So how does conflict work among characters who are on the same side and are supposed to be getting along? Let’s take a look at Callie Khouri’s 1991 Oscar-winning debut script, Thelma & Louise, about two gal pals who set off on a road trip and always have each other’s back when the shit hits the fan, as an example. (SPOILER ALERT: This discussion will reveal plot details of the film.)
Right from the start Louise argues with Thelma that they won’t be needing the lantern—or the gun—that Thelma has brought. Still barely out of town, Thelma wants to stop and have some fun on the way to the lake. Louise does not. More conflict. Thelma wants to drink and dance. Louise warns her not to get into any trouble. Thelma doesn’t listen and gets herself into real trouble out in the parking lot. Louise has to rescue her by shooting Harlan (Timothy Carhart), setting both ladies on the lam. If they didn’t have the gun or stop for drinks or dance with Harlan, the rest of the movie couldn’t happen.
Each protagonist has her own distinct arc. Thelma begins as a sheltered idealist, while Louise is a hardened realist. By the end of the picture, the BFFs are square on the same page. They make their final—and hardest—decision together, in absolute unity.
ScripTipps TIP: Imbue every scene with conflict that grows naturally from your characters’ differences.
ScripTipps TIP: Use a little conflict to enliven a talking heads scene among best friends who are always on each other’s side.
ScripTipps TIP: Use a hint of conflict to underline the consequences that will end up moving the plot in a new direction.
ScripTipps TIP: In a two-hander, give each protagonist her own distinct arc that couldn’t exist without the actions of both of them.
ScripTipps TIP: Buddy characters start out as opposites but end up on the same page after each has gone through some transformation.
ScripTipps TIP: Don’t let a supporting character exist just to give the hero someone to talk to for the sake of delivering exposition.
ScripTipps TIP: Make things happen where if they didn’t, the rest of the story wouldn’t happen.
(A version of this post was first published on Five Sprockets on July 19, 2010.)