Write A Roller Coaster
Oscillate and escalate to climax.- Troy & Genie
Conflict is to drama as sound is to music.
[The movie can't] be dull. You can't let up.Oliver Stone [bracketed clarifications added]
There's this visual [rhythm] about movie-making.
It's a feast of the eye and the mind.
You gotta have the surface: the surface is a [dramatic] rhythm.
Filmmakers who make these Hollywood movies, (or any movie with a narrative pace oriented toward a large world audience,) are aware of that rhythm -
[dramatic rhythm is] a god; it's a form of a god,
it's an [indispensable] internal dynamism, [oscillating between ever-increasing highs and lows].
Whenever I show the conflict map story analysis technique to a development executive here in Los Angeles, they all say it's the coolest story development technique they've ever seen, because it's so simple yet so powerful.
All you do is plot on a graph how happy or sad your protagonist FEELS at the end of each scene.
You can use a computer or just piece of paper (it doesn't even have to be graph paper.)
Most people think screenwriting is only dialogue, and that we're those people who write those dreadful lines that all those nice, wonderful actors have to say.-WILLIAM GOLDMAN
And the reality is that the single most important thing contributed by the screenwriter is the structure.
So how do you make sure you write a roller coaster?
Draw a Conflict Map (an Emotion Graph).
Here's a bare-bones "Roller-Coaster" story map example:
This is what you might call the emotional spine of your story.
It's a good indicator of the feelings your audience will experience the first time they view the movie.
The conflict map looks like the graph of a winning investment: you weather a series of increasingly scary lows, but in the end you reap your profits at the crest of a series of escalating highs.
The peaks and troughs occur at roughly every 10 minutes in a 90 minute children's movie, and every 15 minutes in a 120 minute grownup's movie.
This corresponds to about the length of time a human can sit in a seat without wanting to get up and do something active.
The peaks and crashes grab the mind and heart. The mind and heart order the butt to stay in the seat.
The reason why story will always be popular is that, in a very short time, the story gives you the exhilarating feeling of a roller-coaster ride between extreme emotional states, and ending with a meaning-filled climax.
A "shooter" video game is rarely (if ever) going to do that for you, no matter how the technology improves.
Every story graph looks unique, like a snowflake.
Well-structured screenplays produce a shape that is pleasing to the eye.
Here are a few examples of detailed feature-film-length emotion maps (aka conflict maps):
Rodeo Polo (Teen Sports)
Hiroshima Stones (Tragedy)
Ed Rex (Adventure/Satire)
Jeni Tull (Action Drama)
Grow (a drug-war story inspired by Les Miserables)
And 1 hour TV-length emotion maps:
Dirty Pig Christmas (very pretty graph)
The Witch Who Stole Jesus
Cinder (Dark Drama)
Strip your plot down to 2 characters in conflict.
Here's the macro-overview of the standard 8-beat CONFLICT MAP:
(Here the central Dramatic Question clarifies - this is where the Titanic hits the iceberg, or where the President Declares War)
You don't have to use 8 "beats."
But consider doing so, because, like the musical scale, the colors of the rainbow, and normal 4/4 musical bars, 8 works!
Set up the characters, touch off their conflict, get the audience on the edge of their seat, and wrap it up with a "kill."
A good story is like a ping-pong match with cunning tricks, amazing saves, and deadly consequences.
Here is the bare-bones conflict map applied to the Biblical history of the world:
|Devil rebels against God|
|God jails Satan on planet earth|
|Satan enslaves the human race...|
|God sends his boy Messiah who fights Satan|
|CENTRAL DRAMATIC QUESTION:||Who will win: The Messiah or Satan?|
|Satan kills the Messiah|
|God raises the Messiah from the dead|
|The devil destroys the world|
|The Messiah throws the devil into hell forever, and reigns forever as God's right-hand man.|
Plan your story on that same basic frame:
2 characters, each of which gets 4 major "fighting" actions.
The "Bad Guy" acts first, so the "Good Guy" gets the final (and winning) shot.
Then pour all of your creativity into the details.
Making these dramatically significant action/reaction pairs great is what gets your audience cheering and jeering like they're school-kids crowding around watching the quarterback beat up the local gang-leader for raping his girlfriend, the head cheerleader, who saves poor little African orphan children.
Then get 4 dramatically significant action/reaction pairs happening in each act, then in each sequence inside the act, then in each scene.
Writing well is like weaving fabric on a loom - you start with the big grid and fill in the squares until you have a tight fabric with no holes.
Each set of these action-reaction pairs is built to flow to its own ending object: a dramatically punchy, game-changing, table-turning, emotionally interesting event.
The SIZE of the game-change is small inside scenes, sometimes amounting to a mere facial expression or word, or sound.
The STORY level game changes are HUGE, earth-shattering.
|TOTAL ACTION/REACTION PAIRS PER LEVEL|
|story||4 HUGE action/reaction pairs happen on the story level.|
|ACT||4 BIG action/reaction pairs happen in each of: first act 1, act 2a, act 2b, and act 3.|
|Sequences||4 significant action/reaction pairs happen inside each sequence (a group of 2-5 highly-interconnected scenes.)|
|Scenes||4 interesting action/reaction pairs happen inside each scene.|
+ STORY +
+ +++++++++++++ +
+ + ACT + +
+ + +++++++++ + +
+ + | SCENE | + +
+ + +++++++++ + +
+ + + +
+ +++++++++++++ +
The 4 action/reaction pairs at each level snowball to hit an objective (the end of the section) that moves your story from personal to societal to global to universal.
Interpersonal -> Societal -> Global -> Universal.
|At the end of each||scene,||something||personally interesting|| is established.|
|At the end of each||sequence of 2-5 scenes,||something||socially important|| is established.|
|At the end of each||Act,||something||Globally meaningful|| is established.|
|At the end of the||story,||something||universally EARTH-SHATTERING|| is established.|
Story writing is theoretically simple:
Choose your antagonist and protagonist.
Decide on your ending (that's HUGE reaction #4, the winning action.)
Decide what action caused the ending, that's the extreme aggression.
Then work backward through 3 more action/reaction steps to the first initial aggression.
Now your story-level conflict map is complete.
Your conflict map should be awesome. It should leave you wowed.
It should be a thing of beauty, emotion, and power.
Then "fill in the weave" in the same manner, just smaller, making sure everything that happens causes the next thing to happen, and that the end of all that happening is the ending objective you planned.
The conflict map is your pair of "showshoes" that keep you walking over the snowbank, not freezing to death inside of it.
The conflict map is your boat that keeps you sailing to the far side of the lake of literature, not drowning in the middle of the lake lost scripts.
Once the conflict map is written, the dialog is like jazz - improvisation within the basic "leadsheet" that roughs out the chords and melody of the song.
The script is a tree-like engineered structure with a conflict map at every level : one overall conflict map, 3-4 conflict maps (one for each act), and in your 2-hour feature script, approximately 15 sequences each with their own conflict maps, and about 56 scenes each with their own internal conflict map.
Every branch is like a little miniature tree.
Take all the energy you would have put into a re-write and put it into engineering your script properly then write it by filling in the blanks.
Apply all of these steps on each level: Script, act, sequence, and scene.
Your job is to turn story into drama. Tight, stitched drama.
The biggest sin in movies is being boring.- Frank Daniel