Dramatic Conflict


Order 'Is there a good argument going on? It all starts with a fight . . . a disagreement.'

-- John Guare

The Dramatic Conflict section has been revised and expanded in the new paperback and e-book editions, Playwriting Seminars 2.0.

John Guare was right, but he's also crammed half the craft of playwriting into that word, good.

Best Practice: Argument is not dramatic conflict.

At least not the special kind of conflict that drives plays. Arguments in real life are usually circular with no one getting anywhere when they’re over except having blown off some steam. As in real life, in the theatre arguments are a bore for everyone except the people doing the yelling.   Dramatic conflict draws from a much deeper vein, rooted in the subtext of the central characters and is driven by fundamentally opposing desires. Marsha Norman may have Mama argue with Jessie about Snowballs and her nails, but what drives ‘night, Mother is Jessie's ultimate desire to commit suicide that evening and Mama's desire to prevent her from doing it. That's the stuff of dramatic conflict.

Conflict as Overcoming Obstacles

Conflict is often said to be created by overcoming obstacles in the path of a character, though dramatic conflict in plays is often more subtle and complex than this may suggest. It can be argued that the approach may make more sense in screenplays where obstacles external to the central characters are a common device. This way of thinking about the source of conflict is worth considering (if it makes sense to you) since almost any source of dramatic conflict can be converted into a sequence of obstacles that characters need to overcome in the course of the play.   In ‘night, Mother Jessie’s conflict with her mother can be framed as a series of obstacles she must overcome in order to achieve her ultimate goal – the most significant being her mother’s attempt to prevent her from doing that final act. In this case, the playwright has given Jessie an actual list of most of the “obstacles” she needs to overcome including doing her mother’s nails, each characterized by varying levels of conflict.

   This kind of obstacle analysis is often used in U.S. actor training programs and may have something to do with the number of performers who have successfully turned to playwriting and screenwriting in recent years.

Killers of Dramatic Conflict

Dramatic conflict in plays happens between characters and it’s in that dynamic where things can go wrong, draining the sources of conflict.

1. Characters agreeing about everything. In this case, they may have a warm and cozy life together, but we won’t be interested.

2. Characters turning-the-other-cheek. In real life, that’s a great way to reduce conflict, but that’s exactly what you don’t want to have happen in the theatre.

3. Characters speaking all their subtext. Spoken subtext drains the conflict between characters and inhibits character development. That’s how you can end up with an argument instead of real dramatic conflict (see Chapter 15 on Subtext).

Triangular Conflict Problems

Dramatic conflict only happens when each character has a stake in the outcome. If those characters with a stake don’t confront each other directly, you’ll end up struggling with the problem of triangular conflict. If the dramatic conflict is between Joan and Larkin, but the scene takes place between Joan and X who has no stake in the outcome, there will be no dramatic conflict. Perhaps an argument, but no genuine conflict.Make sure you've got the proper side of the triangle on stage. If the conflict is between B and C, you won't get anywhere with a scene between B and A if old A is just curious, helpful, thoughtful, and sympathetic and if A won't face any real changes if C jumps off the bridge or not.If you find yourself in this situation, there's a simple solution. Reshape the scene so it's between the two characters who have a real stake in the outcome: C and B. Send A to the bathroom, or to answer the phone, or to Pago Pago. When the wrong side of this kind of triangle has the stage to itself, tension drains out of the dialogue and after a page or two the whole enterprise comes to a halt.

   Great listeners may be nice to know in real life, but they'll make life miserable if you let them into your play.

The Problem of Triangular Conflict

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Copyright © 1995-2012 by Richard Toscan [rtoscan@vcu.edu]