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Screenwriting: The Art of the First Draft

Lesson 12 of 18

Step 6: How to Generate Conflict

Hal Ackerman

Screenwriting: The Art of the First Draft

Hal Ackerman

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Lesson Info

12. Step 6: How to Generate Conflict

Lesson Info

Step 6: How to Generate Conflict

So all the stuff that we just talked about about structure, all that stuff is absolutely necessary to make you guys be a really good writer, what we're going to talk about now for this in this next step, which is going to be about seen writing, I like to think about what we just talked about as faras structure as the big picture and about seen writing as what I call the small picture, and I think that the most important thing that I have to give is what is gonna happen now? Uh, this is stuff that is going to take it from being a good, even a very competent writer to becoming a writer, that it has the possibility of greatest and where love movie producers loved to say, I like to see, you know, I don't know what I'm looking for, but I'll know when I see it and I want the scenes to jump off the page and this what we're going to be talking about now here in step six is what is going to do that is going to make your sean's jump off the page, so let us begin. When we talked about using seen ...

cards, I kept using the metaphor of the brick because scenes are brick. Like and that they have substance they have palpable ity they have force one of the brick falls on your head, it will hurt eso it has has stuff about it and a movie audience on lee can get what they see and what they hear. We have to understand that so scenes that we write have to be visual have to give to the audience what they can get it's not enough for us to be in a state of knowing this about who her character is about what makes a character even about even being able to write again gorgeous and articulate character description what we have to do is not just you know, we're taught don't tell show we haven't even go beyond that we have to not just show but the dramatize and to dramatize we have to create movement and action and event inside of a scene when we and when I asked you to do the the snowplow and then the scene cards when I asked you to do is to find events, things that happened, what we're what we're going to do now here in step six is turned those events into scenes that just click okay, so the first thing we want to do is talk about the my definition, my vocabulary for the components of every scene and I like to think of their being three components in every scene that we write one of them is circumstance what the circumstance of a scene is, uh is composed of several different elements circumstance could be where the scene takes place, it will include who is in the scene if it is not the opening scene of a movie, it will include the events that immediately preceded that scene, but I like to call the emotional current that leads into that scene what just happened so on dh also, whatever has happened most recently what I like to call the emotional flow that is going into that scene so those that's the circumstance of the scene, the next important component is what I call the writer's objective the right is objective is the thing that you probably most understand it is probably the thing that is the title of all of the scene cards that you wrote, it is the narrative event that, you know, must and will happen in that scene those come almost almost given um and I would say that ninety percent of scenes that don't quite make it that aren't that don't jump off the page are scenes that focus on those two components alone? The most important, the absolute most important component of the scenes that you write is what I like to call the character objective, all right, you seem like, you know, sort of cliches, moments of, you know, cem actor coming on say what's my motivation what melodramatic but however melodramatic that might be and that is it has some truth behind it because if an actor and actress in a scene does not know what his or her motivation is then there is no possible way that that actor can actually play that scene without making a whole bunch of stuff up that has absolutely nothing to do with the scene you know, delving into their own melo dramatic uh michigan says we say in french so what our job is to do is to buy for kate our writers objective into the opposing objectives of two characters are livia elaborate that a little bit first of all the work by for game thank you it means to break into two hasn't by as in for kate um buy a fur coat for so I'm going to give you an example of ah great way that that happens when you use a movie that I think you might most people very many people the uh converse with movie fargo you know pretty well somewhat all right, I'll tell you what happens in the movie fargo uh it opens in a bar the guy played by william macy comes into that bar and he looks around and he sees a couple of tough looking guys at a table with a bunch of beer empty beer bottles on there on there a table and he comes over the many introduces himself and their irked at him because he's there late and he tries to explain that somebody said no he's supposed to be there at eight thirty but it's seven thirty eight thirty there's a whole mix up at the time and he's late and then they get into what why the real reason he's there and he is there to give them a car um burnt umber ciera and uh with the understanding that they are going to kidnap his wife and isn't no no n it's not the car just now it's the car and fifty thousand dollars and he's saying no no no it's you know it's not the money invented the money you know it's twenty five thousand dollars so they have this pardon me this argument about whether the money is supposed to be given to them up front or afterwards each of them in that scene has a very specific what I would call a character objective one group has one guy played by ah ah great actor whose name I can never remember um one guy his objective is to get the money now the protagonists in the story his objective is to get the deal going and the money later alright to absolutely opposing objectives money now money later right through the interaction of those objectives the writer's objective which is to give information about the story gets played out so a writer's objective or to give you a definition of it they're going to give you some more examples of how it works he's a very important that you understand because it's very specific about what the components are that make up a writer's objective the writers objective must be urgent it must be specific it must be immediate urgent the most important thing to a character in the moment must be specific it can't