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 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.
Posted in Writing Wednesdays
The year is 2032. The third Iran-Iraq war is over; the 11/11 dirty-bomb attack on the port of Long Beach, California is receding into memory; Saudi Arabia has recently quelled a coup; Russians and Turks are clashing in the Caspian Basin. Everywhere military force is for hire. Oil companies, multinational corporations and banks employ powerful, cutting-edge mercenary armies to control global chaos and protect their riches.
Do The Work isn't so much a follow-up to The War of Art as it is an action guide that gets down and dirty in the trenches. Say you've got a book, a screenplay or a startup in your head but you're stuck or scared or just don't know how to begin, how to break through or how to finish. Do The Work takes you step-by-step from the project's inception to its ship date, hitting each predictable 'Resistance point' along the way and giving techniques and drills for overcoming each obstacle. There's even a section called 'Belly of the Beast' that goes into detail about dealing with the inevitable moment in any artistic or entrepreneurial venture when you hit the wall and just want to cry 'HELP!'
The Warrior Ethos was written for our men and women in uniform, but its utility, I hope, will not be limited to the sphere of literal armed conflict. We all fight wars--in our work, within our families, and abroad in the wider world. Each of us struggles every day to define and defend our sense of purpose and integrity, to justify our existence on the planet and to understand, if only within our own hearts, who we are and what we believe in.
We are all warriors. Do we fight by a code? If so, what is it? What is the Warrior Ethos? How do we (and how can we) use it and be true to it in our internal and external lives?
Autumn, 1942. Hitler's legions have swept across Europe; France has fallen; Churchill and the English are isolated on their island. In North Africa, Rommel and his Panzers have routed the British Eighth Army and stand poised to overrun Egypt, Suez, and the oilfields of the Middle East. With the outcome of the war hanging in the balance, the British hatch a desperate plan -- send a small, highly mobile, and heavily armed force behind German lines to strike the blow that will stop the Afrika Korps in its tracks.
A riveting historical novel that re-creates Alexander the Great's invasion of the Afghan kingdoms in 330 B.C., a campaign that eerily foreshadows the tactics, terrors and frustrations of contemporary conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Narrated by Matthias, an infantryman in Alexander's army, The Afghan Campaign explores the challenges, both military and moral, that Alexander and his soldiers face as they embark on a new type of war and are forced to adapt to the methods of a ruthless foe that employs terror and insurgent tactics, conceals itself among the civilian populace, and recruits women and boys as combatants.
I have always been a soldier. I have no other life So begins Alexander's extraordinary confession on the eve of his greatest crisis of leadership. By turns heroic and calculating, compassionate and utterly merciless, Alexander recounts with a warrior's unflinching eye for detail the blood, the terror, and the tactics of his greatest battlefield victories. Whether surviving his father's brutal assassination, presiding over a massacre, or weeping at the death of a beloved comrade-in-arms, Alexander never denies the hard realities of the code by which he lives: the virtues of war. But as much as he was feared by his enemies, he was loved and revered by his friends, his generals, and the men who followed him into battle. Often outnumbered, never outfought, Alexander conquered every enemy the world stood against him — but the one he never saw coming....
In the time before Homer, the legendary Theseus, King of Athens (an actual historical figure), set sail on a journey that brought him into the land of tal Kyrte, the "free people," a nation of proud female warriors whom the Greeks called "Amazons." The Amazons, bound to each other as lovers as well as fighters, distrusted the Greeks, with their boastful talk of "civilization." So when the great war queen Antiope fell in love with Theseus and fled with the Greeks, the mighty Amazon nation rose up in rage.
If history is the biography of extraordinary men, the life of Alcibiades (451-404 B.C.) comprises an indispensable chapter in the chronicle of the Western world. Kinsman of Pericles, protégé of Socrates, Alcibiades was acknowledged the most brilliant and charismatic personality of his day. Plutarch, Plato, and Thucydides have all immortalized him. As the pride of Achilles drove the course of the Trojan War, so Alcibiades' will and ambition set their stamp upon the Peloponnesian War--the twenty-seven-year civil conflagration between the Athenian empire and Sparta and the Peloponnesian league.
In 480 B.C., an invading Persian army, two-million strong, came to the mountain pass of Thermopylae in eastern Greece. Led by King Xerxes, they were met by the finest three hundred Spartan warriors where the rocky confines were so narrow that the Persian multitudes and their cavalry would be at least partially neutralized. Here, the Greek loyalists hoped, the elite force could hold off, at least for a short while, the invading millions.
What keeps so many of us from doing what we long to do? Why is there a naysayer within? How can we avoid the roadblocks of any creative endeavor—be it starting up a dream business venture, writing a novel, or painting a masterpiece? The War of Art identifies the enemy that every one of us must face, outlines a battle plan to conquer this internal foe, then pinpoints just how to achieve the greatest success.
In the Depression year of 1931, on the golf links at Krewe Island off Savannah's windswept shore, two legends of the game, Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen, meet for a mesmerizing thirty-six-hole showdown. Another golfer will also compete--a troubled local war hero, once a champion, who comes with his mentor and caddie, the mysterious Bagger Vance. Sage and charismatic, it is Vance who will ultimately guide the match, for he holds the secret of the Authentic Swing. And he alone can show his protégé the way back to glory.