When In Doubt, Create A Situation For Your Characters

apartmentScreenwriter Terry Rossio (Aladdin, Shrek, Pirates Of The Caribbean) once cause a big to-do on his screenwriting message board by declaring that writing situations was more important than conflict to creating a story.

This touched off one of the longest (and, at times, bitterest) disagreements on the board in all the time I frequented it.

The notion that conflict is THE most important thing to fiction writing is such a strongly-held belief that what he said downright offended some people. Others even assumed Terry meant that conflict wasn’t important at all, something he certainly never said.

As this controversy raged, I found myself in the midst of a true revelation. Because as Terry explained what he meant by situation-based writing, I finally understood everything I was doing wrong up to then.

Like many writers, I thought the way to start was with conflict. As long as you have conflict in a story, it’s going to be good. Compose characters in conflict with other characters, or with their environment, or with themselves, and you’re golden. Or so I thought.

But I found when I did that I often hit a wall very quickly after I started writing a story.

Starting with situation, rather than the conflict, can help you avoid that wall.

Just before the message board disagreement started, I had seen the classic Billy Wilder movie, The Apartment.

The Apartment is about a low-level worker in a large corporation who is eager to ascend the ladder of success.

That’s the conflict.

It’s a good one, right? If you want to rise in a company, then you’re going to be in conflict with other people–those who vie for the promotions you want, and those who would rather you stay where you are because they don’t want you replacing them.

If you started with just that conflict, you might compose some scenes of the protagonist proclaiming he wants to get a promotion, and maybe show him working hard to get one.

This is usually the point where stories can start to peter out and you may feel yourself hitting that wall. Or you may read what you wrote and it just seems kind of meh.

What to do about it?

Create a situation.

What exactly is a situation?

According to the dictionary, it’s “a critical, problematic, or striking set of circumstances.”

Sounds interesting already, doesn’t it?

As I mentioned when I wrote about story concept, specifics are your best friend. Situational writing is all about zeroing in on a specific set of circumstances.

Billy Wilder and his co-writer I.A.L. Diamond open The Apartment with a very intriguing situation–to help his climb up the ladder of his company, the protagonist C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) lends his apartment to executives for their extra-marital trysts.

This becomes so popular with the executives that he’s practically been kicked out of his apartment. His neighbors think he’s a wild playboy because of all the beautiful women coming in and out of it.

Note some of the advantages of starting with a specific situation: it not only jumpstarts the story with oodles of conflict (selfish executives who don’t care how it’s inconveniencing C.C., neighbors who resent him, co-workers who resent his relationship with executives), it automatically suggests genre (adult comedy), tone (dark with a touch of farce) and a cast of characters needed to populate the story.

If you’re still having trouble buying how starting with a situation is more beneficial than starting with a conflict, here are examples of other movies with the exact same conflict–a character or characters who want to rise in a company–that all have entirely different situations:

Working Girl – A secretary pretends to be her boss so she can prove her business acumen.

A Shock To The System – When an executive doesn’t get the promotion he expects, he kills his spendthrift wife. When he easily gets away with it, he starts killing off co-workers who get in his way.

The Hudsucker Proxy – A recent business school graduate is plucked from the mail room and installed as president of a corporation by executives hoping to put over a stock fraud.

Executive Suite – The sudden death of the president of a company sparks a power struggle among several executives who believe they should replace him.

All completely different movies, with completely different stories and even different genres (romantic comedy, black comedy, screwball comedy, drama), all with the same basic conflict.

Remember what I said about hitting a wall? Or maybe you’re struggling with that sagging middle that writers dread so much?

What should you do about it?

Create more situations, of course.

In The Apartment, C.C. has a crush on a cute elevator operator girl. (Hey, it was the 60s, people in fancy buildings didn’t push elevator buttons by themselves back then.) That’s nice and there are some sweet scenes where he’s pining for her and they exchange some great Billy Wilder dialogue, but that’s not really a situation. Or, at least, not a terribly compelling one. So Wilder and Diamond created a dilly of a situation:

Turns out, cute elevator operator girl is having an affair with an executive.

Who wants to use C.C.’s apartment for their trysts.

What’s really great about this is how it naturally gives birth to a whole mess of new conflict.

Now I find I rarely hit that wall when I write a story–because I know I can always create a situation to get me over or around it.


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