be to find true love can't do that right now can't point my camera at true love if there's somebody walking away and I really want to get to meet that person to talk to that person to get the person's phone number to give that person back the person that she dropped yes that's that's a specific objective talk to that person to get a phone number if this room suddenly is burning, our immediate objective is to get the hell out of his room okay, so urgent specific and immediate must be right now when we talked about we talked about rocky a little while ago said his his long range objective was not to be a loser but his specific objective in that moment and that scene was to go the distance with the champ so it's very important that we understand in our minds the difference between a long range objective and an immediate character objective okay, so our job is to buy for kate, our writers objective into the and this is this is the next very important understanding about the architecture of a scene. It is not. It is not enough for one character for the protagonist and seem tohave a character objective. It is absolutely crucial that both characters in the scene have objectives and that both objectives must be in opposition to each other. If one carrier is objective to where a blue sweater and the other characters objective is to buy cat food, those air two objectives but there's no opposition to them nothing. Nothing about them says one can't happen if the other does so, um, this little diagram, this diagram that you have on your page here, the top diagram gives you just this kind of kind of a schematic on the top of says writers objective. And then it has it shows two arrows that are pointing at each other, and that shows that that the character objectives are in opposition to each other. Ok, now, in the second box, right underneath that you see, uh, public kind of twisty lines next to each other or that that are wound around each other that represents two braided strands of dna that go into every scene. We I want you to think about these two braided strands. One being one representing the event, the thing that's happening and the other e one e too, so scientific, uh, representing the emotion in a scene. So just like we talked about way earlier when we were talking about the surveillance videos and he said it wasn't good enough for just something to be happening, but there had to be something happening that had emotion attached to it. That made us feel something about whether the character did or did not accomplish that objective, and that becomes very important here when we start constructing our scenes because we don't want just something to happen, but we want an audience to feel something about what is happening, to feel something themselves and feel something about what is happening to the characters. When we talked about that opening scene in the godfather, when borna sara comes in, you know, and tells that terrible tale about what happens to his daughter, he tells a great story, just like all of us when we tell the story and that story had a purpose, the purpose of that story, which was his character objective, was to make the godfather feel for him so that he would say yes to him for what he's asking right that's that's? Why he told that awful tale about what happened to his daughter, uh, now the godfather it turns out that he says no, but he hasn't just say no just to be a jerk he doesn't say no just to teo to thwart what this guy wants he wants something too and if you remember that scene, what he says was you know you you all your you know, all these years you've never once come to me my wife is godmother to your godmother theodore, you never think to invite us for dinner for you know and that you know, you try to be a good american, you go to the police but never do you come to me for respect never do never once do you think to call me godfather so he wants something to both characters want something and what they want is in opposition to each other and finally he says to the guy, I can't do what you ask because these people did not commit murder you are asking me to commit murder, but they didn't do it there's that any quiet when we talked before about the equal equality about, you know, ordeal and reward well, what he's basically saying to buenos aires you have not suffered enough of an ordeal to get the reward that you are asking for what he does do ultimately is have a couple people go and mess those guys up because that's what they did to his daughter but in that scene we feel something about both car, not just one character what about both characters? We feel the humiliation that border sarah's felt that the loss of the one thing that's most important his daughter's beauty we feel the humiliation that he felt when he goes to the police does the right thing that takes them to court on the case is dismissed and the boys get a suspended sentence and they laugh at him well, none of us necessarily have tohave gone to court for a case like that to have felt humiliation to a fellow frustration of the system denying us what we deserve all of us I know have felt that if you try to get a parking permit someplace you know, try to deal with the gas company you know or you know or any faceless, you know, corporate entity you have felt how it feels to be dehumanized so we can feel when pornos sara felt in that scene and still despite all of that, he doesn't get what he wants because the scene and the story is not about him it is it is meant to define who don corleone is and you know, if it was just somebody asking for something trivial, that wouldn't be much of a dilemma, but what we want to do in our scenes is to make choices difficult brought characters were certainly seemingly difficult now I hate to bring up a very sensitive topic in san francisco, but there is this thing called earthquakes. We've had a couple of small ones in los angeles of late. And what generates earthquakes, you know, is two tectonic plates that are pushing up against each other so hard that something has to give. All right, write it generates all this car. Okay. I told you I was a full service professor. Tell you stuff. All right. Uh, in seen writing, I want you to think about those internal forces grinding against each other in the same way that tectonic plates grind against each other, both of them pushing as hard as they possibly can, but in opposite directions. And when in plate tectonics the release of the energy is called an earthquake in seen writing the release of that energy is called altogether conflict. Thank you. Altogether way. Go now we'll have been told in our lives that every scene you know, that seems the stories that we have to have conflict now through this you understand how it is done. How conflict becomes generated