Have you ever watched a film or read a book where the plot is really heating up? Some conflict has been introduced, you’re nervous and excited, thinking about all the drama or crazy comedy it’ll bring? You settle into your armchair, the hairs on your arm stand up, the popcorn slows as it heads to your mouth… “Oh THIS is going to be good…”
Only to have something happen that completely erases the conflict? And you are left pissed off and hanging?
The punch created by the writer, heading full steam ahead, has been “pulled?”
I’m a huge Downton Abbey fan (what’s not to love?), but recently, there have been so many plot punches pulled that I’m almost at the end of my patience. The other night I watched an episode where the writers pulled their punches THREE times. In ONE episode.
Here’s what happened in each of the three plot lines…
— In one story thread, there has been a big deal made about one of the maids at Downtown being asked to testify at the trial of the man who forced her to steal some jewelry for him in the past. Last season, her theft put her in danger of losing her job. When the truth came out, she was kept on, but now the police have asked her to testify against this man in another case. She’s scared to face him, but we the audience are like, “You have to face him!” Plus, we really want to see what this guy looks like. So we’re on pins and needles, she finally agrees to testify, goes to court, only to be told in the lobby that he’s pleaded guilty and she won’t have to testify after all. WHAT?!! The writer has us in the palm of his/her hand, and then loses us. Total rip-off.
— In another plot line, Violet Crawley (Maggie Smith) has an evil maid (Denker) who calls one of her close friends a “traitor” to his face. Total insubordination! Maggie says, “I have to fire her.” We’re like, “Hurray! Finally that witch is going!” But no, the maid blackmails another servant into helping her get her job back. Conflict erased. Ugh.
— Finally, in what may be my favorite scene in all of Downton history, Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), explosively vomits blood all over his guests at a formal dinner party! Throughout the previous three episodes, he’s been complaining of stomach pain, and we are primed and ready for something BAD. We think, “Oh my God, he has stomach cancer, he’s going to die, what’s going to happen to Downton?” Then the bloody vomitorium. Awesome! But then no. He doesn’t die, he’s going to be fine, it’s just an ulcer. And he’ll need less stress. BOO.
Can you see how, in all these plot lines, the writers set up terrific conflict, and then back away, without allowing the drama to reach its full potential? What if the thieving maid was able to face the man who ruined her life? What if Violet Crawley did fire the horrible Denker and she came back, pissed off, determined to wreak havoc on those who wronged her? What if it looks like Lord Grantham is in danger of dying? Will Downton fall to ruin?
What if we, as writers, lean into the conflict, rather than away?
Take Action! Look at your book or screenplay. Are you doing this in your scenes? If you set up a strong conflict, do you follow through by allowing it to create the maximum drama or comedy in your story? Do you allow the seeds of conflict you’ve planted to fully bloom? If not, how can you remedy this?
Remember, the more conflict the better. Don’t pull your punches!
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