Dynamic Conflict

I got Dan O’Bannon’s Guide to Screenplay Structure for Christmas, and it’s quite good — one of the best of these damn screenwriting books. I can’t bear Syd Field’s books, the man thinks “sets up” is one word, spelled “setsup” like “catsup.” True, he has slightly more screen credits than Robert McKee, but no feature film ones, and his TV writing credits are for a show he produced: in other words, he gave himself the job.

O’Bannon actually wrote movies, and had the debilating health problems to prove it. This is from Michael Wiese Productions, who do good film books by actual filmmakers, and it shares a melancholic quality with editor Sam O’Steen’s Cut to the Chase: it’s been published post-mortem, with much work from other hands to make a book of it. O’Steen had his wife, a fellow editor, to interview him and prompt his memories, O’Bannon has co-author Matt R. Lohr. I’m going to go ahead and blame him for getting the plot of King Lear wrong.

But the selling point here is O’Bannon’s unique take on the three-act structure. I’m with actual writer Ed Solomon on this one — reading screenwriting books before you start writing will just do your head in. If you write something decent, the books can sometimes be useful to help tighten it and make it work better. I’d encountered O’Bannon’s theories before in an interview he gave to a screenwriting magazine. There’s not much new here, certainly not enough to fill a book, but NONE of these manuals have enough in them to fill their page count. All you can hope for is that the good stuff will actually be good.

O’Bannon’s chief innovation is to better define the Act Two Curtain — in his formulation, at this point, “the doors close” — before this approximate three-quarter mark, leading into the climax, the protagonist and antagonist could theoretically have walked away from their conflict (yes, as always, the assumption is that this will be a conflict-based narrative: see Mackendrick’s On Film-Making for a bracing alternative). After this curtain, the characters are locked in to their struggle. Sometimes one has committed an act so awful towards the other than vengeance is now imperative; sometimes, one has been revealed to pose an existential threat to the other. I guess in JAWS, when the boat starts to sink, Sheriff Brody is committed to seeing the thing through.

In that same old screenwriting mag I read another movie hack claim that DIE HARD was all third act from about fifteen minutes in, but O’Bannon’s theory disproves this nicely. It may seem to be all climax, but just where a Second Act Curtain should be, our hero is told he can relax and leave it to the FBI now, and then discovers the terrorists are going to blow everyone up and ONLY HE CAN STOP THEM. Classic O’Bannon, though written by three other guys.

One always finds oneself talking about really commercial, manly stuff when attempting to prove screenwriting theories. One successful guide uses THE KARATE KID as its paragon. This alone should make us skeptical. But if you’re interested in screenwriting, test O’Bannon’s theory against movies you love. I might try this in a follow-up post.

O’Bannon’s other best point is where he blasphemously trounces the idea that Acts One, Two and Three should end or begin on a specific page, or a specific minute of screen time. He points out that the audience doesn’t know what time it is. He’s right. I think we DO get a sense, when we’re watching a film, that This has been going on a long time and we still don’t know what it’s about, when the first act is a long time in reaching its curtain. But we can get that feeling in fifteen minutes, if the first act is really boring, as I just did with a screener I was viewing for Edinburgh Film Festival, a would-be horror movie that began with half an hour of conversations. And sometimes we can get to the end of a film without once having that feeling, and STILL not know what the film was about, as I did with another movie, a thoroughly convincing and beautiful art-house job.

The surest ways to avoid activating the audience’s internal clock is to tell an engaging story or unfold a tapestry of cinematic beauty. And let the curtains fall where they will.

Dan O’Bannon co-wrote DARK STAR, ALIEN and TOTAL RECALL.


15 Responses to “Dynamic Conflict”

  1. Hi Mr. Cairns,

    What is Mackendrick’s alternative to conflict based narrative? (surely even stasis can qualify as a sort of conflict?)
    Also, in The Story of Film, Mark Cousins mentions The Godfather as an example of a five act narrative. Any other great films with that same srructure?

    Thanks for the article!

  2. Mackendrick argues that drama is based on the creation and resolution of TENSION. Conflict is a great way to create tension, but not the only way. He uses Oedipus to argue this: there is a central dramatic problem in that play, but any attempt to argue a central conflict gets pretty contorted.

    I suspect I’d disagree with Mark on The Godfather. I imagine it very possibly has five movements. Most movies seem to have four — the second act tends to break in the middle, often with a big turning point. But if we take the three acts as Introduction, Development and Resolution (beginning, middle and end), then all stories have three acts, even those that begin in media res, even those told out of sequence, even those that end inconclusively, and you can’t get around it.

