Dramatic Conflict, Part 2

Thank you, Ryan, Rogan, and IMH for your excellent answers to the question I posed at the end of my previous post, Dramatic Conflict. I had not thought of the points you make. (Thanks also to David for your thanks.)

With revenge and altruism as the only values (if any) that today’s heroes fight for, no wonder they are so grim. And no wonder the expression of any other values seems so unmotivated, like lip service. When the hero in Braveheart started speaking for freedom, I remember having asked myself, “Where did that come from?”

Perhaps an even starker illustration of the points you all make is in the movie The Patriot (2000). In this film, the hero (played by Mel Gibson, for whom revenge seems to be a recurring theme) does not join the American Revolution until his son is killed by the British. The idea of reducing America’s fight for independence to a fight for revenge is particularly appalling. Can anyone name an American Founding Father who joined the Revolution only after a loved one was killed by the British?

Thankfully, heroes in some films do sometimes seek selfish values, at least in the realm of love. But fighting a war and killing for selfish values—or for any values—does seem forbidden. It seems that writers feel the need to give their heroes an excuse—in place of a valid reason—for killing an enemy. And an excuse is a feeling, an urge, a neurosis or psychosis, something the hero has no control over—as opposed to an idea, which is chosen.

This mindset is consistent with Naturalism as opposed to Romanticism, as defined by Ayn Rand. For those unfamiliar with her esthetics, see Ayn Rand’s essay “What is Romanticism” in The Romantic Manifesto; the essay begins as follows:

Romanticism is a category of art based on the recognition of the principle that man possesses the faculty of volition.

For a Romantic hero, an internal conflict (traditionally called ‘Man vs. Himself’) would be a conflict of values, such as love vs. honor, or freedom vs. peace; and the hero must choose between them.

Naturalism, on the other hand, denies free will. For a Naturalist character, an internal conflict would be a conflict of emotions, urges, or psychological problems, such as rage vs. despair, or lust vs. guilt; such a character never makes a choice, instead merely wallowing in his torment and oscillating between satisfying one urge and then the other in response to external stimuli.

(For a good exploration of Ayn Rand’s distinction between Romanticism and Naturalism in characterization, see “Consciousness vs. Subconscious Motivation in Literature”, by Tore Boeckmann in The Intellectual Activist, July 1993 and September 1993.)

By far the most famous teacher of screenwriting today is Robert McKee. From my reading, he is also by far the best ‘mainstream’ writer on screenwriting. (Of course, I am not including Ayn Rand in the mainstream.) I looked up ‘conflict’ in McKee’s famous book on screenwriting, Story. Here is part of what I found.

In praising the creation of “inner conflict” in the film Kramer vs. Kramer (1979), McKee writes (p.215):

In the film’s first moments Kramer discovers his wife has left him and his son. He’s torn with an inner conflict that takes the form of doubts and fears that he’s in over his head vs. a male arrogance telling him whatever women do is easy.

Whether the scene from Kramer vs. Kramer is actually as weak as McKee’s praise implies, I don’t recall. My point here is that an entire generation of screenwriters is being mis-taught on the nature of internal conflict.

(McKee also analyzes the conflict in a scene from Casablanca (1942). Perhaps in a future post, I can discuss that.)

It is too bad that more screenwriters are not studying Ayn Rand (for example, The Art of Fiction) instead of McKee.

2 thoughts on “Dramatic Conflict, Part 2

  1. Thanks for this, Ron. I might point out that McKee while popular as a teacher was never much of a screenwriter. In my mind, this always undercut the validity of his theses.

  2. Hello Ron. I like your thoughts on dramatic conflict. I was recently introduced to a whole new field of drama, namely Korean television dramas. One of them in particualr, Dae Jang Geum (Jang Geum the Great), I view as highly Romantic in style, although not Romantic Realism, as it is set in the past.

    It is set in 15th-16th century Korea, and as such the context does not include the idea of individual rights. But works of Romantic art have been set in such contexts before, such as any of Dostoyevsky’s novels. The Romanticism is in the hero’s fight for his values, the emphasis on free will, the purposeful progression of events (plot), and the elevated nature of the characters in their language, actions, and integrity. Dae Jang Geum exemplifies those aspects of Romanticism.

    I have reviewed the drama on my blog, here, if you are interested in learning more about the story.

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