Writerly Ramble: Conflict

We went to The Forbidden Kingdom a few days ago. I read somewhere that it was "a Kung Fu Wizard of Oz," and yeah, I can see that. I liked it (quite a bit), but it wasn't a perfect movie, even for a popcorn action/adventure movie -- because of the conflicts.

The overall conflict was okay. Boy has to decide whether he's a coward or not, fair enough. Some minor plot holes I can overlook, like, "Why didn't Sparrow go after the Jade Warlord before then? Why was she hanging around a tea shop, anyway? Why doesn't she ever frikken put a case on her instrument?"

But what bothered me was that the movie would have a couple of scenes with great, Indiana Jones-style conflicts (where achieving a simple goal becomes increasingly and comically impossible), and then they'd drift off with a pointless scene with no goals or conflicts whatsoever, usually involving the female lead. Hello? Hello? What's the point of throwing a female martial artist in the mix if you're just going to use her for melodramatic subplots?

I started thinking about something Kenny Golde said at the writers' conference. I didn't get it down word for word, but it was basically, "If there's no conflict, skip to the next scene. Just sum it up later." Got a love scene? If there's no conflict, don't show it. Character successfully drives down the road? Great. Skip it. The reason why books don't show characters in the bathroom? Not too many dramatic conflicts, one would hope.*

All those years of teachers saying, "show, don't tell" were always missing out on the point. WHY "show, don't tell?" Well, because it's more exciting. WHY is it more exciting? Because conflict is exciting, and you should include conflict in anything you bother to show -- otherwise, just tell.

For example, in The Forbidden Kingdom, there's a scene where the main character is riding down a road with his staff outstretched in his hand. That's it. Duhhhhh..... Okay, now imagine the scene with various bad guys reluctantly backing away from him. "Ohhhh, he's holding out the staff so everyone knows he has it, not because he's an ass with a golden staff."

*Except for that one great scene from the episode of Mad about You where they're brushing their teeth together and Helen Hunt's character accidentally spits on the back of Paul Reiser's character's head. I think about that scene while I'm brushing my teeth with Lee the way some people think about driving off a cliff.