Vulnerability, Not Conflict, is the Key to Good Drama

Of all the cinematic cliches about poverty and the hobo lifestyle, having a hole in the sole of your shoe is perhaps the most common. In silent movies, a hole in the shoe of the protagonist tells the audience that this fella or this gal is on hard times. This became a common trope in American cinema because the industry was referencing the grinding poverty some Americans experienced during the Great Depression. I have very particular childhood memories of seeing silent movies on the TV, where tramps cut out cardboard shoe-liners to put inside shoes way past usefulness or redemption. When I think about it, it’s actually an incredibly neat piece of symbolism, because very little makes a person feel more vulnerable than discovering their shoes won’t keep out the cold and the rain. 

In terms of telling a story, the hole in the shoe of a tramp is more than just an easy visual shorthand for poverty. The hole in the shoe is ultimately about the extreme levels of vulnerability experienced by someone who is too poor to be able to protect themselves from the elements. There is something visceral about the experience of having cold rainwater soaking into your socks, through a hole in the sole of your shoes. Poverty creates an intense level of vulnerability.

And, that is what I want to talk about today… because for me:

Without vulnerability, there is no drama.

It is a common belief amongst writers and film-makers that drama is built solely on conflict. The idea that narrative is driven by conflict is so embedded in Western culture that it has become the primary tool of news reporting and of documentary. Searching for truth has given way to a crude form of gladiatorial conflict. Find an issue, throw two extremists into a studio and let them slug it out, all in the name of balance.

It is perverse.

It is more than perverse. In my opinion, it is also just, plain wrong. Wrong as in, incorrect.

For most screenwriters and movie makers the same dynamic is constantly played out in story-telling: protagonist/antagonist = conflict.

There is a problem though, neither the truth or great drama can be found purely in conflict.

When a traditional, conflict-driven drama works well, it eventually leads to the vulnerability of the protagonist being exposed; the conflict breaks the protagonist down and, in a sense, they become truly heroic, when they either transcend or embrace their vulnerability. Rather than being the core source of drama conflict is just one means to the real source, vulnerability.

Of course, if the script is written by an idiot then the vulnerability and the empathy never make it into the story and instead we end up with conflict drama, drama where people are either shooting at each other or shouting at each other. I don’t know about you, but I find my attention wandering from the screen during movie gun battles unless there is something deeper going on. Which these days, there rarely is.

Searching for the vulnerability of characters in a scene is more rewarding for a dramatist than searching for conflict. This is because human beings make incredible efforts to avoid public displays of vulnerability. If you are looking for the “conflict” within a scene the best kind to look for is the internal conflict of a character who is trying to retain their dignity, in a situation where they are forced to be vulnerable.

Vulnerability, however, is much harder to write.

I believe it is worth the effort. It is worth the effort because embracing the idea of drama as an exploration of human vulnerability is a better model than “drama as conflict.” However, there is another reason why vulnerability is important. It is important because in the last thirty years Hollywood seems to have forgotten how to write with vulnerability. I think it is partly to do with the growth of CGI and 3D cinema. They have become engrossed in the technology and have lost sight of the importance of writing. This is great news for independent movie-makers, providing we don’t suffer the same fate.

For my entire screenwriting career, I have always asked the question, what is really worth writing? In my opinion, one of the answers to that question is scripts that explore human frailty and vulnerability in an honest compelling manner.