Writing Tip of the Week: The Importance of Conflict in Your Story

People generally do all they can to avoid Conflict in their everyday lives. We will often go to great lengths to stay out of situations that make us uncomfortable, make us confront an issue, or even deal with someone who makes us feel anything but peaceful. For the most part, humans prefer a sense of neutrality.

But not in fiction.  

Fiction requires Conflict as an essential ingredient to make a narrative move forward. There has to be something or someone driving the protagonist to act; to get them out of their neutral state and make them work toward a goal that looks impossible to achieve on the surface.

Let’s explore a little about Conflict and its role in fiction.

Conflict = Dramatic Tension

Your protagonist wants something. Another character wants something else. Only one of them can get what they want in the scene or chapter. And so, this Conflict creates Dramatic Tension between the two characters, and – hopefully – the Conflict and dramatic tension pique the audiences’ interest. Who will get what they want? How will they negotiate to get what they want? What are they willing to do or say to achieve their goal?  

Watch any film or TV show, and you will see this played out on either a small or a larger level. If you watch Law & Order: Special Victims Unit – or most procedurals – you can see this play out in almost every scene. There is a conflict between the detectives over how to interrogate a suspect. There’s Conflict between the suspect and the detectives interrogating them. There’s Conflict while a witness is being questioned. All of which creates Dramatic Tension and leaves the audience curious and wanting more.

Comedy is also rife with Conflict. Yes, Dramatic Tension does exist in sitcoms and comedy movies as well. It’s what helps keep the story moving forward and the audience engaged. On I Love Lucy, Lucy Ricardo wants to be in a TV commercial. Her husband, Ricky, says she can’t do it. A Conflict between the two characters has now been created. It then evolves into Dramatic Tension, which in this case is played for laughs.

Conflict Isn’t Always Good vs. Evil

When we picture Conflict, we think of Batman vs. The Joker or some other large-scale epic showdown between good and evil. But that is not the case. While this is a clear-cut example, conflicts are often between best friends, or kids and parents, or employees and employers.  

Maybe the characters just have a minor disagreement about how to punish their child for their bad behavior. Perhaps it’s a conflict between and father and son over what type of first job the son should apply for. Small conflicts between characters that aren’t an explosive battle of wills destroying Gotham City can be just as impactful, just as exciting, and just as engaging.

Conflict Should Be Organic

The source of the Conflict that occurs should have sense and logic to it within the story you are telling. Have you ever watched an action movie where a car chase or bar fight just happens for no reason? If there’s no reason for the Conflict to arise, it feels forced and out of place.

All characters want or need something. When your characters each want something different, a conflict is formed. In Avengers: Infinity War, Thanos wants the Infinity Stones to achieve his goal. The Avengers have an opposing goal: stop Thanos from acquiring the Infinity Stones. It’s a basic conflict, but it makes sense and is logical within the confines of the story being told.

There should be a reason for Conflict to exist at that moment in the story. If there’s no conflict present, figure out why and what’s causing a lack of Conflict between the characters involved. At the same time, don’t force Conflict to happen. If you cut the scene or chapter, would it impact the story?  

Conflict Ups the Stakes for the Protagonist

Imagine a story where nothing goes wrong for the protagonist. No matter what, everything goes right. Now, take that same character on her way to a big job interview, when someone runs into her, shoves a device in her hand, and seconds later, the office building she was headed to explodes and collapses. As she comes back to the reality of the chaos around her, she discovers there’s a detonator in her hand. Her fingerprints are all over it. Someone notices the device in her hand and calls out. Panicked, she gets up and runs.

She’s now wrongly accused of blowing up a building that she was headed to, with her fingerprints on the detonator and people screaming that she caused the explosion.

Talk about Conflict and Upping the Stakes!

While this is an extreme example, giving the protagonist a – even to them – life and death situation to deal with gives them motivation to achieve a goal despite the odds. Katniss in The Hunger Games ups the stakes on herself when she volunteers to take her sister’s place in the games. The stakes continue to mount as the games continue, and she must do all she can to survive—plenty of Conflict.

In Legally Blonde, Elle Woods wants to go to Harvard Law School. Based on what we know about Elle at this point in the film, even we think she’s creating stakes that seem impossible.  