comes from taking our writers objective bye for kating it into two opposing objectives of a character remembering that an objective is something a character once and must have right now. Right now that guy when he comes, they must have that thing done for him now when when in fargo when he comes into that bar he needs that kidnapping scheme to be done right now and they need the money right now so there are opposing objectives against each other okay, so we have object we have those objectives taking place inside of a scene that a few moments ago I think I described the scene has circumstances to it those circumstance of those scenes in the bar scene the circumstance is well physically it's a bar but the other part of the circumstances ah guy needs something he's coming there for a purpose so what? Wherever your characters are, whatever circumstance, whatever positions, whatever logistics into which you place your characters it has to be for a reason it can't just be caught it can't mean can't be only because you think it's cool or you think it is important they must be there for a reason so that when your character when your actresses what's my motivation, you had better have written that motivation into your seat you had better put those characters into where they are for a purpose. When rocky and his opponents are in that ring at the beginning of that story they both have a perfect the circumstances very clear they are two heavyweight fighters they had to beat the crap out of each other that is what they want and that is what they're there to do so when when boris air comes into the the the study don't study he has a reason for being there now something else comes out of that scene which we learn is that on a on a donna's wedding day the father brandt any wish that has offered we didn't know that before but how interesting how interesting to discover so one of the things that is very, very urgently important because when we talked about exposition before we talk about this sort of once upon a time stuff way talk that an exposition is one scene where it seems as though the most important thing would be about the writer's objective which is to get all that information across to tell to tell the audience what is going on but if we do it I don't know if any of you ever seen the movie two thousand ten now I hate to bad mouth of film because it's justice hearts and make a bad movie is a good movie but in the movie two thousand ten there is exposition that goes on for three apostle before and a half hours but it's no I'm sorry but it is see screen after screen of typed words coming out and it just it rehashes everything that happened in the movie two thousand one and a bunch of stuff that's going on I mean it's I don't understand it I don't understand it, but it goes on really truly for about five or ten minutes just words coming out and you know, a way to look at it is that it is pure just the writer's objective and it becomes almost kind of laughable and there's a scene that follows where this is this argument that happens between two people and roy scheider and this russian guy and it's it's all false there's nothing that has the slightest bit of reality about it. It is all people yelling back and forth for no particular reason except that the writer has ordained it to be true but it is seen like got the godfather in a scene like fargo in a scene like rocky, those scenes are are our organic because what the characters want in that scene is urgent, specific and immediate. And one of the great things is that when it is a writer's of jeff active to give information as it must be in an exposition scene here is here is an axiom for you that you should write down all of you right now that exposition should be a byproduct of conflict and if you were anybody took chemistry if you write an arrow like that, that that means byproduct exposition should be a byproduct of conflict, so the best, most interesting way to propagate information is to do it through conflict conflict it's generated how by having characters that have opposing objectives that are most important in a I use a a a term that I call why do g and what that term means is that it's made up of three words here's another word for your portmanteau word somebody here french portmanteau right ok so a portmanteau word is two words that I put together like count in southern california smog is a portmanteau word from smoke and fog what duty comes from three words which is one to do and get so what is the character want for the w ay what is the character do for the dio and where the characters get maybe should be a one what do j yeah okay uh but it's three important words what does the character want and what is the character do in order to get it and all are important than all go all the way back to when we talked about you know we made those circles on the board about about he was crossing out theme and putting it and substituting desire for the big picture well what is true about the big picture is equally true in the small picture every scene has to be about what a character's intense desire is in that moment so I want you to always be thinking about that notion about the one dukie what does the character want and it has to be what is a character do to get it not what is the character think about to get it now, where the character dreams about to get it because we don't have access to our characters thinking about or dreaming about what we do, what a movie does best is create action in space and time. What is the character doing to get it? You know, we might say in a narrative description about a character, somebody is a sleazy sneak thief. Well on dh, you know, we might just see the character sitting at a table, and we don't know that he's thinking about doing anything, but if we see that same character walk past the newsstand that it's run by a blind person and, you know and grab, you know, fifty out of his change purse, well, then we know what that character is we've seen him do. The thing that defines, really is and then if that if that you know that if that blind guy has another sense and knows that that happened and yells, we're getting are now we have conflict, that scene because someone's trying to get away with money, someone's trying to stop him from getting away with money and and now what will each character do in order to accomplish the objective does the thief jump on a bike? Does the other guy call a cop does he run around in circles kind of blind guy drive you know what you know how far is each character there's the blank I really take his glasses off now so so what does a character how far does a character go? Another kind of crazy sort of weird word that I use besides what duty is word wham o uh yes, I know where did you learn in school today, daddy? Uh