Conflict: Got A Problem With That?

I’ve been extremely fortunate since coming to Denver eight years ago. I found a creative home at Lighthouse and discovered that I love coaching (I’m a little embarrassed to call myself a teacher) writers of all genres and forms in the development of their projects.  In fact, the main benefit to me has been the opportunity to work with writers outside of my form. I’ve gained a considerable amount of insight into my own work as a screenwriter from helping novelists, memoirists, and nonfiction writers find the story in their work.   

As a screenwriter, I don’t have the same luxuries of form as other writers: screenwriters have a set number of pages (90-115, generally), we must work within the boundaries of the screenplay (it’s more like writing poetry in some ways); and, prose can (more often than not) get in the way of the “visual narrative” that is the heart and soul of the screenplay.

However, the one thing that keeps us all on the same page is story. Without the basic principles of story-telling (character, plot, and tone), we’re all just creating bad, uninteresting and unengaging dreck. A story is a story is a story. The novel is a form as is the play, the memoir, the screenplay, or the epic poem. In fact, just to continue the point, every art form is an extension of the narrative form in some fashion. Dance is the narrative as gesture and movement, and painting is the narrative as color and space. 

So if all forms of art have some aspect of story (a narrative) within them, what allows some works to soar as others crash and burn?

In my career, I’ve read probably a couple thousand manuscripts of various kinds. For a short time in Hollywood, I was a reader. One of those people who reads manuscripts and makes recommendations. It’s a horror of a job. You read two to three screenplays a day, and most of what you read is dreck. I’ve been known to throw screenplays across the room because they are so bad, then walk over and pick them up because it’s my job to read the work. 

After reading as much as I have, I’ve come to recognize that what makes a story work—and what contributes to its failure—is conflict.

Without conflict in a story there can be no action. And, without action, there’s no forward motion to the story. Nothing happens. The story just sits, in space, with all that lovely language going to waste. 

I have been known to take up to a year or more just engaging in story development before I even begin to address a draft of the work. I’ve tended to be one of those writers that comes up with great plot elements, an amazing opening or ending, but then struggles to make believable characters that rise from the page. When I finally got it in my head that what I needed to make my brilliant plots work was a dynamic conflict strategy, with something at stake for every character in the work, suddenly the story began to reveal itself. 

As a screenwriter, I’m focused on the simple cause-and-effect throughline for my story. I don’t have language or other literary devices to rely upon. It’s simply: What’s the story? What does my main character want? Who/what stands in their way? What basic flaw in them is holding them back from their goal? In retrospect, it all seems so obvious. But, when we’re in the weeds of our work, lost in the middle chapters or the second act, we forget that our best friend in getting us to the end is conflict: internal, external…eternal. 

Lighthouse instructor Michael Catlin is teaching the 4-week workshop, Conflict: The Glue That Holds The Story Together, starting September 13.