One Conflict: One Story

Every screenplay must have one inciting incident—the initial conflict that happens that sends the protagonist on his or her journey to transformation. In other words, the protagonist is thrown from his or her normal every day world into a challenge or obstacle. This conflict is what shifts them into a new world, so that his or her old world is no longer the same. This conflict is what begins the story and causes the protagonist to act. You also want to remember that conflict is essential, but all conflict must be connected to the initial conflict for the story to work.


Weak and/or unfocused conflict is problematic. If your story does not have a strong external conflict (the obstacle that comes between the protagonist and their goal), the script will not move forward, and then you will struggle to keep things exciting. Your story begins with the inciting incident, and if this is not clearly defined, you don’t have a story (ouch).

Here is a good checklist to follow:

  1. What’s your story’s external (plot) conflict?
  2. What is your protagonist’s emotional conflict?
  3. How do we see your hero battle the external conflict?
  4. Are the external conflict and the emotional conflict connected? How so?
  5. How do you dramatize the protagonist’s struggle with his or her emotional conflict?


“The Inciting Incident always leads us to the Key Incident, which is the hub of the story line, the engine that powers the story forward. The Key Incident reveals to us what the story is about. All films can break down as such. The Key Incident will generally be the plot point at the end of Act One, but not always. One such example is Ordinary People. The entire screenplay revolves around the key incident of the drowning, which occurs before the story begins but is pieced together and finally seen in its totality at Plot Point II.” – Syd Field

The inciting incident is the beginning of your story. If you don’t have a clearly defined inciting incident, you don’t have a story. The inciting incident throws the protagonist from “the normal everyday world” into a challenge, an obstacle. Something shifts in his world so that his world is no longer the same. If you don’t flag a major shift (with huge dramatic stakes and passion), then you likely don’t have a story.

The inciting incident cues the audience/reader about what type of journey we’ll be going on. But, the journey is pointless if you don’t get your hero over the finish line…he or she must complete his or her goal. Generally, this happens somewhere between page 5 and 7. If by page 5, the theme is not stated CLEARLY, who your protagonist is, and what is his or her need (issue), with a goal in site, you’re going to have an issue with arching the story, the character and the resolution. In short—that will pose a MAJOR problem.


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Formatting a screenplay — it’s getting easier and easier!

Anyone who has had exposure to screenwriting for whatever reason knows that a script is very structured, and highly formatted.  For those who “dream” of writing a screenplay, you should know that formatting and good structure are paramount.

I’m totally dating myself here, but I remember when formatting a script meant hours upon hours of setting tabs and margins on a computer or typewriter– yes, I go that far back!  It was an arduous task.

Thanks to brilliant program developers, screenwriters today have wonderful options to help with the formatting process.  Frankly, we’re pretty spoiled.  My brother is an animator, and he’s done a lot of work for Disney.  He too remembers when it was all about hand drawing each second of film frame by frame.  Talk about painstaking…  Now, everything is done on a computer.

You can imagine my excitement when Final Draft, the scriptwriting software first came on the market.  I remember nearly frothing at the mouth with excitement as I waited for my first copy of the program to arrive in the mail, and screenwriting’s never been the same since.  Formatting a script is getting easier and easier!

I don’t often promote things here, but I’d like to personally endorse a great screenwriting program that a friend of mine created.  In fact, I am doing some work for him as a community liaison for his company.  Let me introduce you to is a scriptwriting program that is completely free and SSL Secure. Some of the perks are: Collaborative writing–seeing all edits immediately, it’s user friendly, has intuitive interface, access your script from anywhere, more focused on writing than production, grammar checker, converts to Celtx and other screenwriting formats (including Final Draft).  A desktop is also in the works.

My main reason for sharing this with you is for exposure.  Since the online program is completely free, there is nothing to sell.  I also teach screenwriting, and I’ve suggested this site to various students who could not afford to purchase scriptwriting software.  It’s been wonderful way for them to be able write their screenplay in format.

I don’t generally write with a partner, but as of late, I have been working on two feature-length comedies with a partner.  We’ve been suing the collaborative feature on WriterDuet, and we’re so impressed.  Basically, we don’t have to be in the same room or even the same city.  She was in NYC recently, and we worked on a scene using this feature — simultaneously writing on the same script, video chatting, sending messages and editing TOGETHER while away.  We worked without having to email scripts or even pick up the phone.  Another great thing about this feature is that you can see all the edits immediately, track your changes, and see who made what change in the line-by-line history.

