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Writing Powerful Scenes, Part 4: Conflict

Man at computer

When writing strong scenes, conflict is key. If there is no conflict, the “scene” probably doesn’t contribute much to the story.

Every story needs conflicts to drive it. You can write pieces that aren’t stories and that therefore have no conflict. We typically call these “slice of life” pieces or vignettes. They might simply be powerful bits of description that bring a setting or character to life, but they aren’t a part of a larger story.

At the heart of each story, you need a powerful conflict. This needn’t be a life-or-death conflict. It needn’t put an entire world in jeopardy. It only needs to move us powerfully, and that can happen for a couple of reasons. For example, conflict may move me powerfully because I relate to it so well. I’m often charmed when I see a shy boy struggling to let a girl know that she has become the object of his affection. I was terribly shy when I was a teen, so I get it.

On the other hand, the movie An Education is a beautifully crafted story about a promiscuous young woman who is in the act of “throwing her life away.” While I recognize that many people relate to that, the truth is that for most of my life, that was never a problem for me. I set goals and didn’t let things—like my attraction for a woman—get in the way.

There are of course conflicts that I can’t relate to at all, and if you start discovering early in a movie or a book that you just can’t “get into the story,” very often the problem lies in that the conflict doesn’t engage you.

As a writer, you can get around that problem by creating more sympathy for your character. You might create a protagonist who we care deeply about. Sometimes it helps just to create a likable personality, but that’s not always the case. Even a flawed character can gain sympathy if you pile on multiple conflicts for that character.

For example, take the movie Liar, Liar, starring Jim Carrey. In it, we are introduced to Fletcher Reede, a habitual liar. He has a gift for saying all of the right things at just the right time, regardless of how insincere he might be. Thus, when he sees an overweight employee, he compliments the person on losing weight, but then will make some biting comment under his breath only moments later. So, we quickly gain sympathy for him for several reasons. First of all, we like him for his biting wit. His sense of humor draws us in, even if impolite. And the fact that he doesn’t make such comments public, shows us that at the core he’s really a nice guy. He doesn’t want to hurt people’s feelings. So we gain some sympathy for him.

As the story develops, we find that he is so involved with his work, that he forgets about a son’s birthday party. Who hasn’t found themselves so busy at some time that you’ve totally forgotten an important engagement? Yet Fletcher has the decency to apologize profusely and to try to make up for his foibles, and so he earns our trust. As the story grows, we see that Carrey’s character has problems of his own. He has to deal with demanding bosses, dishonest clients, pompous judges, and his own inner weaknesses. Now, you as a viewer might not have to deal with a boss who demands sex from you, but at some point, you probably have had to deal with a dishonest client or friend, or with someone who is pompous, or with your own forgetfulness, and so on. In short, the conflicts in Liar, Liar aren’t universal, but there are enough of them that you’ll find a few to relate to.

So remember, as you create your conflicts, do the following: 1) Look for powerful conflicts. 2) Stack multiple conflicts so that you find some that appeal to your audience.

Previously Published

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Every week, Forrest Wolverton holds the Apex Accelerator Program. This program is designed to help motivate writers and help them get past the obstacles in their life to become the best writer they can be. There aren’t very many writing groups out there that have motivational speakers!

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Writing for Film and TV Presentation with Cat Girczyc (Part 2)

Cat Girczyc (pronounced ger-chuck) currently works as a technical communications manager and pursues creative writing at night. She spent about twenty years working in television in Canada prior to getting a ‘day job’ in tech writing. As a single widowed mom, she wanted to spend more time with her daughter and be able to count on a regular salary and schedule. She likes her day job as it allows her time, after it’s over, to create her own intellectual property rather than always working in other people’s universes.

She’s a Writer’s Guild of Canada member and has sold 15 television episodes, including two episodes of the hour-long dark fantasy “The Collector” and animated series such as the cult superhero cartoon “Cybersix”. She’s also written legal drama, cartoons, docudramas and even radio drama.

When given the choice, she writes female-led stories, usually in the science fiction or fantasy genre, although she also dabbles in romcoms.

She loves being in APEX and feels that membership not only has taught her a great deal about writing prose, but also has given her a wonderful group of new friends who share her interest in writing great work!

Her latest career news is always on her website, www.catscreenwriting.com
She’s on Twitter at: @Cat_WritesSFF

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