Both The Hunger Games and Legally Blonde show us two strong protagonists actively putting themselves into situations where the stakes could not be higher for either one of them. The stakes up the Conflict, which increases the Dramatic Tension, which keeps the audience engaged.

Internal and External Conflict

Characters can have inner conflicts, wants, needs, desires, and motivations. These can help add dimension to a character and help lead to their growth and arc through the narrative.  

External conflicts are opposing forces outside the inner life of the character.  

In Lethal Weapon (1987), Sergeant Martin Riggs is depressed and suicidal (Internal Conflict) after the death of his wife (External Conflict). His new partner, Sergeant Roger Murtaugh, is melancholy about his age and retiring from the LAPD (Internal Conflict). He is not very happy to be saddled with a new partner who’s a live wire (External Conflict). Two characters with conflicting internal and external conflicts then have to face a conflict even larger than them. No wonder the movie was such a hit!

Giving your characters Internal Conflicts that must be dealt with during their External Conflicts is an excellent way to up the Stakes and add to the overall Dramatic Tension.

Creating Conflict between characters in your writing is a fun way to see how your protagonist and others respond to someone entering their space and destabilizing the neutral world they – like all of us in the real world – so desperately desire. Take a few of your characters and write a couple pages of Conflict between them and see if you discover anything new about them.

And, the next time you watch a movie, a TV show, or read a novel, observe what the Conflict is in each scene, what the stakes are, and how those conflicts and stakes lead to the dramatic tension in both the scene and the narrative as a whole.  

Happy writing, and I’ll see you next week!

When You’re Writing, Don’t Be Afraid to Act It Out

To the casual observer, writing can appear to be a low-energy, even passive activity.  But we as writers know that this is not the case. While our fingers may be the only thing moving externally, our minds are alive and active with ideas, thoughts, dialogue, and description that help bring our story to life on paper.  

But sometimes, even in that state of inner active creativity, we can get a little stuck.  Maybe a sequence isn’t coming together as effectively on the page as you want, or there’s an element missing from the dialogue or action.  

When this happens, get out of that chair and work through the scene.  As a writer, you are the creator, director, actor, and stunt coordinator of everything in your story.  It is your job to do whatever you can to get the story right.  And if you have to workshop it in your living room like a play, that’s 100% acceptable.

Here are some ways to do it.

Get On Your Feet and Move

As Lucy Ricardo (Lucille Ball) demonstrates in this clip from I Love Lucy, working through the emotion, the conflict, and the drama of a scene as you write can help you create more realistic dialogue and scenes. 

Reading your dialogue aloud can also be a great benefit to ensure that the characters speak like human beings and not as literary characters on a page (unless that’s the style you are aiming for).  

If you have someone to assist you, you can improvise a scene you’re having issues with and work out what problems you may be having.  Often as writers, we internalize too often.  Getting your story’s words and situations into an external space can help you see them from a better perspective and make more substantial story choices.

Make a Model

Perhaps your story has a big fight sequence or chase that involves several characters and would be complicated to stage at home.  Legos, action figures, water bottles, or even cups can be used to create a mock version of your characters (I suggest labeling the characters so they don’t get mixed up while your working).  You can use boxes or other objects to create the setting, then position your characters accordingly during the sequence.  

In doing so, you can now visually see how things would work, where the character would be positioned throughout the sequence, and how best to end the sequence given your parameters.

Seeing clear visuals can also help you see any problems, so you fix them before writing out the entire sequence.  

Hollywood does this all the time with big sequences using animatics.  While their aim is to save money on costly reshoots, your aim is to save time on headache-inducing rewrites.

Use Name Cards and Drawings

Another method can be used for even bigger sequences like a giant battle or even a murder mystery with a dinner party.  In this exercise, you write the names of all the characters on separate index cards, then use poster board or another large piece of paper to map out what the room or battlefield will look like.  Then you can move the “characters” around and see where they are in relation to other characters and locations.  

In doing so, you can see if there is logic in who is conversing with who, helping who, and fighting who depending on where they are in the diagram.