No matter what level of writer you are, WriterDuet is simply a good idea.  It’s intuitive, user-friendly, and best of all… the price is right!

So, try it… you’ll like it.  🙂

Here’s what others are saying about WriterDuet:


Plotting along

According to Aristotle, the ability to plot is the most important aspect of writing–even more important than the characters themselves. Michael Tierno, author of Aristotle’s Poetics for Screenwriters (one of my favorite books) says, “Good writers serve their stories; bad writers serve their own agendas.” When writing, I think this quote should be planted in front of our eyes at all times. Within the structure of plot, we should seek to convey truth through the human condition. So, your plot must have a single issue, or as Tierno puts it, “one unified action.”  He uses The Godfather as a perfect example of this.  It’s easy to think that there are numerous plots weaving this story together, but that is not the case.  The single issue in The Godfather is the war against the Corleones.  Everything else evolves because of that single action event.


Greek scholars translated Aristotle’s “Mythos” as plot.  We get the word “mythology” from mythos, and it’s defined as a story, legend, tale, folklore, fable, etc.  Without the plot, we only have characters, scenarios and language, but no story.  Aristotle understood plot, and so did other great writers throughout history.  Writers like: Homer, Shakespeare, Dante, and Geoffrey Chaucer, and Ovid, to name a few.  There is a reason their works have stood the test of time. Writers who understand the importance of creating stories that cause the reader or viewer to respond in an emotional way will create a winning story. Carl Jung said, “They touch the common experiences of life and death that humans undergo.” Sigmund Freud said, “They mirror our neuroses and help to resolve them.”  A screenwriter, who understands the power of myth and can recreate these stories in a fresh and present way, will scribe a successful story.

Plot is the framework where the story unfolds, but it is not the story itself. Story is what happens; plot is how those events unfold.

It is much like a seamstress who begins making a piece of clothing with a pattern.  The pattern is raw. Without it, the dressmaker cannot sew a single stitch; it is the framework for the dress. So the plot evolves one point at a time. Good plots move chronologically.  This is part of the reason that using flashbacks can be tricky.  Normally, a film that is written in chronological order works better, but (of course) there’s always the exception to that rule. Citizen Kane and Pulp Fiction are great examples of the exception. The only reason for writing a non-chronological plot is to reveal something about the character that will be better disclosed if not told in a chronological order. That being said, Aristotle, Horace and many other ancient writers advised to begin in medias res, “in the middle of things.” This is an ancient literary technique for manipulating the plot. It’s like hitting the reader or viewer between the eyes with a big club! In other words, begin the story near the heart of the problem. This device was used in films like: Sunset Boulevard, Fight Club and Hangover, and while this technique certainly served these plots well, BE CAREFUL. If you decide to use medias res, you need to understand its function and limitations, and for a novice screenwriter, I would avoid opening that door.


Never forget that plot is connected to action. Michael Tierno calls it the “Action-Idea,” or “mission statement.” So, when we are developing our plot, we must ask ourselves “if” it is an “Action-Idea.”  For example, say I want to write a screenplay about a love. That is not an “Action-Idea.” We have to look a little deeper.  Since plot and action are connected, how can we change this idea, to reveal a sequence of actions that have a beginning, middle and end? If I create a plot that involves the protagonist overcoming the obstacles to love that keeps him or her from engaging in “true” love, that is a great “Action-Idea.” I can then build central conflict; develop the character and other underlying themes in the story.

What about a quest-driven plot?  Raiders of the Lost Ark is a perfect example of this. A plot that is built around a quest always involves the protagonist’s search for a person, place or thing, and that can be tangible or intangible. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Professor Indiana Jones ventures into the jungles of South America searching for a golden statue. From the moment his search begins, conflict arises with every deadly trap that comes his way. The plot thickens when museum curator, Marcus Brody, who tells Jones about a biblical artifact called, “The Ark of the Covenant,” contacts Jones. This artifact holds the key to human existence, and finding it comes with a price.  Jones is on the journey of a lifetime as he finds himself in remote places like: Nepal and Egypt, while fighting against Nazi enemies and antagonist, Renee Bellog.


