Script Secrets Assignment: Character in Conflict

Rocky Balboa posterEvery scene in your script should have conflict… that way we can explore character. Screenwriting is dramatic writing. It’s about people with really big problems which will be solved through emotionally charged action or dialogue scenes. If Rocky was the #1 rated contender taking on the champ it’s not much of a movie. No conflict!

You can either have an ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances (think The Matrix) or an extraordinary man in ordinary circumstances (think Superman). If your character starts out as an extraordinary man (Men in Black) in extraordinary circumstances (all of them aliens) it’s a story about a guy doing what he normally does – and that’s kind of boring. No conflict, and we *need* conflict to explore character.

But just any conflict isn’t the right conflict. Having a character go into a 7-Eleven and get into an argument with the guy behind the counter is a hollow conflict. It’s like that Monty Python sketch about the guy who goes into the business which provide arguments – he tells the clerk he’s looking for an argument and the clerk replies, “No you’re not!” “Yes I am.” “No, you’re not!” “Yes, I am.” No, you’re not!” Then charges him for an argument. The conflict has to have emotional stakes for your protagonist, which means it has to reflect the theme and emotional conflict the protagonist has to deal with. The conflict comes from the character.

One of the surprises a couple of holiday seasons ago was Rocky Balboa, aka Rocky 6: When I’m 64. I have to be honest with you – it wasn’t on the top of my “have to see” list, but when everything on the list started half an hour ago and the only film left was Rocky Balboa, I paid my $10 with very low expectations. Let’s face it, Stallone might have been a big star in the 1980s, but now he’s a has-been. Kind of sad. Lately his films have been either unreleasable flops (I See You – which sat on a shelf for years and went through a bunch of title changes… it was made under the title Detox) or complete crap (the remake of Get Carter and Driven) or films that went direct to the bargain bin at the video store (that Angelo movie). Add to that: he’s old enough to collect his full pop of Social Security… yet still insists on taking off his shirt in movies. He’s a pathetic guy who was once famous who is living in the past – and this new Rocky movie is a good example of that.

But Stallone (who wrote, directed, stars in, and probably catered the Rocky Balboa film, too), anticipates all of this and beats you to the punch. When we first see Rocky, he’s even more pathetic than Stallone – more pathetic than you could imagine! He’s *old*! Stallone looks good for his age, Rocky looks like crap. He looks like he’s over 60 – and had a very hard life. It’s almost shocking to see how old he looks. Then, he’s a complete has-been, living in the past. Like Jake LaMotta at the end of Raging Bull (from the same producers as the original Rocky) he has a restaurant that people only go to in order to see the guy who was once champ and listen to him tell stories of the glory days. Except Rocky’s restaurant makes LaMotta’s look like Le Dome. This place is a hole in the wall dump in the old neighborhood with a freaking TV on the wall. And Rocky mumbles his stories of the old days as if he’s taken a few too many to the head – he just doesn’t care. You can’t help but feel sorry for the guy – he’s fallen so far down that there’s no way he can get up again.

Which is the genius of Stallone. Instead of thinking *he’s* pathetic, we see how pathetic Rocky is… and we worry about him. That this situation is an exaggeration of the situation Stallone finds his career in is no coincidence. Stallone has managed to find a way for us to really care about Rocky *and* tap into his own issues *and* set up a major obstacle for the character. Rocky and Stallone are both living in the past. Both were once famous. Both are now kind of jokes. In the movie, Adrian is dead and Rocky has never gotten over it – he spends his mornings at her grave side living in the past. Rocky’s son is estranged – the kid has trouble living in dad’s shadow *and* thinks his dad is a burn out… so he avoids Rocky. He actually tries to escape when he sees Rocky waiting at his office. Stallone’s real son, Sage, played this role in previous films… but not this time around. My guess: this is another autobiographical element. Cousin Pauley thinks it’s time for Rocky to move on – stop living in the past. Every year on Adrian’s anniversary, Pauley ends up driving Rocky to all of the places in the old neighborhood where Rocky and Adrian used to hang out… all of them torn down or burned out. The past is gone. Dead.

By this point, you just want Rocky to find some way to be happy.

So when the ESPN computer match up picks Rocky Balboa as the winner of a simulated match with the current champ Mason “The Line” Dixon (worst character name in cinema history), you actually hope Rocky will take off his shirt and get in the ring. A story is when a character is FORCED to resolve an emotional (internal) conflict in order to solve a physical (external) conflict. The two conflicts are connected. That ESPN simulation puts Rocky back in the public eye – and forces him to re-evaluate his life. Forces him to realize he’s been living in the past… living *on* the past.

