Screenwriting Advice From The Past: Crisis and Conflict

March 25th, 2012 by

If you are a screenwriter, you should know about Anita Loos. Loos was one of the most influential writers in the early stages of American cinema, associated with 136 film projects per IMDB.

Married to writer John Emerson, the pair wrote one of the first books on screenwriting in 1920: “How to Write Photoplays”. Here is some advice from the book [P. 11]:

Crisis and conflict are the great essentials of a dramatic story. Something must happen and happen speedily. There must be conflict between opposing elements — as Little Red Riding Hood and the wolf not necessarily physical conflict since quite as thrilling a plot would have been obtained had the wolf in the guise of a Wall Street magnate threatened Little Red Riding Hood and her grandmother with financial ruin. There must be crisis matters — must come to a head and not drag on in an eternity of suspense as in some two volume novels. There must be the big scene where matters are settled definitely once and for all. Either virtue triumphs in the happy ending or the hero meets his tragic Destiny. But the plot must have as definite an ending as it had a beginning.

This excerpt comes from Chapter III: Getting the Story Across and those of you who may have studied screenwriting, play-writing or novel-writing in an academic setting may very well recognize the emphasis on these two C’s: Crisis. Conflict. Apparently these concepts as an essential part of drama have been foundational to writing for a long time, as witnessed by this reference nearly a century ago.

Loos and Emerson zero in on one key to conflict: Opposing elements. The easiest and perhaps most universal version of this is represented by two character types: Protagonist and Antagonist [I prefer Nemesis]. If you give these characters one goal, you create immediate conflict.

But what of crisis? Loos and Emerson seem to focus their attention on what I call the Final Struggle, that Plotline point at the end of Act Three where the major issues at play in the story get resolved [“big scene where matters are settled definitely once and for all”]. But if you think about it, a good story will have the crisis dynamic present throughout, either rising up in iterations that point toward the Final Struggle or the ‘shadow’ of the Final Struggle looming over the characters in ways big and small.

In any event, Crisis and Conflict are excellent lenses through which to assess every act, every sequence, every scene to see if they are present. If they are, chances are you have some compelling narrative content at work. If they aren’t, you would be wise to rethink your approach.

Don’t force in a Crisis or slap on Conflict. That is the worst sort of top-down writing. Rather go into the story, specifically your characters, and find the dynamics within them that can naturally evolve into Conflict and Crisis.

Next week: More screenwriting advice from the past.

If you live in the U.S., you can read “How to Write Photoplays” via Google books online here.

One thought on “Screenwriting Advice From The Past: Crisis and Conflict

  1. Jack Durish says:

    I took a class in screenwriting many years ago but never pursued it. However, the instructor, an experienced and successful screenwriter, had one piece of advice I never forgot: “When conflict lags, interest sags.” I don’t know if he made it up or “borrowed” it, but if I remembered his name I would credit it to him.

Leave a Reply