Primary Conflict – I’m Sure There is One Uh, Probably

Posted by on Sep 25, 2014 in Creative Writing | 0 comments

Primary Conflict – I’m Sure There is One Uh, Probably

First of all, Grandpa Hank would like to welcome himself back to the land of the living. Which I’m pretty sure would’ve been much tougher to do had I actually passed away of the mysterious tropical disease I somehow contracted in my backyard in Pittsburgh. (Special thanks to whoever introduced the Asian Tiger Mosquito to Allegheny County. You’re the freakin’ best, buddy!) It’s been an interesting couple of months that haven’t necessarily allowed me thoughts that were coherent enough to send out into the world. Honestly, what you’d have gotten in August would’ve been something like this…

Writer’s Leg – Swamp or Destiny?

What do you think of when I say “drama?” Really let that sink in. Don’t be afraid to let the reality of it hit you. If you didn’t see it the same way, don’t worry. It’s fine provided your imagination is there to soften the blow. And I ought to know. One time I blarf tarp cafuzoid LAPOOPJOY!

But that was weeks ago and I’m well on my way to a full recovery. (Uh, hopefully) And you’ll never know if I made up that last paragraph just now or if I copied and pasted something I thought made sense roundabout August 9th. But all that notwithstanding, I do want to address something that caught me completely off guard last week.

One of the secondary reasons I wasn’t able to do much blog writing recently is because I was spending every headache-free moment writing a script for a local production company. I was on a rather tight deadline that I’m proud to say I met with three weeks to spare. And the script came out pretty decent considering all I really had to build from were about four plot points and a series of images that the producer/director was really excited about. (Which let’s face it, is still WAY better than the typical, “Can you write a bunch of scenes with boobs and like maybe a bad ass ice cream truck? Or like a homicidal dolphin clown?”)

So over a month, I sat down and averaged about one scene a day, building a story around four characters who all inadvertently wreck each others’ lives through a series of well intentioned missteps. They begin trying to fill their voids by chasing what the others have until after a long, slow, indie-style build up, it explodes at the end. It’s a very chatty, character-driven piece about how all too often, we manage to talk ourselves out of our own happiness.

And I was feeling awesome about it until in a quick phone call with the producer, he asked me…

“So what would you say is the primary conflict?”

When I was in seventh grade, there was this really annoying kid named Denny who would come up and flick you in the forehead with his index finger when you weren’t looking. Then he’d run away and hide behind a teacher so he didn’t have to deal with the consequences of his actions. In the aftermath of the producer’s question, I swear I could hear Denny’s stupid laugh.

I had everything about the script figured out. Every single thing the characters did and said had a specific purpose. Every little thing built upon the previous things to slowly turn up the heat until everything finally blows up. The characters were deep, rich, and flawed. The action all made sense. Each scene led to the next. It flowed. The story worked.

And yet my answer to “What would you say is the primary conflict?” went as follows.

“Uh, well… hmmm. That’s a good… ok, well, the characters, they’re all trying to… ok, like, they all want uh… ok, so when it comes to the PRIMARY conflict, I guess it’s between, so I guess there’s a few ways of looking at it. Let me um, think on that for a bit.”

Want to go from an expert to a bumbling stoogehead in about three seconds? Don’t give any thought to the absolute simplest of questions pertaining to your script. To be honest, the primary conflict of the piece ended up being me beating myself up over not having a flippin’ clue what the primary conflict was. (All of which I’m going to blame squarely on the tropical Neptune Pox I got in July.) I figure the shelf life on that excuse has to last until at least Thanksgiving.

Admittedly, I write much differently than a lot of storytellers. I tend to have an ending in mind and a couple of main scenes I want to hit along the way. From there, I pretty much let the rest of it flow and see what the hell happens. Personally, I find it less restrictive because it gives me the ability to explore my characters without worrying about where ACT II begins and all the other BS that structure-stomps a lot of writers into creating hollow yet technically perfect scripts.

What is the primary conflict?

There was a huge lesson in that question for me. And that lesson was…

There are certain very simple questions that are always going to be asked of you as a writer. You better damn well be prepared to answer them.

What is the main dramatic question?
What are the stakes for your main character?
What’s your two-sentence logline?

My advice? Unless you’re stuck, don’t worry about that stuff while you’re writing the script. Lose yourself in the world you created. Then once you emerge on the other side, have a list of questions to ask yourself about your completed script. (An easy way to do this is to compile a list of all of the generic questions you’ve ever been asked by a producer, professor, mentor, or classmate. Write them down as they come up.) Asking yourself those questions might just help you go back and strengthen what you’ve already written. And if nothing else, it’ll keep you from sounding like a total moron when producers inevitably ask you something simple. Such as….

How are you going to end this blog post?

Well uh….I guess I could ya know, I mean…..ok, I’m going to end it with a bang. Like something really witty that refers to uh…..right, so if you give me a second to just think on it…..there’s really something incredibly um…..uh…..LAPOOPJOY!

photo credit: Oberazzi via photopin cc

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