Different plots will result in different paths, but if a plot is properly created, there will always be a chain of events that follows (cause and effect). In the end, a well-crafted plot will drive the story forward with action, and define and enhance the protagonist’s journey.  After all, at the end of the day, all good stories reveal a journey.

Universal appeal: Transcending shallowness to birth inspiration

We are all on the same path.  It’s called “life,” and while we all share life experiences, we all have varied stories.  Our life experience is what connects us to each other, and we’re all walking in linear direction. In a screenplay, your main characters must do the same.  The protagonist is on a journey of discovery…whatever that discovery may be.  Even in death, there is discovery.

Famed screenwriter Syd Field says, “The mythology of the journey is a universal theme in all human expression and is expressed and imitated no matter what our language, culture, color, or location.”  From birth to death we walk the same path, and it is a path of personal discovery.

Why do some screenplays seem to tug at an audience more?  What is it that makes a story good?  It is the universal theme seen in the storyline, the development of the characters and our ability to relate to the characters at some level. Even if it is a flawed character, or a tyrant monster antagonist that is bent on destroying the world–we’ve seen them in the news, we’ve read about them in literature, and perhaps even been subject to his destructive ego.  Certainly we relate to the hero’s journey.  We understand internal and external conflict, because we all experience this in life.  We want a character like this to win; it’s important for him or her to conquer every personal and external battle.

A screenplay must transcend shallowness in order to create a story with universal appeal. What do I mean by that?  Each person has a life story with endless encyclopaedic variations. The distinction of a master screenwriter can be seen in his or her ability to select a lifetime of moments that touch, inspire and move an audience.  That in essence is universal appeal, and it is supremely important.

We will forever relate to these heroes who show incredible courage, valor, bravery in the face of danger or injustice, self-sacrifice, defenders of justice!  We will always root for Indiana Jones  in Raider’s of the Lost Ark, or John Book in The Witness, or young Daniel Lai Iijsso in The Karate Kid, or General Maximus Decimus Meridus in Gladiator, or Bob Wiley in What About Bob?, or Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, or William Munny in Unforgiven, or Celie in The Color Purple, or Clark Kent in Superman: The Movie, or Neo in The Matrix, or Spiderman in The Amazing Spiderman, or Rick Blaine in Casablana, or the infamous Robin of Loxley in Robin Hood.  The list is endless and ever-expanding.

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Conflict and obstacles: Driving forces in a screenplay


A story without conflict is a story that’s going nowhere.

Did I just say that?  I did.

The bottom line…if there’s no dramatic conflict, there’s no drama.  Even in comedy (which is drama with a twist), there is conflict. Remember the comedy The Hangover?  It’s conflict haven! While the film itself doesn’t do much for me, it is certainly filled with conflict and obstacles.

Now, I should probably share that conflict is not really the same thing as an obstacle.  By definition, conflict is: an argument, a disagreement (often long-lasting), a conflict of interests, a clash of opposition (like wishes or needs), a dispute, a quarrel, a struggle, warfare, etc.  Obstacle is:  a thing that blocks one’s way or hinders one’s progress. Such as an obstacle to achieving a goal.

In a screenplay, an obstacle is any resistance to the main characters want or desire.  Now, want or need creates action, so it’s imperative that you define your character’s need early-on.  When obstacles occur and work against each other, they create dramatic conflict, and this is GOOD!  Here is a life example:

The roofer’s ladder fell over and he has to go to the restroom in the worst possible way. All of the other roofers have gone to lunch, and he is alone.  He has a need, but the obstacle is the ladder that fell over.  What’s he going to do?  Yell, scream, try and find another way down… This roofer’s need motivates him to ACT and over-ride the obstacle.  Obstacles can be prodded by other people or by circumstances.  In the case of the roofer, his circumstance was the obstacle.

As a screenwriter, you have to inject conflict into your script to keep the action moving along so the audience will remain interested.

