“If it isn’t for the writing, we’ve got nothing. Writers are the most important people in Hollywood. And we must never let them know it.” — Irving Thalberg
Here is an experiment for you.
Pull up any feature film on your computer and read the log line. For those who are new to the craft of screenwriting, the log line is a brief description of what the movie is about. For example, the log line for the film Rocky might read something like this: A down-on-his-luck boxer from Philadelphia, Rocky Balboa, gets a shot at love and redemption when he is offered the opportunity to fight for the heavyweight championship of the world.
The log line usually is about 25 words. No matter what film you chose to examine, you will find at least one of the five pillars of cinematic conflict:
- Problem of conscience.
- It’s not fair.
- Facing the mountain.
- Stand and deliver
- Life or death.
Identifying the core of the character’s struggle is essential before you begin to write a cinematic narrative. Most character-driven films have heroes who must endure and then overcome. Other films include more than one of these conflicts. But you will find that films that are considered classics will have characters that must endure all five levels of cinematic conflict. Consider the example of Rocky.
- Problem of conscience: At the end of act two, on the night before the big fight, having visited the empty, cavernous arena, Rocky comes to grips with the reality that he will not be able to beat Apollo Creed. He shares this with Adrian. “Who am I kidding?” he says. His conscience has been awakened by the gravity of his situation. This cinematic beat is used to change the direction of the story when Rocky repurposes his goal from winning to simply surviving.
- It’s not fair: Near the end of act one, Rocky watches himself on TV with Paulie and Adrian. The message of the scene? He is being used by Apollo’s camp as a publicity stunt, as if he were the punch line of a joke. Certainly, this is not fair.
- Facing the mountain: Rocky must do the impossible, and his character tells the audience exactly what this means in his moments with Adrian before the fight: “No one has ever gone the distance with Creed. If that bell rings, and I am still standing, I’ll know for the first time in my life that I am not a bum.”
- Stand and deliver: The montage sequences of Rocky’s training regimen and the fight itself visually communicate Rocky’s need to stand and deliver, pushing himself beyond all previous limits, out of necessity, to survive.
- Life or death: The bloody battle in the ring with Apollo Creed is indeed a fight for Rocky’s life. After knocking his opponent down in the first round, Rocky has awakened the sleeping giant, who is now embarrassed and hell-bent on total destruction. From that point on, Rocky is fighting for his life.
By examining Rocky and other iconic films such as The Wizard of Oz, Silence of the Lambs and, more recently, Michael Clayton, you will find examples of where the action is driven by a lead character whose dramatic need requires him or her to overcome all five types of cinematic conflicts to achieve a goal.
When composing your own character-driven story, identify at least one of the five pillars of cinematic conflict that will support the structure of your screenplay. Its presence should be visible in the log line of your story and will energize your effort to tell the story successfully, effectively and visually.
Peter J. Fox is the founder of The Inside Track Workshops for Story and Cinematic Structure. He has worked at Paramount, Universal, MGM and SonyTriStar Pictures. He writes for several publications and holds a M.F.A. in screenwriting from The American Film Institute.