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Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Give Your Hero a Hero Speech

By Steven Pressfield | Published: January 17, 2018


Let’s take a break today in this series on Villains and turn to the guy or girl opposite him: the Hero.

We’ve been saying in these posts that the Antagonist needs to be given a great Villain Speech, a moment when he or she gets to try to convince us that greed is good or that we can’t handle the truth.

Ben Johnson, Warren Oates, William Holden, and Ernest Borgnine marching to their Hero’s Moment

The hero needs her moment to shine too.

It’s our job as writers, yours and mine, to serve up some juicy, soul-defining, U.S. Prime dialogue for our protagonist to deliver.

Here’s one of my faves from the movie Fury, the Brad Pitt-starrer about a lone American tank driving deep into Nazi Germany in the closing weeks of WWII. The crisis comes when the tank hits a mine and becomes incapacitated just as a battalion of SS infantry is tramping down the road in its direction.

Do our heroes take off into the bushes and live to fight another day? Or do they make a stand, knowing it will cost them their lives?

Brad Pitt as the tank commander makes his own decision. “This is home,” he says, setting a palm on the turret of the tank. The other crewmen (Michael Pena, Jon Bernthal, Logan Lerman, Shia Labeouf) at first reluctantly, then with mounting spirit, join him. Each takes his last-stand position inside the tank, waiting for the SS, who are now only a couple of hundred yards away.

It’s a classic hero moment, the hour when the ultimate sacrifice is imminent, when ordinary men stand at the threshold of rendering themselves extraordinary.

The director/writer David Ayer gives the critical lines to Shia Laboeuf (who does a fantastic job delivering them) as Boyd “Bible” Swan, the tank’s gunner. Swan speaks quietly, in the steel intimacy of the tank’s interior, to his comrades, each of whom is isolated inside his own skull, awaiting the terminal moments of his life.



There’s a Bible verse I think about sometimes.

Many times. It goes, ‘And I heard the voice of the Lord

saying, Who shall I send, and who will go for us? Then

I said, Here am I. Send me.’


The sacrifice of one’s own life (or happiness or future prospects or whatever) for the good of others is the defining act of the hero.

Have you seen The Wild Bunch? I watch it once a year at least, just to remind myself what great storytelling and filmmaking is all about. The hero speech in that movie (screenplay by Walon Green and Sam Peckinpah) is two words, delivered by Warren Oates as Lyle Gortch.

Here’s the setting:

The surviving members of the outlaw band known as the Wild Bunch (William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Ben Johnson, and Warren Oates) have seen their companion Angel (Jaime Sanchez) captured and tortured by the evil generalissimo Mapache (Emilio Fernandez) and been unable to rescue him because of the overwhelming numbers of Mapache’s soldiers.

The Bunch pass the night in a debauch in the village where Mapache and his troops (and Angel, still in captivity) have laid up. Waking in the morning, William Holden, the leader of the Bunch, pays the poor young mother with whom he has passed the night.

Plainly he is thinking about Angel and how he and his companions have failed to deliver him.

Then something changes in Holden’s face.

Plainly he has come to some kind of resolve.

Note: not a word of dialogue has been spoken so far.

Holden crosses to the room in which Warren Oates and Ben Johnson are squabbling over payment with the woman they’ve spent the night with. Holden appears in the doorway. Ben and Warren look up. Warren sees the expression on Holden’s face. He squints, as if thinking to himself, Is Holden thinking what I think he’s thinking?

One more look convinces Warren.

His own expression hardens into the identical resolve.



Why not?


That’s it.

That’s the hero speech.

The three outlaws step outside into the sun, where the final member of the Bunch, Ernest Borgnine, sits in the dust with his back against the adobe wall of the house, whittling a stick.

Again without dialogue, the companions’ eyes meet each other. Borgnine barks a curt laugh, plunges his stick point-first into the dust, and rises eagerly to his feet.

The final scene of course is these four taking on Mapache’s hundreds and giving their lives in the process.

I’ve seen, in e-mails and in the Comments section of this blog, these posts referred to as “tips.”

I hate that.

What I hope these posts constitute are the collective tool kit of a writer. Today’s post is one I use in every book or movie I write, as are all the other posts in this series and all others.

It’s a box I check to help myself find my story.

“Do I have a hero’s speech? Have I given my protagonist a moment, even if it’s silent, when he or she gets to define the action they will take and explain the reasons why?”

If I don’t, alarm bells go off in my head.

“Take care of this, Steve. Figure it out and do it.” (more…)

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Keep the Heavies in Motion

By Steven Pressfield | Published: January 10, 2018

This is the second of Stephen Cannell’s axioms (see last week’s post for #1) that Randy Wallace taught me.

