Saturday, May 14, 2011
The Elements of a Scene: Conflict, Obstacles and Resolution
This is the fourth in a series analyzing a scene from The Grapes of Wrath. For this entry, I want to talk about conflict, obstacles and resolution.
There are three types of conflict: character vs. character, character vs. circumstances, and character vs. self. In the past, these were often referred to as man vs. man, man vs. nature and man vs. self. What's important is understanding that without conflict, there is no drama.
If Pa Joad walks in and asks for a 10 cent loaf of bread and they sell it to him, the scene is over. Furthermore, we've learned nothing new about the characters or the world they live in. Conflict by itself is valuable for what it reveals.
The other important thing to realize is that there can be more than one kind of conflict in a scene. The more levels of conflict there are, the more interesting the scene and the more information gets revealed. In the above scene, we clearly have character vs. character. Pa Joad wants to buy bread and the waitress doesn't want to sell it to him. Pa Joad is also in conflict with circumstances. His family has been thrown off their land, they're poor and they're traveling over a thousand miles in a truck that's little more than a junk heap. Finally, we have character vs. self in the person of the waitress. She could have chosen to quote the accurate price for the candy, knowing full well that the Joads could not afford it, but decided instead to lie so that the children could have a treat.
There is also a character vs. self conflict going on with the truck drivers. They know that the waitress has lied and sold the candy at a discount. They could choose to pay their bills and leave, but they decide to endorse the waitress's action by not accepting their change.
Obstacles are related to the type of conflict. In a character vs. character situation, each character is the other's obstacle. The waitress stands between Pa Joad and the loaf of bread and Pa Joad stands between the waitress and her having a good time with the truck drivers. The circumstance of poverty is Pa Joad's obstacle. With more money, he'd have no problems. For character vs. self, it's a character's conscience that is the obstacle. The waitress has to struggle with charging the correct amount and disappointing the children, or making an economic sacrifice so that the children can be happy.
The conflicts here illuminate the characters. Pa Joad will not take no for an answer but will also not raise his voice or make threats. The waitress and the truck drivers have a hard shell, but there is humanity underneath. Ultimately, they recognize that others are struggling and decide to help.
The resolution of this scene is that Pa Joad succeeds and the waitress does not, but she is touched by the actions of the truck drivers. The resolution of any scene is not a foregone conclusion; it must come naturally out of the events of the scene, but still keep the audience wondering what will happen. There is no shortage of bad news for the Joads in this film; they are treated poorly on many occasions. Because of this, the outcome of this scene is uncertain in the eyes of the audience. It could go either way. It is one of the few scenes in this part of the film where the Joads get some relief from their troubles.