Vulnerability, Not Conflict, is the Key to Good Drama

In silent movies, a hole in the shoe of the protagonist tells the audience this fella or this gal is on hard times. This cinematic trope came from real experiences of grinding poverty. Silent starts like Chaplin grew up in genuine poverty. They knew what it was like to be poor. I have very particular childhood memories of seeing silent movies on the TV. People mending shoes way past usefulness or redemption with pieces of cardboard. It’s actually an incredibly neat piece of symbolism. Very little makes a person feel more vulnerable than wearing shoes that don’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 vulnerability. It is the experience of someone too poor to be able to protect themselves from the elements. It is about the visceral about having cold rainwater soaking into your socks. The way a hole in the sole of your shoes makes life unbearable. Poverty creates intense levels of vulnerability.
And, that is what I want to write about today, because for me:
Without vulnerability, there is no drama.
It is a common belief amongst writers and filmmakers that drama is built solely on conflict. This idea is so embedded in Western culture, it controls the way news is reported. Searching for the 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. It is also, plain wrong. Wrong as in, incorrect.
For many screenwriters drama means: protagonist vs antagonist = conflict.
There is a problem though, neither the truth or great drama can be found purely in that kind of conflict.
Traditional, conflict-driven drama eventually leads to the exposure of the protagonist’s vulnerability. The conflict breaks the protagonist down. They become truly heroic, when they either transcend or embrace their vulnerability. Rather than being the only source of drama, conflict is just one way to the real source, vulnerability.
If the script is written by an idiot the vulnerability and the empathy never make it into the story. Instead we end up with conflict drama. Drama where people are either shooting at each other or shouting at each other. I find my attention wandering from the screen during movie gun battles. That is, unless there is something deeper going on. Which these days, there rarely is.
Searching for the vulnerability of characters is more rewarding than conflict. Human beings make incredible efforts to avoid public displays of vulnerability. If we must look for conflict, the best kind to look for is internal conflict. Characters who try to retain their dignity, when the pressure is to expose them.
Vulnerability, is harder to write than conflict.
I believe it is worth the effort. The exploration of human vulnerability is a better model than “drama as conflict.” However, there is another reason why vulnerability is important. 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. They have lost sight of the importance of writing. This is great news for independent movie-makers. That is, providing we don’t suffer the same fate.
As a screenwriter, I constantly ask myself, what is really worth writing? Scripts that explore human frailty and vulnerability in an honest compelling manner. That’s a good answer.

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