The Field of Dreams: Conflict as Metaphor in Screenplays
by Elizabeth English

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"If you build it, they will come!" The skillful use of metaphor can give visible shape to a character and recognizable, believable impetus to conflicts in film. The deeper meaning of a situation becomes clear and powerful to the varied cinema audience, when metaphors for conflict are utilized. The film Field of Dreams is one example of strong use of this device. Put in the simplest terms, a farmer, down on his luck, is advised by a voice only he hears, to build a baseball diamond in his corn field in Iowa. He fights with his wife, his friends and the bank over this wildly improbable notion. He builds the baseball diamond anyway, always believing in his dream, though he has no idea why he does it. He just "has to". He solicits the reluctant help of a famous and combative author, and a long-dead doctor. The ghosts of former baseball players, including the farmer's deceased father, appear. The film ends with the farmer finally playing catch with his father and rectifying past wrongs, the doctor saves the life of the farmer's child, the author goes to his fate, peacefully at last, and the financial fate of the farm and his family is salvaged when long lines of cars arrive with paying baseball fans.

The farm itself is a metaphor for one's career or chosen path in life, which is in conflict with the protagonist's social and situational milieu. The cornfield/baseball diamond is a metaphor depicting a small portion of that life, but which affects and is in conflict with all other parts of his life. The farmer is Everyman/woman. The wife, the child, the friends and relatives, the bankers, the author and the doctor, as well as the ghostly baseball players and the neighbors, are all recognizable and human metaphors, to whom the audience can relate, for conflicts in one person's life; past, present and future. The farmer's character is identified by his conflicts and how he deals with them.

Visual metaphors can speak directly and visibly to our characters' conflicting feelings and emotions, when used to convey abstractions, such as death, love, fear, joy. A bare winter field can convey death or hopelessness as the character trudges across the frozen wasteland; a bright red balloon floating upward into a blue summer sky can impart happiness or a character surpassing expectations, a sense of freedom, or even childlike emotions of simple joy. A woman sadly gazing into pieces of a broken mirror tells the audience more about her personal conflict than does a page of dialog. In the short film The Unique Oneness of Christian Savage, a child's best friend falls from the tall tree in which they were playing, and is killed... the surviving child runs from the pious words spoken at the funeral and grabs a broken tree branch, and beats at the "evil" tree that killed his little friend. Conflict in film made visible and powerful! And without words.

The film Cool Hand Luke beautifully shows the conflict between the protagonist/hero, Luke, and his captors, who are inhumanly cruel and evil and hold all the cards. Luke seems to have no hope of escape or of retribution., though he makes every effort, only to be doomed to return to solitary confinement over and over, and to further punishment. Similarly, the film The Great Escape is filled with conflict against the Nazi captors, who are in conflict with the prisoners who try to escape, and whom are killed or re-captured for their trouble. Some other powerful examples of well-written conflict in film are Babette's Feast, Dersu Uzala, American Beauty, Jules et Jim, The Bagdad Cafe, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Dr. Strangelove, The Virgin Spring, Mulan, Sophie's Choice, King of Hearts, Midnight Cowboy and La Strada.

There are five distinct types of conflict that can be utilized 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 filmgoer, and increase the film's impact on that audience.

Inner conflict is the hardest type of conflict to convey successfully in a film, if that's the central focus of conflict in the story. It's also the most difficult kind of screenplay to sell, despite the recent success of such films about inner, personal conflict, like American Beauty. In the comedy, "Tootsie", the protagonist goes through conflict with his original situation (poverty, wanting to be a great actor), to personal conflict (lack of confidence in his ability to pull off the scam), relational (falling in love with a woman who thinks the protagonist is a woman), social conflict (with his boss and co-workers, friends, the father of the woman he loves, and his TV audience), and another situational conflict (should he let the cat out of the bag in order to win the heart of the woman he loves?). Only when inner, societal, situational, or universal conflict is projected outward toward another character, and becomes relational, and is therefore the basis of the clear story-line, does it have the most dramatic impact.

The latest, wildly-popular American TV program, Survivor, is an archetypal example of strong conflicts among a group of people, and of those clear conflicts driving the "story". The producers and directors of the reality-based program emphasize conflicts when editing each week's film footage. The millions of fanatic audience members care about the characters, or they hate them. The TV viewers hope that their favorites remain on the island and that one of them wins the prize. They argue on internet chat rooms and message boards, and around the office water cooler or in the halls at school about complete strangers whom they perceive to be bad guys or good guys worthy of achieving the show's goal, of winning the million dollars, despite the characters' conflicts with isolation, hunger, danger, competition with the other "tribe", and with each other.

Conflict is the ultimate basis of dramas, action films and comedies, and is the key ingredient for great characterizations and is key to a successful screenplay. All conflict occurs when a character has a goal that is not shared with another character, whether it's the protagonist and antagonist, &/or secondary characters in the story. One will win and the other will lose, or may come around to the viewpoint and goals of the main character. Build each hurdle or obstacle your protagonist faces higher than the last. Make each subsequent conflict be more insurmountable or impossible than the one before. In a film, the audience comes to observe and to experience the story's conflicts and the expected or surprising conclusion. The audience wants the protagonist to have as much trouble reaching his or her goal as is possible. The antagonist must be as strong as, or stronger than, the protagonist. The more powerful and persuasive the antagonist, the greater the eventual victory is for the protagonist. The last five or ten pages of the script should play out the final conflict and answer the question whether the central character will realize his or her goal.

SUGGESTED READING:

The Artist's Way, A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity, by Julia Cameron. G.P. Putnam, NY 1992

Creating Unforgettable Characters, by Linda Seger

The Figure in Film, by N. Roy Clifton. Associated University Presses, Inc., East Brunswick, NJ 1983

Film as a Subversive Art, by Amos Vogel. Random House, NY 1974

From Script to Screen, by Linda Seger & E. J. Whetmore

Making a Good Script Great, by Linda Seger. Samuel French Trade,Hollywood, CA 1987

Screenwriting 434, by Lew Hunter. Perigee Books, Putnam Publishing, NY, 1993

Story, Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting, by Robert McKee, Regan Books. Harper Collins Publishers, NY 1997

Storycrafting, by Paul Boles

Successful Scriptwriting, by Jurgen Wolf & Kerry Cox. Writer's Digest Books, Cincinnati, Ohio 1991

TV Scriptwriter's Handbook, by Alfred Brenner

Writer's Digest Books Handbook of Short Story Writing (Vol. I), by Frank Dickson & Sandra Smythe (eds.)

The Writer's Digest Handbook of Short Story Writing (Vol. II) Writers Digest Books, Cincinnati, Ohio, 1981

The Writer's Journey, Mythic Structure for Writers, by Christopher Vogler. Michael Wiese Productions, Studio City, CA 1998

Writing Screenplays That Sell, by Michael Hauge

Copyright © 2002 Elizabeth English
Reprinted with permission from the Moondance International Film Festival Ezine (http://moondancefilmfestival.com/)

This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.


Elizabeth English lives in Boulder, Colorado, in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. She is the founder of the Moondance International Film Festival and competition. Elizabeth has written sections of four published books on creative careers for McGraw Hill and has written screenwriting articles for MovieBytes.com, EuroScreenwriter.com, and ScreenTalk Magazine. Elizabeth's screenplay, April Fool's Day was a finalist at the 2001 AFI Women Director's Workshops. Her stageplay The Mythical Journey was a 2001 finalist in the Alexander Onassis competition.

 

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