  3. Tension is a great rule of thumb, but couldn’t you argue that the conflict in Oedipus, who thinks he wants to know the truth, and those who, suspecting the truth, think he doesn’t.

  4. You could, but I think I could still envisage a version (even if it required a rewrite) which produced anxiety without overt character conflict. And Hitchcock’s famous bomb-under-the-table scenario would produce dramatic tension while the characters onscreen are in agreement, and the planter of the bomb remains offscreen, a mere device.

    And then there’s the famous Unresolved Sexual Tension, which can make scenes dynamite to watch without a trace of conflict (though conflict can often be useful).

  5. The three-act structure is interesting because it obviously comes from theater and strangely enough from classical and continental theaters rather than English one. I mean Shakespeare never used a three-act structure because a translation of Aristotle never reached his access.

    I agree with Mr. Mackendrick about tension being more important that conflict. And I tend to be drawn to movies which are more diffuse. I recently saw John Boorman’s EXACALIBUR where Boorman does what is anathema to current dogma, i.e. put an entire franchise and saga (the Arthur Cycle) into one film and yet the movie works brilliantly. Whereas today’s franchise stretches out sketches and pointless filler to great runtimes of nothing.

  6. Yes, I think a potential sequel was the last thing on his mind! I suspect his planned Lord of the Rings would have been one two-hour film, also. Nicol Williamson might have been Gandalf, I suppose. Amusingly, John Hurt, who voiced Aragorn in the cartoon, became a Boorman collaborator later on, while Sean Connery, who starred in Zardoz, was hotly pursued for Gandalf in the Peter Jackson blockbuster.

    Shakespeare’s five acts would still map onto a three act structure as practiced in Hollywood because you can’t get away from beginning-middle-end, and I guess his three middle acts would probably make up a movie’s second act. But it all gets too messy to think about.

  7. So a film should establish what it’s about either in the first 15 minutes or Never at all. And if the latter, it had better be damn spectacular

    Just thinking about applying Dan O’Bannon’s theories to my favorite O’Bannon film “Return of the Living Dead” I think the Act 2 “Doors Close” pretty damn early on that. The character are pretty much damned 20 minutes in.

  8. “Some Like It Hot” — the greatest of all film comedies — has FOUR Acts.

    Nobody’s Perfect — but Billy Wilder is this close

    Mackendrick’s lectures are invaluable, particularly when he shows precisely how Clifford Odets took Ernest Lehman’s good script for Sweet Smell of Success and made it great. It was all in the dialogue

    “You’re a cookie full of arsenic.”


  9. Mackendrick also shows how they got away with such excessively wondrous dialogue: as Odets advised, Do it hard and fast.

    Since the usual breakdown of the 3-act shape is approx 1/2 hr for act 1 (and you have that long at least to establish what it’s about: O’Bannon would argue you can take longer since the audience isn’t counting), 1 hr for act 2 (with a changeover in the middle: analysis of cutting patterns by Thompson & Bordwell shows there are generally climaxes every h1/2 hr) and a final 1/2 hr for act 3, really most films have four movements.

    Some Like It Hot is unusual in that the first act is Chicago, then it leaves that world completely and introduces a leading lady who practically takes over, gets to Miami where there are new goals, and then the problems of Act 1 come crashing back in for the climax, as the laws of structure demand. It’s still set-up, development and resolution, in four movements, but the parts are parcelled out unconventionally. But not in a disorderly way — nothing that Wilder would have worried about.

  10. Return of the Living Dead offers plenty of room for development because, although the characters are screwed early on, we don’t know how bad the news is until the very end. So the situation APPEARS to keep getting worse.

  11. chris schneider Says:

    “One always finds oneself talking about really commercial, manly stuff when attempting to prove screenwriting theories.” I wonder how NOW, VOYAGER, say, or TO EACH HIS OWN would fit into these discussions. Are there gender-connected paradigms for film structure? Or is it just that theorists are more comfortable discussing man stuff rather than, say, THE PASSIONATE FRIENDS?

  12. Oh, the latter, I think.

    To Each His Own covers a lot of time and has a lot of movements (“Making her a bitch in the middle is what made it work,” said Leisen) and what’s most unusual is how each time-frame has it’s own three acts, could practically stand alone as a tragedy, which may be part of what gives the emotional ending such force.

    The flashbacks of Passionate Friends make less of a difference, I think we’re still in solid set-up, develop, resolve terrain. But Phantom Thread fans ought to run it anyway.

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