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 » GOLF
by Robert Tyre (Bobby) Jones
In my opinion, the best golf book ever written. Kind of a hodge-podge actually, with tips and lessons mixed in with autobiography—the story of the Grand Slam, and even a chapter titled “The Stymie—Let’s Have It Back!” Like so many memoirs by great men and women who aren’t professional writers, it rings true as gold, page after page. If Bobby wants the stymie back, I’m all for it.
by Penick, Harvey
If authenticity is a virtue, this is the supreme manifestation of it. Harvey Penick and John Wooden both radiate that quality of true-blue excellence and generosity, which explains why both have produced so many champions and are both so revered by all who knew them. Simply sensational.
by Printer Bowler
Full disclosure: young Printer is a dear friend. This is a slender volume that goes deep, from an officer during the Vietnam War who has lived a full and profoundly observed life and distilled there from many lessons that go beyond the front nine or the back. It’ll help your golf game, too.
by Murphy, Michael
Best book ever on golf and spirituality. Packed with wit and inventiveness, not at all full of itself, Kingdom is a yarn you can read over and over. Shivas Irons is probably the greatest fictional golf creation, short of Carl from Caddyshack. And Michael Murphy is erudite. Do you know the scene in Plato’s Symposium, when Alcibiades arrives, drunk, at the dinner party, and enters to make a speech in praise of Socrates? Well, Murphy knocks this off to brilliant effect with a speech in praise of Shivas—and never even winks at his readers.
by Bertrand, Tom and Printer Bowler
Golfing cognoscenti remember the late John Schlee’s student-mentor relationship with Ben Hogan that, alas, ended with both their deaths. Were Hogan’s final secrets lost? No, because Schlee passed them on to celebrated San Diego teaching pro Tom Bertrand. Here, working with Printer Bowler (author of the excellent Cosmic Laws of Golf), Bertrand delivers to us the master’s last secrets on pronation/supination, the left hip, the right knee, and much more—plus fascinating psychological nuggets on competition and the keys to victory. Hogan’s concept of “the moving wall” alone is worth the price of the book. A must-read for Hogan fans and golfing aficionados of all kinds.