an interest in screenwriting. And not only that, the skills required to write fiction are often applicable to other creative areas of one’s life. So whether you are an experienced writer, or just starting out, I hope you find these tips of value.

Nicholas Cage as Charlie Kaufman in Adaptation

Nicholas Cage as Charlie Kaufman in Adaptation

1. Fantasize.

A little loneliness is good for the soul, especially to help develop a sense of creativity. So throw away that screen, be alone, be bored. And switch on your imagination.

For example, ask yourself “What if” questions. Say you see someone explode with anger. Take that kernel of an experience and develop it into a little story by applying some thinking to it. What if the person was exploding with anger when their boss was advising them – what would happen? What if they were a space ship captain losing their temper during a great battle? What if…

2. Read.

Read a lot of scripts and well-told fiction, and watch classic movies and TV shows so you will become generally aware of what a good story is. That is, experience stories filled with imagination, suspense, mystery, wit, and important values.

Watch movies from the golden age of Hollywood (1939-1969). For example, adventure stories and dramas like CasablancaCaptain Blood, and Shane. And there is a cornucopia of TV shows to learn from, from classics such as Star TrekGunsmokeI Love Lucy, and The Mary Tyler Moore Show, to modern shows such as 24 and Frasier.

And not just film and television. You must read classic novelists and playwrights, who were great story tellers. Think Victor Hugo, Rafael Sabatini, Henrik Ibsen. Or more recent authors such as Lee Child and Michael Connolly, whose page-turning thrillers have been adapted for the screen.

Humphrey Bogart as Rick Blaine and Ingrid Bergman as Ilsa Lund in Casablanca

Humphrey Bogart as Rick Blaine and Ingrid Bergman as Ilsa Lund in Casablanca

There is also a specific way you can learn from experiencing high quality literature or films. While the previous advice stressed what to read and watch, the next two points discuss how to do so.

3. Analyse.

Don’t just read or watch, but analyse your reactions to what you are experiencing.

For example, when reading a thriller such as the James Bond classic Casino Royale and you feel a strong emotion, ask yourself: What am I feeling? What in this story is making me feel this? How did the writer get me to react this way?

By asking such questions you are studying how to create mystery, suspense, and twists, and you are pressing these lessons into your subconscious mind so that your own writing will improve. Asking “How?” is an important question for a fiction writer.

Daniel Craig as James Bond in Casino Royale (2006). © 2006 Danjaq, LLC, United Artists Corporation and Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Daniel Craig as James Bond in Casino Royale (2006). © 2006 Danjaq, LLC, United Artists Corporation and Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

4. Learn X-Ray Vision.

When you read or watch fiction that bores you, ask yourself: Why is this uninteresting? How can I make this story better? What would I like to see happen in this story? This last question will encourage you to apply your own values to your story thinking. Also, imagining how you would adapt prose stories for the screen can help you develop good writing premises. Such thinking, for example, forces you to learn “x-ray” vision to see a story’s key conflicts and practise structuring them in dramatic ways.

5. Think in Terms of Conflict.

Learn to think in terms of conflict: A character acts to achieve a goal, and another character acts on a goal that clashes with it. These two characters are now in conflict. 

As a writer matures, they will move from writing character A vs. character B stories, to writing character A vs. A vs. B stories. That is, stories where at least one main character (A) has a self-conflict; he or she wants two things that are mutually exclusive, are in intrinsic conflict.

For example, in a screenplay adaptation of the classic drama Ninety Three by Victor Hugo (by Lawrence Benson and optioned by producer Emmanuel Itier), the republican hero Gauvain can only save France from the invading royalists by defeating in battle the leader of the royalist army. This leader is his own father, whom he loves and respects.

The best stories, I believe, are about people who, wanting big things in terrible situations, have to make dreadful choices. A writer has to train their mind to think like this.

6. Escalate to a Climax.

Try to create stories where the central conflict of your clashing main characters escalates towards an explosive climax. By escalate, I mean that the conflicts get harder for the characters and more intense for the audience.

Classic stories structured to escalate to an intense climax include The Scarlet PimpernelKing Solomon’s MinesThe Count of Monte CristoThe Secret Garden, The Day of the Jackal, Gladiator, Back to the Future, Saving Mr. Banks, ShaneThe Winslow BoyThe King Amuses HimselfThe Fountainhead, and An Enemy of the People

Tom Hanks as Walt Disney and Emma Thompson as P.L. Travers in Saving Mr. Banks © 2013 - Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Tom Hanks as Walt Disney and Emma Thompson as P.L. Travers in Saving Mr. Banks © 2013 – Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

7. Observe.

Observe things during your daily life. Think about them, describe them. Be curious.

One way to watch life creatively is to think about the meaning of people’s reactions. For instance, when you see someone react in a surprising or interesting way, ask yourself, “Why did they do that?”

“Why” is one of a fiction writer’s most important words. Asking “Why” leads you to motivation, the reasons people act. And motivation is fundamental to story telling.

8. Practice.

Practice! Try writing descriptive passages, or organizing a series of events logically, or writing dialog scenes with two people in conflict. You don’t always have to write an entire script or story, but you do need to practise good writing premises, so they are pressed into your mind.

Ethan Hawke as Jesse and Julie Delpy as Celine in Before Midnight

Ethan Hawke as Jesse and Julie Delpy as Celine in Before Midnight

9. Seek Feedback.

When you are comfortable with showing or telling your work to someone who can give you objective feedback, ask for it.

Being objective about your own work is very difficult, and a new writer especially can benefit from the editing and mentoring of a knowledgeable story teller. And always remember that objective “criticism” will make you a better writer.

10. And Read!

Do read The Art of Fiction by Ayn Rand. In my opinion this is the best book on the subject. But also read other books on writing to learn some of the basics of story, and to learn about the many different insights and theories that writers have.

Some popular books to consider are Save the Cat by Blake Snyder, Story by Robert McKee, Writing Screenplays That Sell by Michael Hauge, Making a Good Script Great by Linda Seger, Screenplay by Syd Field, and The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri.

In Conclusion.

Many of the skills that underlie writing can be developed and honed. First you must become aware of what good writing is, then study and understand examples of it, then practise (and edit) the techniques of dramatic writing in your own work.

Over time your sense of conflict and drama will strengthen.

Of course, there is much more to learn about fiction writing, but I hope that these tips will help start you on the path to becoming a creator of fascinating people and imaginative, dramatic worlds.

 

This article was first published on LinkedIn on December 31, 2016

 

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