The crucial ingredient that every story must have in every scene and every Act is conflict. If there’s no conflict, there’s no reason to want to hear or read more. Imagine a story about a man who wants to be a boxer and then succeeds. End of story.
The one thing you can never do is risk boring your audience. The moment you do, you’ll lose them and that’s the end of your story. So the first thing every story needs is conflict. As a general rule, think of every element in your story like this — Nothing should ever come easy to anyone.
Every part of your story (yes, every part) must have conflict. Conflict makes people want to root for a winner. Would anyone want to watch a baseball or soccer game if both teams were working together? No, because there would be no conflict and thus no interest. Conflict is the crucial building block of every story. You need conflict.
Basically, every conflict consists of three parts:
- Rising Action
The Exposition introduces the problem, the hero, and the villain. The Rising Action shows the hero and the villain fighting. The Climax tells us who wins in the end.
Let’s start with the big picture first. Act I is the Exposition, Act II is the Rising Action, and Act III is the Climax.
Within each Act are 15 minute segments where each 15 minute segment also has an Exposition, Rising Action, and Climax.
Each 15 minute segment consists of multiple scenes, where each also scene has an Exposition, Rising Action, and Climax.
Conflict (Exposition, Rising Action, and Climax) appears in every scene, every 15 minute segment, every Act, and every movie. When a movie fails to deliver conflict from top to bottom consistently, then you’ll have a dull movie.
Let’s look at “Star Wars.” Act I introduces us to Luke. Act II shows Luke struggling with learning the Force, getting trapped in the Death Star, and trying to escape. Act III shows Luke battling against the Death Star.
Now let’s take a closer look to see how conflict (Exposition, Rising Action, and Climax) fits into a single Act. In Act I, the Exposition introduces Luke’s desire to get off the planet and do something with his life. The Rising Action is his conflict with his aunt and uncle. The Climax is when the storm troopers have killed his aunt and uncle.
Now let’s divide Act I into two 15 minute segments. In the last 15 minute segment, R2D2 has escaped and Luke has to find him (Exposition). Luke gets attacked by the Sand People and gets rescued by Obi Wan Konobi. When R2D2 plays Princess Leia’s message, Obi Wan tries to convince Luke to save her, but he refuses (Rising Action). Upon returning to the farm, Luke finds his aunt and uncle’s farm has been destroyed (Climax).
The three elements of conflict (Exposition, Rising Action, and climax) appear within individual scenes as well. Luke first meets Obi Wan, who tells him that R2D2 is looking for him (Exposition). Luke tries to get more information about his father from Obi Wan (Rising Action). R2D2 plays Princess Leia’s message and despite Obi Wan’s insistence, Luke decides against helping Obi Wan (Climax).
Conflict should be infused throughout every part of your script.
Before writing your screenplay, make sure you have clearly defined the Exposition, Rising Action, and Climax. Then define the Exposition, Rising Action, and Climax for each Act. (Break Act II into two 30-minute parts, Act IIa and Act IIb.)
Every scene that you write, even if it’s as simple as a character checking into a motel, must have all three elements of conflict (Exposition, Rising Action, and Climax). Take a look at this opening scene from “Blood Simple.”
INT. CAR NIGHT
We are looking at the backs of two people in the front seat–a man, driving, and a woman next to him.
Their conversation will be punctuated by the occasional glare of oncoming headlights and the roar of the car rushing by. The windshield wipers wave a soporific beat. The conversation is halting, awkward.
WOMAN …He gave me a little pearl-handled .38 for out first anniversary.
WOMAN …Figured I’d better leave before I used it on him. I don’t know how you can stand him.
MAN Well, I’m only an employee, I ain’t married to him.
Pause, as an oncoming car passes. Finally:
WOMAN …I don’t know. Sometimes I think there’s something wrong with him. Like maybe he’s sick? Mentally?… Or is it maybe me, do you think?
MAN Listen, I ain’t a marriage counselor. I don’t know what goes on, I don’t wanna know… But I like you. I always liked you…
Another car passes.
MAN …What’re you gonna do in Houston?
WOMAN I’ll figure something out… How come you offered to drive me in this mess?
MAN I told you. I like you.
WOMAN See, I never knew that.
MAN Well now you do.
Another pause. Another car. Suddenly:
WOMAN Stop the car, Ray!
CLOSE SHOT BRAKE
Low three-quarters on the car as it squeals to a halt.
A car that has been following screeches to a halt just behind it. Both cars sit. Rain patters.
INT. FIRST CAR
Close on the man, from behind. He looks at the woman.
She doesn’t answer. He turns to look back and we see his face, for the first time, in the headlights of the car behind.
The car behind them waiting, patiently. Rain drifts down past its headlights. Finally it pulls out and passes them slowly, their headlights showing it to be a battered green Volkswagon. First the car itself, then its red taillights, disappear into the rain.
BACK TO THE MAN
Cutting between him and the woman, each from behind.
MAN …You know that car?
MAN What’s the matter?
WOMAN I don’t know… I just think maybe I’m making a mistake…
She looks at the man.
WOMAN …What was that back there?
MAN Back where?
MAN I don’t know. Motel… Abby–
WOMAN Ray. Did you mean that, what you said before, or were you just being a gentleman?
MAN Abby, I like you, but it’s no point starting anything now.
MAN I mean, I ain’t a marriage counselor–
The man is uncomfortable.
MAN …What do you want to do?
The woman is uncomfortable. After a long pause:
WOMAN …What do you want to do?
Pulling back from RAY and ABBY in bed, making love.
The Exposition shows us the man and woman driving together in the car. The Rising Action occurs when the man states that he likes the woman and they discover they’re being followed. The big question that the Rising Action brings up is what will happen next? The Climax occurs when they wind up in the motel.
What makes a screenplay boring is when a scene lacks conflict. Conflict must occur in every scene to keep the audience interested. The moment you forget about conflict, the audience will forget about your screenplay.