This exercise was done by the writers of Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End for the final battle involving three pirate ships, three crews of pirates, and the main cast.  As they were writing, they used the diagrams to see where characters started when the sequence began and how to effectively move them from ship to ship throughout the battle.

As you can see from the movement of characters in the clip below, this would have been very useful in the writer’s room!

With all three, I recommend filming and talking through each exercise so you don’t forget any details that may change or pop into your head while you’re working.  Once it’s done, and on the page, you can delete the footage, and no one has to know what great lengths you went through to make that big sequence work.

Happy Acting, and Happy Writing!

Wings Wednesday: Interview with Television Writer Dave Hackel – Part One

I love sitcoms. I Love Lucy and FraiserThe Mary Tyler Moore Show and BeckerGreen Acres and WingsAll in the Family and Married…with Children. These shows, along with hundreds more, have given millions of people laughter, comfort, enjoyment, and quotable lines for generations. They have ranged from multi-camera series like Lucy, to single-camera series like The Andy Griffith Show. The situation comedy has had its ups and downs, but one thing is for sure…it’s here to stay.

Long before the advent of television, radio was where situation comedies began their evolution. Radio comedies like My Favorite HusbandThe Adventures of Ozzie and HarrietFibber McGee and  Molly, and Father Knows Best were pioneers in the sitcom format. Many of the ones mentioned here would be adapted to television. What had worked in one medium would translate seamlessly into another: the situations and the comedy.

These shows work and deliver continuous laughs thanks to the hard work and dedication of those who write them.  They understand how to craft an effective joke and understand the value of a strong story and dimensional characters that can help elevate the comedy.

One of my favorite series is Wings, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. I had the honor of interviewing television writer Dave Hackel, who wrote many of my favorite episodes of Wings, and also worked on Fraiser (another favorite of mine), and created Becker (another favorite of mine, too).  

In Part One, Hackel talks about his time working on Wings. In Part Two (posting next Wednesday), he talks about the writing process for one of my favorite episodes of Wings, “Murder She Roast.”  

Enjoy!

Ian Dawson: Talk a little about your writing career before Wings.

Dave Hackel: My television writing career began a little over ten years before “Wings.”  I’d worked on comedies, dramas and variety shows.  After having the opportunity to try my hand at those different formats, I found I was most drawn to writing comedy and put all of my efforts toward finding work in half-hour sitcoms.  Little by little, a was able to gain a foothold in that area, writing a number of single episodes for different shows and going on staff for a few others. 

ID: How did you get the opportunity to write for Wings?

DH: I’d done the first year of “Dear John” at Paramount Studios before meeting Casey, Angell and Lee.  They’d sold the pilot of “Wings” to NBC and were putting together their staff for the first season.  I was looking to make a change and submitted a few scripts as writing samples. They liked what they read, we all seemed to like each other and they asked me to come on board.

ID: What was a typical writers room week like on the series?  

DH: We filmed on Tuesday nights, so production weeks began on Wednesday morning.  The new script was read around the table with the cast, the director, the entire staff as well as representatives from both the studio and network.  After the reading, the cast and director would go to the stage to begin rehearsing and the rest of us would discuss the script and decide what worked well and what needed to be rewritten.  We’d see a run-thru of the show at the end of each day, learn what we’d fixed and what still needed work.  The staff would then begin that day’s new version of the script.  Sometimes there’d be just a little work to do – writing new jokes, smoothing dialogue and responding to specific problems that the actors and director had pointed out.  On other days, whole scenes would be thrown out and redone.  Each day’s rehearsal was a learning process and hopefully each day’s work would improve the script so that the best possible version would be ready to put before an audience by the following Tuesday evening.

During the day, before rehearsal, the staff would be working on upcoming scripts.  Finding new stories, working as a group to rewrite others that were in the pipeline and making sure we had a new script in shape for the following Wednesday morning.

ID: How were ideas pitched?

DH: At the beginning of each season, we’d throw out many ideas for shows.  Everyone would participate.  Sometimes we knew of a overreaching theme for the season and pitch to that, sometimes a story would emerge as we wrote to various actors and their characters strengths. When trying to fill a season, literally everything is possible fodder for an episode. We writers would mine our lives for stories — little things that had happened to us, memories from our childhoods, something funny our friends did or that we’d overheard a stranger say — everything was fair game to be expanded upon to make an episode.  We had good characters to write for and also the airport setting allowed for interesting characters and their stories to walk into the terminal or off an incoming flight. 

