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Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

The Second Act Belongs to the Villain

By Steven Pressfield
Published: October 22, 2014

I learned this from Randall Wallace (Braveheart), who learned it from Steve Cannell, the maestro of a million plotlines from The Rockford Files to Baretta to 21 Jump Street:

Keep this dude up front.

Keep the antagonist front-and-center in the middle of your story.

Why does this work? Because it energizes the narrative. Think about these all-time mega-hits—Jaws, Alien, the first Terminator. The villains were everywhere in those movies and, more importantly, the protagonists were aware of and terrified of them at every moment. Still don’t believe me? Four words: Star Wars, Darth Vader.

I was watching a movie called A Single Shot on TV the other night. Sam Rockwell was the star. I’m a huge Sam Rockwell fan so I vowed to stick with it all the way.

It wasn’t easy.

Why? Because the villains disappeared in Act Two.

A Single Shot is about a hunter (Sam R.) who discovers a stash of money in the woods. The Bad Guys are the dudes who lost the cash and now want it back. They should be coming after Sam big-time. But they don’t. Or they don’t come scarily enough or often enough. The result is the air goes out of the movie.

Compare this to No Country For Old Men, a book and film with a very similar premise. But in No Country, the villain Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) turns up everywhere, making corpses out of half the population of Texas as he pursues the hunter Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin) who has his money. The result: the movie (at least the middle part) nails you to your seat.

This principle—The Second Act Belongs to the Villain—works for abstract villains as well, like the looming market crash in Margin Call. The filmmakers go back to this monster again and again and every time the story gets tauter and the audience gets sucked in deeper.

Or if you believe that the real villain of Margin Call is the impending moral catastrophe embodied in the decision by the company executives to blow up the world economy in order to save themselves and their company (yes, I believe that too), then the filmmakers have answered that as well. Every scene in the second act vibrates with this looming decision and the moral calamity it implies.

The villain in Silver Linings Playbook is not a person or an abstraction. It’s Bradley Cooper’s obsession with getting back together with his wife Nikki.

In other words, it’s an interior antagonist.

David O. Russell, the film’s writer and director, keeps this villain up front throughout Act Two, and it works like gangbusters.

Let’s take a minute and examine how he does it.
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Posted in Writing Wednesdays
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What It Takes

What It Takes

Stick It To The Doorknob

By Callie Oettinger | Published: October 24, 2014

My neighbor called yesterday. She was in the hospital and her husband’s cell phone wasn’t working. He’d forgotten to bring a few things with him and was on his way back home to pack another bag for her. Would I pop over and ask him to grab a few extra things to bring back to the hospital?

I adore these neighbors and would do anything to help them, so I dropped what I was doing and stuck my head outside. Empty car port.

Back inside, I grabbed a sticky pad and pen and scribbled a note with the items she needed, then headed to the kitchen for a plastic bag. It was raining and I needed the note to survive. Only gallon-sized freezer bags were in the designated baggie-tin-foil-and-cling-wrap drawer. (Noted to self: Buy more sandwich-sized bags and hide from 6-year-old who hordes them for random rocks, pilfered coins, and other bric-a-brac).

No Scotch-tape in site (also most-likely claimed by the 6-year-old), I grabbed a tape gun, tucked it under my arm and headed back outside, note-stuffed gallon bag in one hand and umbrella in the other.

Not wanting to risk paint pulling from their door if I taped the note to it (and thus a call from the horrid HOA to repaint, which is the horrid HOA’s M.O.), I stared, wondering about the best placement. The door knocker made the most sense. It was centered, toward the top of the door. Because the note was in a gallon-sized plastic bag, it would hang below the knocker, at about my neighbor’s eye-level, note facing out through the clear plastic.

A few minutes after drying off inside, I heard his car. Moving faster than a TMZ informer sniffing out a payday, I stuck my head back out. The note was still on the front door as he shut it behind him.

What to do?

Did he see it and leave it because he was in a rush? Or did he tell himself he’d read it on the way out?


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Posted in What It Takes | 5 Comments

What It Takes

What It Takes

Go Dark

By Shawn Coyne | Published: October 17, 2014

[Join www.storygrid.com to read more of Shawn’s Story Philosophy]

How do you choose what kind of story you want to tell?

Maybe you do it by thinking up a “What if” Event—what if terrorists attacked in the middle of the Super Bowl*?

Maybe you do it thinking of a “What if” Protagonist—what if the hero of my story is an inanimate object**?

Freddy Krueger, one insprired force of antagonism

Obviously, you can’t have a story without events and protagonists. But is there another way to goose yourself into a feverish writing jag? One that can sustain you for an entire first draft?

My advice to anyone tinkering in their heads about a big Story is to put both Events and Protagonists aside.  Especially in the primordial stage. You’ll have no shortage of anguish with those two elements in the future, but for now—when you’re just doing internal spit balling—forget about them.

Instead go dark.

The most important element in any story is the force/s of antagonism. If you create incredibly specific forces of antagonism that you want to explore, the choice of genre to expose that darkness becomes crystal clear.


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Posted in What It Takes | 15 Comments
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