Rocky begins thinking about having a future instead of just living in that past. Maybe he can fight again? Not fight the champ, mind you, just fight another fight. Something new to talk about at the restaurant…

But nobody wants him to fight again. He’s too old. Obstacle! The Boxing Commission says he’s okay physically… but come on! He’s an old man! Way too old to ever fight again! Obstacle! Cousin Pauley thinks he’s gone crazy. His son thinks he’s embarrassing him. Scene after scene shows Rocky struggling just for the chance to put on the boxing gloves again – conflict scene after conflict scene, before he even gets in the ring. Everyone tells him he’s too old, a has-been… he has no future, only a past.

Meanwhile, the champ (an interesting character – so sympathetic you want *him* to win, too) is pressured by his handlers to do an exhibition match with Rocky… for big Pay Per View Money. This means Rocky is not just going to get a chance to fight again… he’s going to fight the undefeated world champion! Once again, he’s a complete underdog without a hope in hell who just wants to be standing after ten rounds. And despite seeing this film as a last resort, I found myself rooting for Rocky to go the distance. I wanted Rocky (and Stallone) to have a future… not just a past. I wanted him to overcome all of these hurdles and win the big fight.

Remember that conflict must be SEEN or it doesn’t exist. That’s easy when you are dealing with external conflicts – like a asteroid headed towards Earth that will kill everybody… but what about emotional conflict? You have to create dramatic scenes between characters where the conflict is brought to the surface so that we can see it – scenes where daughter and estranged father hash out their problems as that asteroid gets closer to Earth… or son and estranged father solve their problems before the big fight. Scenes where the emotional problems become physical problems that we can see – because we can’t know what people are thinking or feeling in film… we can only SEE and HEAR. The only way we can ever know how tough it is for Rocky to get into shape is to SHOW him struggling to do the very same things he easily did in the first film. Running up those steps? Not easy for a man his age… but we get to see him work *hard* and eventually make it. (My favorite part of the film was the closing credits showing regular folks doing the stair run and dance – I never realized just how iconic that moment was until seeing that.)

The small objectives have to lead to the big objectives. Climbing the stairs. Beating the meat. Eventually getting into the ring and trying to stay on his feet for ten rounds – one punch after another. Think of your script as a house of cards. Each scene is a card. If you can remove any scene, and the house remains standing, that scene shouldn’t have been in your script.

If the conflict is meaningless, get rid of it! If the conflict isn’t tied to the story, get rid of it! If the conflict isn’t about the character, get rid of it! Every round of the fight is about Rocky struggling to stay on his feet. Remember, every scene in your script should move the story forward, entertain the audience, and expose character… at the same time!

We need many obstacles, many places where the conflict is brought to the surface so that we can *see* the struggle.

This Week’s Assignment: River Dance!

Come up with 8 (eight) one sentence descriptions of CONFLICT scenes that result from our hero (a Dirty Harry-like cop)’s decision to sacrifice everything to become a River Dancer!

6 thoughts on “Script Secrets Assignment: Character in Conflict

  1. Warren A. Shuman

    Great article! I havn’t see “Rocky Balboa”, but I will. I consider families… my own, and those of my friends, and those I have met and worked with through my life’s pathways in many places… Conflict is rampant in Life. Converting Conflict and Solutions to a two-hour script is the Rub! Thanks for your excellent insights.

  2. Juan De Biase

    Conflict and emotion will always be an indissoluble pairing for the screenwriter. What amounts to Rocky as a target in this comment is that the essence of his inner demon is not the challenge to go for the heavyweight crown, but to prove if he is still capable of lasting the bout. I´d wish this kind of script-psychic analysis would be better focused on films such as Living Out Loud where Strassberg´s psychodynamics are better exposed and interpreted for the screen.

  3. Joaquin Carrasquilla

    I’ve love this article, I will treasure it, as one of the most clear and right to the point of what movies are suppose to be article. Rocky films are the responsible of why I’ve began my film career, when I sow the first Rocky films, was like a revelation, was a teaching not only for film but also for life. Rocky 5 was a disappointment, but when I saw ROCKY BALBOA, thought that it had the same essence than the first one, so I felt the same emotions once again, emotions that not every film has these days so It’s amazing who this film and character change the perception and feeling about Rocky and Stallone career living in the past for a new fresh beginning and left everybody expecting more. I’m totally agree with this article, congratulations!.
    Check my inspired Rocky sculpture made by me:
    http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?pid=783716&l=08ce765243&id=605745098

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  5. Jaclyn Abergas

    I think your using Rocky as an example was great. It’s so easy to write this article using award-winning movies that everyone has praised. But using Rocky made me concentrate on the basics and points of the article.

    It also helped that I’ve been meaning to watch the last Rocky movie. This was a real nice intro to that. Thanks!

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