so um well it's also made up of uh I don't think we have a slide for it because I just thought of it but but but it comes from three words also which is what matters most what matters most what matters most to a character in the moment and you need to be thinking about that all the time sometimes with home and class at u c l a we're we're workshopping scene and say well, you know what? Why did you write that scene and write ups that say, well, I wanted and sometimes if I know that people well enough bang on the tables and know you're trying to scare them a little bit because because the if the answer to any question about why scenes there is because the writer wanted it that's the wrong reason there is one reason and one reason only for every single scene every single one of you ever writes one reason for it and that is are you ready that is to set up a circumstance where two characters are trapped in a moment trying to trying as hard as they possibly can to get what they want in that moment and that is the way in which the writer's objective which starts on the top becomes accomplished too often the writers like in that scene I gave you about two thousand ten if you think about an arrow coming from writers objective and circumvent and going all the way like outside of that box and circumvent the kid coming around that is a scene going wrong that is a scene where the writer accomplishes his or her objective without using the characters at all and when that happens the scene just does not cook it just has no it doesn't do anything through your character it is just the writer pushing somethingto happen and audience will feel that they may not recognise a man and say hey that was all that was all right as objective they won't get that but what they will do is say why why did I happen to have that why what you just just will feel limpet will feel lame so you're what what what you as writers want to think about all the time is what is the character want how can you devise a scene where is where in the character is the person is the thing it is the characters desire and drive that is pushing the scene forward. Any questions about that? Yeah, in that instance to avoid um doing it your way with the speed or the the plowing that is the thing that's exercise that would help that okay that's a good question the snowplow nothing we were talking about it that would be what is going to actually be the writer's objective in the scene? Okay, I know where you are coming up with um let's look at one of those scenes in juno for second. Okay? All right. Um in the scene when when she goes to the women now clinic alright, um very is a character one of her friends is out there picketing uneven su chin and she's saying she's trying to prevent juno from going inside ok, she has an objective was to stop you going in juno has an objective which is, you know she's she's embarrassed, right? They just want a friend to see what she's doing and she goes into some wacky stuff tryingto just tryingto defuse the moment but she wins. Juno is because soon shin cannot prevent her from going in now it's important that we understand very important we understand the way in which character objectives manifest themselves depend upon one of one of the things about circumstances depends upon who the characters are to each other in that crazy example about you know the thief riding, robbing something from a blind eye well they're nothing to each other and this guy you know so it's all very hostile right but let's let's imagine a different scene let's imagine a married couple they've been married for fifty years and they love each other and it's a wonderful close relationship and for the fiftieth anniversary of one of them knows that his guy knows that his wife has always wanted to see palermo because that's where they're from and arranges a trip and she knows that her husband has you know, always wanted to have a boat okay, so they have some money set aside and now becomes what are we going to do with that money? Okay, we're going to buy the boat. We're gonna go to palermo, okay? The way in which that quote argument that conflict would be played again played out would be very gentle be very different because you'd be two people who love each other trying to do something that they know the other person wants so the way that scene would play would be very different from a woman who's just caught her husband cheating with her best friend okay, so the circumstances who the people are to each other and what has precipitated the conflict are gonna be very different depending on who people are to each other even take the same person you know we are every single one of us has different relationships with many different people many different kinds of people in our own lives right we have so is may have children some as we have parents we have jobs way have a boss so the way in which you would maybe humbly ask your boss for a raise might be different from the way in which you would rail it somebody that just snuck in and took your parking space away from you you are the same person but the circumstance and the and the external circumstance would be very different so the way in which you respond you know you're a character would respond in reaction will be very very different very different in those two kinds of circumstances depending upon what has just happened depending upon who you are there with you know every every single one of us has many has many sides to us right you know if if if we ask ten people to describe you we asked your parents we ask the last guy you know the last relation had that you jilted the person we ask the baby sitter the parents of the child who you were supposed to baby sit for but we have to have a smoking and the kid burned everyone would describe you in a very different way metaphorical you sew, sew and part of what we do in in movies is put characters in different circumstances in different situations to get a full rounded, a picture of that character because we are all of us seen differently. So that is that is that that is the strength of using different circumstances. What we did in the snow plough to come back to your question is we set up a bunch of different circumstance. These are the events of a story. Now the our next step to making a scene out of that event is thinking to ourselves, okay, I, uh I want this event. I want michael to be the person that killed those people, okay, how do I make that happen? Okay, he volunteers to do it immediately immediately. What the more advanced you you become as writers as soon as you come up with an idea for a scene. The first thing you want to think about is not not how you can make it work, but how you can prevent it from happening, because why? Because that sets up immediate conflict.