ID: How were episodes assigned to be written?

DH: Sometimes a writer would come in with an idea they especially liked and wanted to write. Other times the tone of a story might be better for one writer to tackle than another.  Other times it was as simple as “Who’s next?”  With an entire season of episodes to complete, all the writers were usually busy on a script.

ID: What were the table reads like?

DH: Usually, the table reads were a lot of fun.  Lots of laughs.  But the staff was working during the reading.  We all knew that the rest of our day would be devoted to fixing any problems the became evident during the reading so we were all taking notes about what worked and what didn’t, what attitudes might need adjusting, what scenes might need to be reordered or, in some cases, eliminated. 

ID: How much input did the actors have in crafting and defining their characters?

DH: The actors had a lot of input.  They were welcome to bring up problems and ideas to the staff, but mostly their input was realized by their performances.  Slowly but surely as a series grows, the characters evolve.  Ideally, a level of trust gets established between the actors and the staff as we write to the actors’ strengths.  Subtle changes get made from all departments.  For instance, an actor might respond to or request a certain type of wardrobe that helps establish the type of person their character is.  Notice Joe Hackett’s button down, put together look vs. Brian Hackett’s which was crazier, more colorful and casual. Tim Daly’s performance helped define Joe and we all wrote to it.  Steven Weber’s performance helped define Brian and we wrote to that, too.  So, working together the characters grew, as did the stories about them.

ID: What was one of the challenges you faced as a writer on Wings?  

DH: One of the biggest challenges was that we had so many characters to service in each script.  Six to begin with.  Then seven, when Tony Shalhoub joined the cast.  And another when Farrah Forke came aboard for a couple of seasons.  Then Amy Yasbeck later.  If one character was heavy in one show that naturally meant someone else’s would have less to do and being fair to both the actors and the show overall was always a concern.

ID: What was your favorite part of being a writer on Wings?

DH: Wings was a very “joke heavy” show.  And, luckily, we had actors who could deliver.  So it was especially gratifying to write funny lines and hear the immediate response from the three hundred people in the audience.

ID: What is your favorite episode of the series?

DH: That’s a difficult question.  I like some more than others, of course, but a favorite?  Of the ones I wrote, I liked “Four Dates That Will Live In Infamy” and “Murder She Roast” the best. Another I really enjoyed was “Das Plane” with William Hickey as the guest star.  Another was “Joe Blows – Part One.”  Thankfully, there are really too many good episodes to choose from.

ID: What was tape night like on the set as a writer on the series?

DH: Rewriting on a sitcom never ends.  On shoot night we all followed along carefully and constantly threw in new and improved jokes for additional takes.  Anything that could improve a moment — a line, a word, a pause  — we’d try anything and everything to get the best possible show.

ID: Did you have a favorite character you liked writing lines for?

DH: Enjoyed them all for different reasons.  Brian, Lowell and Antonio were the most fun to write for — each had a very unique voice and approach to comedy.  

ID: How long were you a writer on the series?  When did you exit the series?  After your exit, did you then move on to work on Frasier?

DH: I was with the show for, I believe, 95 shows.  When I left, I created a short-lived series with Grub Street called “The Pursuit Of Happiness.”  After it was cancelled, I consulted on “Frasier” one day per week for a time before creating “Becker.”

ID: How did being a writer on Wings prepare you to create your own series, Becker?

DH: It was invaluable training.  Casey, Angell and Lee brought the “Cheers” way of doing things with them and adapted it to their shows.  I liked the way they laid out the season and the individual shows and tried to emulate that production method with “Becker.”  Obviously, each show takes on it’s on a style of its own, but the basic “bones” of how to organize a season, I learned on “Wings.”

I really appreciate Dave Hackel taking the time to answer my questions, and I hope you enjoyed his insight into the inner-workings of this great series.

 Check back next week to see Part Two of his interview about writing the Wings episode, “Murder She Roast.”