Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Tuesday Talkback: How soon should inner conflict be introduced?

So as I was going through my inbox looking for interesting questions that I've neglected over the last few months, I came across this email.  For whatever reason, I've got a bit of a mental block on this question because any time I've tried to answer it, my brain just goes blank.  I really hate that I've left this guy on the hook for a while, so I've decided that I'm just going to crowdsource the answer.

This is from Glenn:

I have a question for you regarding the introduction of the protagonist's inner conflict. It has been brought to my attention that my current comedy script needs to have it flushed out better and introduced sooner in the story.

Is there a standard how early inner conflict should be revealed in a story such as the first act? The protagonist in my current script wrestles with choosing what is more important in his life; material wealth and status in his town verses placing a greater importance on the well-being of his family members. I'm trying to avoid wedging inner conflict into this story before the reader/audience would understand why this conflict is an issue in his world.

I believe I've watched good movies that didn't bring out inner conflict until the second half of a story. Conversely, some movies feel they have to smack you over the head several times to make sure everyone knows what it is.

Any information you can share with me will be greatly appreciated.

So what say you?  My gut reaction is that it's helpful to reveal inner conflict early on (just as one example, Marty's lack of self-confidence, as revealed within the first fifteen minutes of Back to the Future), but it's not essential. 

I think in most cases you're going to see that inner conflict established well before the turning point into Act Two, but can anyone come up with exceptions along the lines of what Glenn is asking for?


  1. Really, the inner conflict should run parallel and be related to the outer conflict. If you want to get all "Save The Cat" with it (which I'm going to because I think it's an excellent template for comedies), you've got about 12 pages to set up your character and the status quo. Around page 12, something happens that serves as the catalyst for the journey your character is going to take in the script. The real key here, though, is the section between that catalyst around page 12, and the break into Act II around page 25. Snyder calls it "Debate." Things are starting to change, or the ingredients for change are there, but it isn't happening quite yet. This is where you have an opportunity to take that status quo you've established and bring your character's inner conflict out into the open. They're resisting for some reason -- they're reluctant, they have other obligations, they're scared. I'm being vague, of course, but the point is that by the time to get to page 25, the tug of your film's conflict yanks your main character from his inner conflict and into the meat of your story. It doesn't mean he's not still conflicted -- on the contrary. But once you're in Act II, those reservations are more or less on the table. That's what your script is all about.

  2. I think Nick has it right on the nose. Second half of Act One is usually always where we end up seeing the internal conflict laid out...

    As to Glenn's worry about too much information too soon, there are a lot of ways to introduce internal conflict without the audience knowing that's what's been introduced. It's that great screenwriting adage about having a scene perform multiple puposes. Introduce the internal conflict in a way where we think the scene is something else: a comedy set-piece for example.

  3. I think it also depends on the genre. In a thriller or anti-hero or crime story, sometimes it seems like the film starts with an event that becomes the inner conflict (I thought of Pitch Black. It's sci-fi, but the opening scene produces the primary inner conflict for the heroine).

    Other times, in non-linear timelines, sometimes we see an event early on that doesn't make sense until later, but fuels the inner conflict.

    This is probably less common in comedy and action.

  4. I think "when should it be introduced" is sort of the wrong line of thinking. I think inner conflict should almost be part of the characters's DNA. It's there from pretty much the start, bubbling under the surface, making our hero unhappy with the current state of things.

    I also like Scott's idea about using a set piece to bring it out. Maybe thinking about how the internal conflict affects external events is a helpful way to go.

  5. Yeah, what Amanda said. A character's "inner conflict" should come out of his personality, psychology, and general worldview. Maybe there isn't a conflict at the beginning, but the seeds of the conflict are always there. For example; your character tends to value material wealth and status and doesn't give much thought to how it effects those around him ... until it comes up against the well-being of a loved one. So the actual conflict can come late in the story, but the character traits that MAKE it a conflict should be made clear well before then.

  6. Dittoing Amanda and others.

    I found it interesting that Glenn has characterised "inner conflict" in quite narrow terms ie. should I value A or B more highly? That reads almost like the protagonist is conscious of a choice to be made.

    However, plenty of characters never grapple with choice; rather, their worldview is problematic right out of the blocks, and the story that happens to them is what tests it, breaks it, remakes it.

    "Story" is the chronicle of a sustained assault on the protagonist's initial values. So, for me, we need to understand their inner brokenness fast, or the story is assaulting nothing.

    In GROUNDHOG DAY, one way of thinking about the story might be: "what obstacles could we throw at a narcissistic, ambitious and embittered weatherman who is determined he is not the problem"? How could we batter that worldview until he's forced to abandon it? Eventually the stuff that happens to Phil grinds down his cynicism, burns away his selfishness and shows him a better way. And in G.Day giving us insight into Phil's corrosive inner life is the job of the very first scene.

    What makes Phil such an awesome protagonist is how fiercely he resists the story that's trying to happen to him. He expertly (and charmingly) fends off the pressure to abandon his worldview. So the pressure has to double, triple...

    I'm meandering now. Sorry.