Class Description

The most overwhelming, yet critical step for the screenwriter is the first draft. Staring at a blank sheet of paper can induce "writers block" faster than any other challenge facing a screenwriter. Screenwriting: The Art of the First Draft will equip you with a roadmap for tackling your initial draft and guide you to the next steps on the scriptwriting journey. 

In this class, Hal Ackerman will teach you how to jumpstart the writing process and complete a written first draft of your screenplay. You’ll learn how to:
  • Organize your ideas into scenes and acts
  • Approach character development and dialogue
  • Take next steps after the first draft is complete
Hal has been teaching screenwriting to students at UCLA since 1985. He has sold material to all the broadcast networks and authored well-known books on the art of screenplay writing and selling In this class, he’ll offer actionable insights on developing your concepts and turning your ideas into a compelling and complete script.

Screenwriting: The Art of the First Draft is your opportunity to learn how to conquer one of screenwriting’s greatest challenges and get your ideas developed and down on paper. 

Check out our complete collection of filmmaking classes here


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Hal Ackerman is the Man!!! Loved this course and will be watching it again. Mr. Ackerman is one of those people who truly wants to help you get better at your craft. He's encouraging yet realistic about what it takes to write a great screenplay. I highly recommend this interesting and helpful class.


After taking a number of other screenwriting courses, I can tell you that Hal Ackerman's course, The Art of the First Draft, is the BEST EVER!! His methodology of teaching is fantastic. He takes you on this journey from start to finish in a way that you WILL KNOW how to write a script by the time you finish this course. I liked how he used examples throughout his training to help you better understand screenwriting. If you really want to learn how to be a good screenwriter, then I would highly recommend taking Hal's course. You won't be disappointed.


I've read a lot of books on the subject and I've been to a few seminars. Hal Ackerman's class is genuinely one of the best and the most helpful classes I have experienced. What makes the class so great is that every concept has you putting pen to paper or fingers on keyboard right away. Ackerman really has tools that are called to be used. Thanks for the wonderful resource.