Conflict is most important when it stands in the way of the protagonists success and/or transformation. In other words, what is trying to keep your hero from succeeding?  The use of conflict and obstacles in a screenplay are immensely important, in fact, dramatic conflict (motivation vs. obstacle) is the very thing that drives the story.  Conflict creates dramatic tension.
Elizabeth English, founder of the Moondance Film Festival in Colorado says, “There are five distinct types of conflict that can be used in screenwriting. Inner or personal conflict, relational conflict, social or local conflict, situational conflict, and universal or cosmic conflict. All five types of conflict can be in a single screenplay, and can involve most, if not all of the characters, interacting with each other and with the protagonist and antagonist(s). Conflict as the central event drives the story and the characters. Conflict in the plot structure breathes life into your story! The audience relates to your protagonist and to the conflicts he or she faces. The patterns of tension resulting from the visible and invisible forces the characters overcome create a believable reality for the film-goer, and increase the film’s impact on that audience.”
There is no doubt that inner conflict is the most difficult to relay on the screen, in-particular of it’s the main conflict in a story.  A great example of this is in the film American Beauty. is the hardest type of conflict to convey successfully in a film, if that’s the central focus of conflict in the story.
Conflict is an essential element in every screenplay, no matter what the genre.  The audience needs to see the protagonist succeed on his or her journey, but part of that success is in his or her ability to overcome every obstacle and to beat continual conflict in the story.
William Shakespeare’s Hamlet is all about internal conflict.  Hamlet is in a war with his conscience and his inner conflict is actually resolved as he is dying, when he realizes that his mother wasn’t a part of planning his father’s death.
So, as you’re writing your story, REMEMBER  as important as it is to create conflict to move your story along,  so too must you create a main obstacle that your protagonist (hero) will struggle to overcome.

Breaking down the action in a screenplay

I am re-reading the book Backwards & Forwards by David Ball, and I had forgotten just how much I enjoy this book, and for so many reasons.  While this book is primarily about unfolding theatrical plays, there are many elements that are pertinent to a screenwriter like myself.  Always remembering that both play-writing and screenwriting are rooted in Aristotle’s three-act premise, and his view about plot, character, thought and action.

Ball compares a script to a musical score.  He says, “A plays sound, music, movement, looks, dynamics–and much more–are to be discovered deep in the script…”

There’s nothing like discovery.

How do you find the plot, character and thought of a screenplay?  How do we break a script down?  It’s all about analysis and understanding the mechanics of well-crafted writing.

Ball says, “A play’s plot is the product of other elements.  Character–particularly in drama–is not where analysis starts, but where it ends.  On stage, in real life (or on the screen) character is amorphous, shifting, intangible.  Understanding character requires analysis of its components–concrete, palpable components.”

In other words, LOOK DEEPER!

In order to understand how a screenplay works, you need to be more-than familiar with the tools.  Ball suggests that when building a house, you should learn how to distinguish a hammer from an ax.

It’s probably a good idea to start with reading.  If you want to be a good writer, you must embrace the joy of reading, and I mean read nearly everything–well, everything well-written.  I would skip the tabloids.  It’s not just about reading either, it’s learning how to read skillfully.  That of course takes some practice.

So, when we are reading a play or a screenplay, what do we notice?  We can see from the way the script moves, that a play is a “series of actions.”  Ball says, “Action occurs when something happens that makes or permits something else to happen.”

Is the fuel in a hurricane lamp action? No.

Is the fizzling soda water in a glass action?  No.

If these objects are not action, then what is?  How do we see action move from one scene to another in a screenplay?

Go to the action and look backwards.  What triggered the action?  In a screenplay something happens to make something else happen.   In the screenplay Legally Blonde, Elle Woods obsessively studies to get accepted into Harvard Law School.  But why does she do that?  What prods her to act accordingly?  Her DESIRE/WANT to be married to her college sweetheart Warner.  Warner ditched her before moving back to Boston.

So, it’s safe to say that character DESIRE/WANT produces ACTION.

When reading a play or screenplay, find each action, then look for the thing that triggered the action.  They are CONNECTED.

Ball says, “If I walk into your room shouting that the building is on fire and you flee for your life, that is action.” One event produces another event. It’s these series of connected moments that make life move forward.  In a story, action pushes the plot forward.

If I have a toothache, my NEED for pain relief is going to push me to ACTION.  I’m going to call the dentist.

It’s 1:00 in the afternoon.  Bob didn’t have breakfast, and has now missed lunch.  His stomach is excessively growling.  What’s Bob going to do?  FIND FOOD.  His hunger will push him to action.

A druggie is going to want more drugs to appease his addiction.  What’s he going to do?  FIND a way to GET DRUGS.  That action can be stealing, prostitution, drug pushing, etc.  His need for more drugs will push him to ACT.

