Sunday, November 25, 2012

Exploiting Conflict in your Writing

By Chris Mathews

Conflict is the ticking time bomb in riveting writing.  We may not all be writers, but we are all amateur psychologists.  We understand and are entranced by people at odds with each other.  Moreover, it is when people are pitted against each other, each striving to get what he or she wants that character emerges and plot develops.  In the words of Uta Hagen, renowned actor/teacher, “If I know what I want and can achieve my objectives readily without any problem there is no drama.”  As writers, we must look for opportunities to exploit conflict in our writing.  I use the word “exploit” here to mean “take advantage of” or to “grasp the opportunity” not “to manipulate.”
In my play GARGOYLES, some high school students in a mountain community are acting in a dress rehearsal for a Halloween play, “Raising Spirits,” when the director receives a note from the principal of the school board’s decision to halt the production.   I chose not to have the cast all agree about fighting to present the play. By creating a different point of view for Bet who plays Sister Sabrina in “Raising Spirits,” I was able to develop her character and increase the tension of the scene.  Here is the scene:

CHRIS.    But it doesn’t make sense!  “Raising Spirits” is no ode
to Satan.  It’s a harmless, little Halloween comedy.  Haven’t they
ever seen reruns of Bewitched?
SHANNON.   Chris is right, Ms. Williams.  How do they even
know what it’s about?  They haven’t seen it yet.  Nobody dies.  The
warlock gets his just desserts.   He overdoses on candy corn, and
he’s banished to grade B horror flicks forever.
MS. WILLIAMS.   Shannon, remember where we live.     
MARC.     But they can’t control us, can they?  We’ve worked for
almost two months on this play.  Hey, it may not be Shakespeare,
but it’s got some good laughs.
            KARA.    Yeah, like when Chris sings.
CHRIS.   Hey, watch it.  I don’t sound that bad.
BET.   Well, I’m sick of this play.  It’s stupid and I’m glad we
don’t have to do it tomorrow in front of all the English classes.
JAMIE.    Oh, come on, Bet.  Just because you didn’t get to be
BET.   Yeah, well being an airhead in “Raising Spirits” is not my
idea of a juicy part.
SHANNON.    It’s a play, okay.  At least I’m an airhead and
not a pothead, like some people I know…in real life.
BET.  Aren’t we cute?  Little Miss Sunshine, spreading your warmth wherever you go.  Listen sister, just remember you don’t know me.  You didn’t grow up here, Miss Suburbia.  
JAMIE.    Just because she’s type cast.  The lady-in-black.  Ms.
Death Rock…  
            KARA.     …Leave her alone
MS. WILLIAMS.    Okay, that’s enough!   We’re all a little
uptight.  There’s no sense in going on now.  Sorry, guys.  Looks
like “Raising Spirits” has landed us in the pits(she starts to exit).

Come to a dead-end in your writing?  Look for opportunities to inject conflict in your work.

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