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
ADDITIONAL READING » CLASSICAL GREECE
by Forde, Steven
Brilliant scholarly dissertation on the mind-set of Alcibiades and the politics of imperialism in ancient Athens. You’ve gotta be a real aficionado to find this book (try your local college library) and get through it. But it will reward the serious reader. I borrowed all kinds of goodies from Forde for Tides of War.
by Morrison, Coates, and Rankov
Triremes were the famous ancient warships with three banks of oars. The problem: no one of the past 1500 years knew how the old guys did it. All design and engineering has been lost. The authors of this book play detective, scouring ancient texts, coins, carvings, and using their own imaginations. They figure it out, then build a trireme of their own. It works! Fascinating.
by Xenophon (Loeb Library, two volumes, translated by Walter Miller)
Though this book purports to narrate the upbringing and conquests of the great Persian king, in truth the society Xenophon describes is that of Sparta (no outsider knew it better than he), complete with “peers,” good manners at the dinner table, and why a true warrior never urinates on campaign (he should have eliminated excess water entirely by sweating).
by Herodotus (translated by Aubrey de Selincourt)
This is the book “The English Patient” was carrying. Funny, personal, and very entertaining, this book recounts the history of the clashes between Greeks and Persians, out of which arose the modern world. The battle of Thermopylae is in here—and Marathon, Salamis, and Plataea—plus dozens of zany, fascinating flashes into ancient life.
by Thucydides (translated by Rex Warner)
Tough sledding because of the dense but absolutely brilliant prose. May be the greatest book on war and human nature ever written. Timeless.
by Houston, Paul
My friend Paul Houston, in England, put together Sparta World, a work-in-progress website for Spartaphiles and aficionados of all things Spartans. The site is interesting in and of itself (and constantly evolving) and also a great jumping-off point and clearinghouse for re-enactor groups, hoplite fighters, artists, writers, and all other contemporary upholders of the Lakedaemonian tradition and ethos—and just for the fun of it. Paul invites all interested groups and individuals to contact him, link to the site, and network with their “peers.”
by Thucydides (edited by Robert B. Strassler)
A different but also excellent translation—but this one comes with maps, dozens and dozens, down to postage-stamp sizes, on almost every page. They help.
by Plato (translated by Hugh Tredennick)
Okay, okay . . . Two works by Plato . . . Translated by Hugh Tredennick, The Last Days compiles four dialogues into an organic whole narrating the trial, conviction, and death by hemlock of Socrates. Deep stuff on the subject of dying.
by Plutarch (translated by Richard J.A. Talbert)
The best one-book introduction to Sparta and Spartan thought. Several of Plutarch’s Lives of famous Spartans, plus Sayings of the Spartans and Sayings of the Spartan Women. Start here.
by Xenophon (translated by Rex Warner)
Ten thousand Greek mercenaries follow Cyrus the Younger’s three months’ march into the wilds of Persia, then lose the battle they came to fight. Xenophon was there as a young officer. His tale of the Greeks’ long and harrowing retreat against the hordes determined to obliterate them is justifiably immortal. Hollywood’s The Warriors, about a street gang from Brooklyn, was cleverly knocked off from this.
Easiest to read of all “the sources.” Short bios, packed with anecdotes and wisdom, of every great man of the Classical era. Plutarch wrote them in pairs, juxtaposing Caesar to Alexander, Alcibiades to Coriolanus, that sort of thing. My faves: Lycurgus, Solon, Themistocles, Alcibiades, Alexander.
This Penquin paperback assembles the lives of all the major players in Athens’ rise and fall—Theseus, Solon, Themistocles, Cimon, Pericles, Nicias, Alcibiades, and Lysander. A brilliant editorial concept, The Last Days can be pretty scary when you read-in the parallels to the contemporary United States.
by Lazenby, J.F.
Another hard-to-track-down work (try the Reference Librarian) that may lack the readable touch, but is crammed with great esoteric stuff like what the Spartans called a platoon leader [an enomotarch.] Only for true Sparta fanatics.
by Cartledge, Paul
Chairman of the Classics faculty at Cambridge, Cartledge is the expert, from whom I have also borrowed major tonnage. Here he’s not writing an exhaustive, all-inclusive tome, but hitting the high spots with great depth, if you know what I mean.
by Plato (translated by Walter Hamilton)
Hard to pick only one work from this great writer, thinker, and wrestler (Plato was his nickname, meaning “broad-shouldered”) and protégé of Socrates, but this is it. A night of gentlemen’s conversation, drunk and sober, at Athens in its glory days, highlighted by soliloquies “in praise of Love” by Aristophanes, Alcibiades, Agathon, and Socrates. Truman Capote wishes he threw a party like this.
by Carey, Christopher
Still extant are the actual lawyer’s arguments from a number of famous ancient cases. Trust me, Johnny Cochrane had nothing on these slick Athenian legal eagles.