“An event is anything that happens.  When one event causes or permits another event, the two event’s together comprise an action.  Actions are a play’s (screenplay’s) primary building blocks.” – David Ball

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Flashbacks–A Structural Strategy

Writing Elements:  The Use of Flashbacks

It is easy to see why non-linear structural forms work so well in screenplays.  The use of flashbacks, non-linear narratives, multiple shots, backwards and forwards, etc. all break away from the chronological three-act structure. Plays (screenplays) with disrupted time, where events happen in a non-chronological order all utilize effects like flashbacks and backwards and forwards.   Groundhog Day is a great example of a film that uses repeated flashbacks, and it works well.

Since no one component alone builds a story, the utilization of open and closed structural elements that deal with time and space can broaden a writer’s options and bring greater depth to a story.

Challenges with REAL TIME:  You cannot avoid the naturalist inconveniences of real life.  By stretching time and place—changing locations within or around a house or town reduces the impact of small changes in a single set, but opens up greater opportunities for the setting to communicate meaning.  The results—the audience gets involved!

Flashbacks:  A structural strategy

Moving some or all of the characters into a dramatically different environment and then moving them back again is a structural strategy.  Flashbacks stretch the time and place.

The purpose of flashbacks in a screenplay is to give the audience information that is needed to move the story forward and to clarify the actions of the characters. They should only be used when absolutely necessary.

When a character recalls an important event from his past, that memory can be shown in a flashback. But the flashback should be a significant event, one that influenced the character’s actions in the present. This event should provide the audience with clues about the character’s motivation. The flashback can reveal a strong desire or recall a terrifying, thrilling, shameful, or happy experience.

A screenplay is like a shark – it has to be moving forward or it dies. When you think about flashbacks in movies, what they do is move the story forward… not fill in a bit of the past.



In Alex Coppel’s classic screenplay Vertigo, the author not only uses a flashback to reveal information, but it gives the audience transforming clues that help solve the mystery of the plot.

In the first scene, the audience is left hanging in suspense as detective JOHN “SCOTTIE” FERGUSON watches a police officer plummet to his death after trying to reach his hand out to help him.  They have been chasing a criminal from roof-top to roof-top and Scottie has acrophobia.  The author builds audience/reader curiosity by beginning the story with an incident like this.  Who were they after?

FLASHBACK portrays a truthful representation of what actually happened, and ultimately solves the mystery of the plot.

The final FLASHBACK in Vertigo is the crème de la crème.  The mystery of the plot is fully exposed.  The first time the accident is presented to the audience/reader, it is written from Scottie’s point of view (POV). Showing the body falling from the tower via Scottie’s POV makes the final FLASHBACK not only necessary, but also vital for story transformation.

Scottie is perplexed and obsessed with Judy, especially because she is the exact duplication of dear departed Madeleine.  Her FLASHBACK occurs while she is writing a letter of confession to Scottie.  So, this time the audience/reader sees Madeleine’s fall from the tower from Judy’s POV.  We now see what happened as she ran up the stairs of the tower, and the sinister, murderous Galvin Elster who is waiting at the top, ready to throw his wife’s body off of the tower.  We now see that Scottie will never actually go to the top of the tower because of his fear of heights.  So, Scotty does not actually see what “really” happened.


Flashbacks MOVE the story forward, they are not meant to fill in holes in your plot.

More Examples:

  • Groundhog Day
  • Conspiracy Theory
  • The English Patient
  • Beautiful Mind
  • The Notebook
  • Sunset Boulevard (All flashback)
  • Titanic
  • Saving Private Ryan
  • Casa Blanca
  • The Sandlot
  • Citizen Kane
  • It’s A Wonderful Life

Good Rules To Follow:

  1. .        Make sure the flashback is important to the story.
  2. .        Avoid using too many flashbacks.
  3. .        Include information in the flashback that will help the audience understand the story better.
  4. .        Place the flashback in the script where it makes sense with the story.
  5. .        Keep the flashback short so the audience doesn’t get lost.
  6. .        Have strong visual images in the flashback.
  7. .        Use just a few characters in a flashback.
  8. .        Include at least one primary character in the flashback.
  9. .        Give the characters strong lines in the flashback if they speak.
  10. .        Avoid interrupting important action scenes with a flashback.