Specs & The City: Conflict and ‘The Social Network’

Without conflict, there is neither progress nor change. It’s as true in screenwriting as it is in life. Would you pay twelve dollars to spend two hours of your life watching a movie where the characters all agree on everything, and at the end of the film, are all exactly the same as when they began? Yeah – neither would I.

And that’s why it’s so vital to embed every single scene of you script with conflict.

That conflict can come in many forms – sometimes, it is literally a fight between two characters. Other times it’s a struggle against nature. Hell, in a classic episode of Breaking Bad  it’s between Walt and a fly he can’t manage to kill. The point is, conflict keeps your story moving forward, and the faster and more engaging your story moves forward, the more likely a reader or development executive is to keep turning those pages.

Remember: Boredom = death.

That’s really what it boils down to. Don’t give your audience the opportunity to realize they’re bored. They’ll leave you for something more entertaining quicker than TLC will sign a dysfunctional family to their own reality show.

But how do you this? How can you take something as bland as…let’s say…a legal deposition, and shove that scene chuck full of conflict? Glad you asked. Let’s take a look at…

Conflict and The Social Network

Aaron Sorkin is a screenwriter. You may have heard of him. He’s either the messiah of scribes come to save us all, or the devil incarnate who spends his time overwhelming the audience with the chatter of uber-intellectuals that don’t talk like real people – depending on who you ask. The truth is somewhere in the middle (though I admit to being significantly more on the messiah side of the argument), but no matter what your thoughts are on the man, he can write a mean scene.

With The Social Network, Sorkin tackled a project that had absolutely no right to be interesting – the origin of Facebook. The script is filled with nerds writing computer code and techno-speak. And when we aren’t with Mark and company in front of their computers, we’re in law offices for a set of legal depositions. That’s right. Two of them.

The funny thing is, it’s absolutely captivating stuff. You can’t look away, and I bet you can guess why – Conflict. Here’s one of my favorite scenes from The Social Network.

GAGE

  In the 32nd e-mail you raised concerns

   about the site’s functionality. Were you

leading them on for six weeks?

MARK

  No.

GAGE

Why hadn’t you raised any of these–

MARK

(quietly)

It’s snowing.

GAGE

I’m sorry?

MARK

  It just started snowing.

GAGE

        Mr. Zuckerberg, do I have your full

 attention?

MARK

No.

GAGE

(beat)

Do you think I deserve it?

MARK

    What.

GAGE

Do you think I deserve your full

attention?

MARK

          I had to swear an oath before we began

          the deposition phase, and I don’t want to

       get arrested for perjury, so I have a

       legal obligation to say no.

GAGE

Okay. “No” you don’t think I deserve your

 attention.

MARK

I think if your clients want to stand on

my shoulders and call themselves tall

they have a right to give it a try. But

there’s no requirement that I enjoy being

here listening to people lie. You have

part of my attention—the minimum amount

needed. The rest of my attention is back at

the offices of Facebook where my employees

and I are doing things that no one in this

room, including and especially your clients,

are intellectually or creatively capable of

doing. Did I adequately answer your

condescending question?

By inserting this terse exchange between Mark and Gage (legal counsel for the Winklevi), Sorkin creates conflict where there wasn’t any and ups the stakes on what is otherwise simply a bunch of mundane exposition.

Now, we all can’t be Aaron Sorkin. But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from him. Read back over this scene and apply it to your own script. Do you have a scene where the conflict level is low – Maybe, your war hero stops on his way to the final battle to drink a nice cold glass of lemonade. Add a pinch of conflict and stir!

Maybe all the glasses are dirty! Or it’s tarter than he likes, and he can’t find any sugar! And then when he finally finds the sugar, he turns around and sees another soldier lifting the glass to their lips!

Okay – maybe that scene should just get cut – but you get the point.

The key to learning to write a great script is simple. Keep writing – Learn from every mistake – Get better every day. And never, ever, be boring.

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6 thoughts on “Specs & The City: Conflict and ‘The Social Network’

  1. Brad JohnsonBrad Johnson Post author

    There’s too many excellent episodes to pick a true favorite…but “Somebody’s Going to Emergency, Somebody’s Going to Jail” (The second Big Block of Cheese Day episode) is right up there for me.

  2. Princess Scribe

    Unbelievable. “Isaac and Ishmael” is one of my favorite episodes ever.

    I would like to see the gender ratio/character development become a tad more… democratic, so to speak, in THE NEWSROOM. Where’s CJ when we need her? 😉

  3. Brad JohnsonBrad Johnson Post author

    There was always some hate. I always chalked it up to jealousy, but it seems to have really picked up since The Newsroom came on. I’ve actually thought a lot about it and, despite some of the issues people bring up being accurate, I think a lot of it stems from the hindsight aspect of the show. The West Wing was just as preachy as The Newsroom, but no one minded as much because the issues being dealt with weren’t “ripped from the headlines” – they were fictional. So no one got offended when the characters were levelheaded and came across as better than everyone else. In fact, if you look just a bit further – the most universally panned episode of West Wing was the post 9-11 episode. The complaints against that episode are almost identical to the ones leveled at Newsroom on a weekly basis (minus the accusations of sexism)- true events might be kryptonite for Sorkin’s writing style.

  4. Princess Scribe

    Great article Brad – and a perfect film to use as an example. Sorkin takes, as you said, a (to most) banal subject matter and elevates it to great drama with life or death stakes – financial, emotional and spiritual.
    I’ll never understand the Hate Sorkin club. I fell in love with him at the pilot of West Wing, and I continue to burn – and yearn – for him today. 😉

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