Pixar Rules of Story #6 – Conflict and Emotional Arc
What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?
Pixar’s Rule #6 is closely linked to Rule #1 as it is related to conflict – putting your protagonist in a bind, taking them out of their comfort zone, and seeing how they react. The key here though is to make sure it is not conflict for conflict’s sake. Just because you can throw a brick wall in your hero’s face, doesn’t mean you should. We need to be a bit more creative with our conflict and blocks.
This is important as the conflict should be related to the character’s emotional arc and development through the story. This is where the “how do they deal?” question comes in – those blocks and troubles we design for our characters should develop them emotionally and illustrate this growth/change in the way they deal with each conflict.
However, despite the wording of the rule, we don’t just want to throw something that is the polar opposite to them – that is easy and can lead to stale story-telling. We want to challenge them with something that forces them into a polar opposite mindset or existence.
For example – and going back to our friend George Bailey from It’s A Wonderful Life – the conflict and blocks that George faces throughout the film conspire to stop him getting away from Bedford Falls. He dreams of getting away, but those challenges throw him into a polar opposite – a world that he can’t escape from. However, they also allow him to develop as a character and come to learn just how much he has right in front of him – which is the emotional arc of the story.
If we had been subjected to two hours of conflict around him losing a pair of shoes, or filling out a tax return, it would have been a hell of a lot less interesting. Those conflicts, while we may be able to identify with the frustration, don’t really develop George as a character or reflect his desire to leave his home town and the difficulties he has in doing so.
Thinking about this makes me feel that this is also all closely bound to a character’s Wants and Needs. Conflict challenges the external Wants, while channeling the character towards their Need. Again this all ties closely with the emotional arc of your story and characters.
As another example, in his analysis, Stephan Vladimir Bugaj talks about a violinist. He discusses how the polar opposite of playing the violin is not playing the violin, but that, in itself, doesn’t make an interesting story. [He then goes on to discuss a more detailed example around a compulsive liar – but I thought I would stick with the violinist!]
Thinking about this some more, and in relation to Want and Need, we might have a Violinist who Wants to play the violin at the highest level and be world-renowned. She will never make that level (she doesn’t know that yet though), but she is determined and her life is dedicated to playing. However, this is at the detriment of her relationship with her partner and child, who she never has time for as she is so focussed on her impossible dream. Her (obvious) Need is to recognise what she has in her family and to give up the impossible dream to spend more time with them.
So, we don’t just get her to stop playing the violin – that’s too easy. Perhaps we have an incident where the family needs money urgently and her antique violin is the only thing they have of value. Perhaps she injures her hand and needs the money for the healthcare fees? She has to decide whether to sell the violin. There is conflict directly related to her Want and puts her into a position of opposition as she can no longer play the violin. She is taken out of her comfort zone and into a new world, the polar opposite of what she is used to.
This kicks off her emotional arc as she spends more time with her family and starts to realise what she is missing. Perhaps this helps open her eyes to the fact that she won’t ever really make it. She takes a job tutoring young players and finds that she enjoys that link to the old world….but one that allows her to stay in the new.
Then you could play it back the other way and have something crop up that tempts her back to the old ways – in opposition to her new life and recognition of her internal Need. A great opportunity that throws in another conflict as to whether she does something drastic to buy back her violin or learns from the changes in her life and lets the old world go forever. Will she? Won’t she? Great conflict, lots to lose and all related to the emotional arc.
Probably an appallingly cliched and simple example, but one that, hopefully illustrates the concept: Conflict that throws your character into opposition with themselves.
And hopefully you can see how this concept of throwing the polar opposite at a character is a useful way to think about your “inciting incident” and/or “break into ActII” if you use those stages in your beat sheets and outlines. Those early scenes in your script are the ones that introduce the “problem” to the character and the audience and tend to launch your protagonist out of their comfort zone/the status quo and into a new world of conflict and contradiction to the norm.
In summary, we know we have to throw conflict at our protagonists. But don’t just throw anything at them. Link the conflict to the character, to their Wants and Needs and to their emotional arc to ensure that the conflict is relevant. And make that conflict throw the character in the opposite direction to the one they expected to be going in or, perhaps, tempts them towards it. Take them out of their comfort zone.
Sorry for the lengthy post – perhaps I need to go back to Rule #5?
How do you decide what conflict to throw at your characters?
Do you link it to their emotional arc, Wants and Needs?
Feel free to comment below and remember to come back next week for Rule #7 – Start with your Ending
Please also check out the Introduction to the series if you missed that!
(Thanks again to Alex Eylar for permission to use his great images!)