I want to run a fun little exercise with y'all for a moment. I promise it'll help ninety-nine percent of you immensely with your writing.
I'm going to give you several loglines for famous movies. I'm talking the very best. The crème de la crème of narrative storytelling. Try to figure out what all these films have in common, OK?
TITANIC: Two star-crossed lovers fall head-over-heels on the maiden voyage of the Titanic and struggle to survive as the doomed ship sinks into the Atlantic Ocean.
STAR WARS: A NEW HOPE: When an optimistic farm boy discovers that he comes from an ancient lineage of otherworldly warriors, he teams up with rebel fighters to liberate the galaxy from the sinister forces of the Empire.
THE DARK KNIGHT: When the menace known as the Joker wreaks havoc and chaos on the people of Gotham, Batman must accept one of the greatest psychological and physical tests of his ability to save lives and fight injustice.
IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE: An angel is sent from Heaven to stop a desperately frustrated businessman from committing suicide by showing him what life would have been like if he had never existed.
JINGLE ALL THE WAY: A father vows to get his son a Turbo Man action figure for Christmas. However, every store is sold out, and he must travel all over town and compete with a horde of other parents in order to find one.
VELOCIPASTOR: After losing his parents, a priest travels to China, where he inherits a mysterious ability that allows him to turn into a dinosaur. At first horrified by this new power, a hooker convinces him to use it to fight crime. And ninjas.
OK, that last one definitely isn't top-tier cinema, but it still fits the exercise I'm going for. Now put on your thinking caps and find the commonality?
They're not the same genre (each is intentionally different) ... Only two of them are holiday themed ... And it's not that all of these movies are wildly successful (that's why I threw in the last two) ...
No, the answer is that each of these short descriptions has loads and loads of conflict. There's tension abound. So much that it jumps off the page and immediately tells you what the story is.
Which leads me to ask: if these loglines have so much conflict in them ... if this aspect of the process is what links all of these films together ... why do the vast majority of scripts that I read these days lack this crucial element??
Full disclosure peeps—my mother had open-heart surgery a few weeks ago (she's fine, thanks for asking). But while waiting in the ICU with her for days on end, I had ample time to do some contest judging for Script Pipeline. And it became quickly infuriating to see that so many screenplays I was given lacked any sort of a story engine.
Make no mistake, narratives are very much like a car. They need to be constructed in a specific way in order for them to go anywhere. And if a vehicle requires gasoline (or electricity if you're a Tesla snob) in order to run, then your story needs conflict, tension, and drama in order to take off.
So, when I say, "this script lacks a story engine," what I mean is "this story doesn't have a mechanism in it to create drama and push the plot forward." Nothing is amplifying the tension. Nothing is keeping my interest or engaging me. And that's the LAST thing any writer wants to hear when it comes to their story.
In fact, let's do another fun exercise and look back at the films I just listed and identify their story engines:
TITANIC: Jack and Rose must escape a sinking ship in the middle of the ocean. The result, if they can't, is certain death.
STAR WARS: A NEW HOPE: Luke must master the force and destroy the Death Star in order to save the galaxy from totalitarian rule.
THE DARK KNIGHT: Batman must stop the Joker or else innocent lives will be lost.
IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE: A good man is going to kill himself unless an angel can convince him otherwise.
JINGLE ALL THE WAY: An absentee father has to get this toy for his kid or else suffer the worst thing of all: your son's disappointment.
VELOCIPASTOR: Ummm ... I actually haven't seen this film. I guess it's about a dinosaur stopping ninjas from taking over the world? That seems pretty dire ... right?
You know what? Forget that last one. The point is—ALL great movies have some sort of story engine. I would challenge you to name a single one that doesn't.
And yet, a story with a lack of conflict remains the most common note I give. And it happens on a consistent basis. Far too many young writers don't emphasize this element enough when crafting their stories.
In my experience, it usually boils down to one of the following mistakes:
A) They create passive protagonists who lack any sort of tangible goal. Meaning that the story never gets started because the hero doesn't strive for anything.
B) They have a leading character who wants something but obtains his/her goal very easily (like, within five or ten pages). Meaning that the rest of the script is dull as hell because the character didn't struggle enough to accomplish his/her mission.
or C) The screenplay has conflict in it, but the writer "slow plays" all the drama until the third act. Which is technical speak for "there's no conflict until the last twenty pages," leaving the reader bored out of their mind until they get there. But often, they've fallen asleep in their chair wayyyyy before then.
Make no mistake about it, all of these are bad things. A reader needs to be entertained by a story from start to finish in order to push it up the incredibly steep hill that is the Hollywood development process these days. Assistants, executives, producers, and interns aren't going to be recommending a script that doesn't entertain them.
Point blank. No argument.
So, how can you avoid this? What are some ways you can make sure your script isn't boring and gets people all the way through?
I'm so glad you asked, because I just so happen to have a list of tips and tricks handy that I'm willing to share:
1) MAKE SURE YOUR PROTAGONIST HAS A GOAL
This is so freaking basic but so freaking important!
A character who doesn't want anything is a character I don't want to read (or watch, for that matter). Everybody wants something. Whether it's Andy Dufrense (The Shawshank Redemption) wanting to build a chess set out of rocks, or John McClane (Die Hard) wanting to save his wife from a bunch of terrorists, the lead of your story has to want something. And ...
2) PUT OBSTACLES IN YOUR HERO'S PATH TO WHAT THEY WANT
Because if you achieve something easily ... is it really that meaningful?
No, I'm serious. Think about this critically for a second.
You're at your place of work, doing your thing, and the job is SUPER easy. Like, you can do it in your sleep easy. A trained monkey could do it. Your boss offers you a promotion. Do you really care? Forget the extra money and title bump for a second. Just analyze the basics ... does this accomplishment inspire you?
Versus: You are kicking ass at your job, and a higher-level position becomes open. You work late hours, do extra projects, and compete against a dozen others in order to prove your worth to your employer. Then, after months of extra sweat and labor, your boss calls you into his office and says you got the job. Aren't you gonna be SO FREAKING SATISFIED with yourself now that you've done this huge thing?
I would think so, because I basically just wrote the entire plot to The Pursuit of Happyness out for y'all. If a story has a character who wants something, and then they get it in five pages, the reader is not going to infer a lot of meaning from this feat. Because there wasn't enough struggle in order to achieve it.
Block your characters from getting what they want. And also ...
3) SPREAD YOUR CONFLICT OUT ACROSS THE WHOLE SCRIPT
Because a story with no conflict in the first two acts, and tons of it in the third, is just as boring as a script with no conflict at all. Why?
Because the reader is almost assuredly going to put the damn thing down before they get there!!
Imagine Jurassic Park if the dinosaurs hadn't gotten out until minute 90. Or The Princess Bride if Prince Humperdink had ordered Buttercup to marry him at the very end. These tales only work because they hook the audience early and keep them there. Don't be one of those writers who tells me: "Don't worry Spike, the conflict is coming! I'm saving it for later."
That's like saying "Don't worry, fam! I see that the car is low on gas! But I'll fill it up later!"
If this car runs out of gas, good luck getting it running again. Story engines sadly just don't work that way.
Godspeed y'all, and happy writing.
*Feature image by Cristina Bernazzani (Adobe)