FRIDAY'S SCRIPT TIP:
ONE STORY - ONE CONFLICT
To keep your script focused, you need to
chose ONE external conflict. Your subplots will part of that
conflict... like splinter beams from a prism. Each beam
illustrates a different aspect of the main conflict or shows a
different step in the solution of the main conflict. Dealing with
each subplot moves your protagonist closer to the solution of the
Though you can't have too much conflict, you can have too many
conflicts... that's what leads to "Sub-plot-itis" - a script with
lots of subplots, but no clear main plot.
Those ancient Greeks knew this was a problem 2,400 years ago when
they came up with those Three Unities, one of which is Unitity Of Action/Event.
The "too many conflicts thing" isn't some Hollywood invention, it is a basic tenant
of dramatic writing... so you'd think everyone would know about it by now.
STREET KINGS is the first original screenplay by best selling novelist James Ellroy, and has
an all star cast, headed up be
Keanu Reeves as a cop very similar to Russell Croweís character in LA CONFIDENTIAL with Forest
Whitaker as his boss, similar to James Cromwell. Oh, and Chris Evans is kind of like Guy Pearce.
But STREET KINGS didn't burn up the box office when it was released and I wouldn't make any
office pool bets on it winning any Oscars. The film is just too confusing. Too many plots, too
many subplots, too many conflicts.
Keanu is a cop who knows how to plant evidence against bad guys who are smart enough not
to leave any evidence, and isnít above killing a whole bunch of bad guys who *would have* killed
him, had they been armed. Itís a good role for Keanu, because he can seem vacuous and it works -
heís like a big dumb attack dog... but he uses those puppy dog eyes of his to show that he may not
be completely at ease with killing people, even if they do deserve it. Add to that the minis of
vodka he chugs every few minutes and that dead wife in his past and you have a cliche cop on the
edge. I always joke that Keanu is the luckiest man in Hollywood - he stars in all kinds of hit
films and even some great ones like RIVERíS EDGE and MY OWN PRIVATE IDAHO... but heís really just
like any other star - he has a type of character that he plays really well, and crashes and burns
in roles that arenít in his comfort zone. So he does a great job here - as do all of the others -
including Jay Mohr as the straight-arrow cop who keeps confronting Keanu.
I am a fan of James Ellroy, Iíve read most of his books and have
a stack of autographed books - which required that I stand in line at some book store for hours.
But Ellroy is an acquired taste - his stories are convoluted, scatter-shot, unfocused, dense,
all-over-the-place, and frequently seem like heís making them up as he goes along. Having met
the guy and had a few brief conversations with him when he was signing books, he seems as if he
may have ADD or something - heís got a ton of energy, heís smart as hell, and he just kind of
erupts like a volcano. His books are kind of the same - and every time someone tries to adapt
one for the screen, they usually fail miserably. The exception being LA CONFIDENTIAL, which
STREET KINGSí story liberally steals from. Ellroy is one of those writers that you love, warts
and all. And Ellroy fans are *rabid* fans - weíre kind of a cult. So when James Ellroy writes his
first original screenplay, someone is going to buy it and make it, even if the story doesnít make
much sense. And every star in Hollywood who is a fan of Ellroyís will be standing in line to play
Story has Keanuís ex-partner, whom he hates, murdered moments before Keanu was going to beat him up.
Keanu is left at the crime scene with the guy he has publically said he wants to kill... dead.
When evidence pops up that his ex-partner might have been dirty, Keanu is told by his boss,
Whitaker, to just let it go. But Internal Affairs guy Hugh Laurie thinks Keanu might have killed
his partner, so to clear his name he has to find the killer... which exposes all kinds of police
corruption and all kinds of twisted plots and all kinds of side tracks and subplots and story
threads that seem almost random, and eventually gets us to the real killer... and if youíve seen
LA CONFIDENTIAL, you know who that is.
Problem is, with so much going on there isnít much time for anything - and we get sketches and
cliches as far as characters are concerned. And weíre never really let inside Keanuís character -
we are kept at a distance. The story is pretty much third person - observing the characters instead
of allowing us to understand them. The film ends up being cold and emotional... and has no
*moments* - even the big end scene where Keanu finally catches up with the guy who killed his
partner... and itís just kind of flat. No emotions, basically a scene like any other scene.
Too many subplots, too many characters, too much happening means that *everything* gets less time.
Instead of *more conflicts* you want to dig deeper into *one* conflict. Focus on the conflict... and
make sure even your subplots are part of that one conflict.
This is just as true in comedies as gritty cop dramas. ANALYZE THAT has a dozen different conflicts fighting for our attention. Someone is
trying to kill Robert DeNiro in prison, so he begins singing showtunes from WEST SIDE STORY in
order to be released into the care of his psychiatrist Billy Crystal. Is the film about DeNiro trying to find
out who is trying to kill him? Well, that's one of the plots. Some other plots include DeNiro and Crystal
living together in a strange version of THE ODD COUPLE, DeNiro trying to find a legit job that
matches his skills set, the death of Billy Crystal's father - the funeral and the grieving process, a ruthless
Godmother played by Cathy Moriarity who is trying to take over the family, the relationship between
Moriarity and her HIMbo assistant, we also have the other mob bosses who have relationships with
DeNiro and all of the mob politics that come from that, a SOPRANOS-like TV
show with an egotistical star played by Anthony LaPaglia and a hysterical director who seems to
always say the exact wrong thing, an armored car heist that DeNiro becomes involved with, Crystal
and his nagging wife, that strange WEST SIDE STORY thing, and others too numerous to mention.
The problem is, many of these conflicts don't seem to be connected to the story in any way. The
SOPRANOS plot seems tacked on to create
a few laughs... but so little time is spent on the rivalry between the fake mob boss and the real mob boss
that no actual humor is generated. Instead we get a quick scene where LaPaglia imitates DeNiro - that
isn't really funny. You could make a whole movie about a real mob boss who becomes the advisor to a
TV series about the mob... and by focusing on that conflict there would be more humor. You could
have done a whole film about a ruthless Godmother - a role reversal comedy where the bimbos are
HIMbos. That would have been funny. But when you have all of these conflicts fighting EACH
OTHER, they all lose! We have so many little plots that we have no time to focus on any one plot - and
no time to really mine the humor. Instead of deep belly laughs from one story, we get surface gags from
a dozen stories. Too many conflicts spoil the comedy!
To keep your script moving you need a strong external conflict
- an obstacle that comes between the protagonist and their goal.
That may sound obvious, but most of us probably take conflict for
granted. We know our scripts need it, and we just assume that our
ideas have it. Big mistake. The source of most script problems
is a weak conflict or an unfocused conflict... or no conflict at
all! Without conflict there is no plot, no way to expose
character, no drama or comedy. If your story doesn't have a
problem, your whole script has a problem!
The conflict needs to be part of your concept. Built in rather
than built on. You can't go back and add it later. If you tack on
a conflict, it's going to look tacked on. Your script will end up
contrived and manipulative and you will be struggling to keep
things exciting. You characters are the ones who are supposed to
Your Screenplay Checklist:
1) What is your story's *external* (plot) conflict?
2) What is your protagonist's *emotional* conflict?
3) How can we see your protagonist *battling* the external conflict?
4) How are the *emotional* conflict and *external* conflict connected?
5) How do you dramatize the protagonist's *struggle* with the emotional conflict?