What Steve meant was not just “Keep the villain active during Act Two,” but “Keep him coming at the hero from as many directions as possible.”

Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper in "Silver Linings Playbook"

Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper in “Silver Linings Playbook”

This works even for interior villains, for antagonists that reside only inside our characters’ heads.

Consider one of my all-time faves, David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook.

The villain exists only inside Pat Solitano’s (Bradley Cooper) head. It’s his obsession with getting back together with his estranged wife Nikki.

The inciting incident of the movie is when Bradley meets Tiffany Maxwell (Jennifer Lawrence). In the audience, we know instantly that these two were meant for each other.

What’s keeping them apart?

Bradley’s obsession with Nikki.

That’s the villain.

Steve Cannell would be proud of how David O. Russell (who wrote the film—based on the novel by Matthew Quick—as well as directing it) “kept the heavies in motion.”

Bradley’s obsession with Nikki cross-crosses Act Two like an Oklahoma tornado.

We see Bradley jogging wearing a plastic trash bag to make him sweat, so he can lose weight for Nikki.

Bradley tells Jennifer again and again how he’s going to win Nikki back.

He obsesses with his shrink about getting Nikki back.

He composes a letter to Nikki and gets Jennifer to deliver it.

Even when Bradley starts rehearsing with Jennifer to be her partner in a dance contest, the endeavor (for him) is all about Nikki. He’s trying to prove that he’s a good guy helping Tiffany so that Nikki will see he has changed and not be so spooked by his nuttiness.

Poor Jennifer is whipsawed by this villain that keeps coming at her from every angle, deep deep into Act Three.

And this whipsawing works.

It makes Jennifer react. How she responds reveals her moxie, her toughness, her love for Bradley.

In the audience we are riveted, rooting for Jennifer and Bradley to get together and energized/terrorized every time Bradley’s Nikki-obsession rears its crazy head.

Try this yourself if you’re stuck in Act Two.

Steve Cannell knew what he was talking about.

Keep the heavies in motion.


Posted in Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

The Second Act Belongs to the Villain, #2

By Steven Pressfield | Published: January 3, 2018


I learned this from my friend Randall Wallace (“Braveheart”), who learned it from Stephen Cannell, the maestro of a thousand plotlines from The Rockford Files to Baretta to 21 Jump Street.

Al Lettieri as Virgil "The Turk" Sollozzo in "The Godfather, Part One"

Al Lettieri as Virgil “The Turk” Sollozzo in “The Godfather, Part One”

What Steve Cannell meant was not that the second act should be packed with scenes of the villain twirling his mustache or plotting in his lair. He meant bring the villain’s effects on the heroes into the foreground and keep them there.


Because the havoc and jeopardy incited by the villain energizes the story and keeps it powering forward.

The villain in The Godfather (at least the personified individual) is Virgil “The Turk” Sollozzo (Al Lettieri). Remember him? He’s the gangster who comes originally to Don Corleone (Marlon Brando) with the proposal that the Corleone family finance his nascent heroin business. Brando turns him down.

This is the inciting incident of The Godfather.

This moment with Sollozzo comes right at the start of Act Two (in other words, exactly where Steve Cannell would want it to come.)

What happens now as this second act unfolds?

  1. Sollozzo and his allies in the Tattaglia family kill Luca Brasi by garroting him in a hotel bar. (Remember Sollozzo pinning Luca’s hand to the bar with a smashing stab of his knife.)
  2. Sollozzo’s gunmen attempt to assassinate Brando in the street outside his office at the Genco Olive Oil company.
  3. Sollozzo kidnaps consigliere Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall).
  4. When Brando miraculously survives, Sollozzo’s goons and his allies in the NYPD plot to kill him in the hospital. Only Michael’s (Al Pacino) quick thinking on-site prevents his father’s murder.
  5. Sollozzo’s menace forces the family to “go to the mattresses.”
  6. Sollozzo sends a package to the Corleones—a dead fish wrapped in Luca Brasi’s bulletproof vest. “Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes.”
    Luca Brasi, on his way to sleeping with the fishes ... thanks to Sollozzo.

    Luca Brasi, on his way to sleeping with the fishes … thanks to Sollozzo.

    Even after Sollozzo is killed by Michael in the Italian restaurant, the villain continues to dominate (and energize) the second act, culminating in Sonny’s (James Caan) Tommy-gun murder on the causeway.

    Even in far-off Sicily, we’re not safe. Michael’s wife Apollonia gets blown up in a car by a bomb meant to kill Michael.

    See how the second act belongs to the villain?

    And how this keeps the story vivid with momentum and emotion?

    The first act belongs to the hero. We meet her or him, learn a little about their world and their predicament, and the villain is introduced.

    Then comes Act Two. The villain moves to the fore.

    The second act should be packed with the villian’s threats, machinations, plots, and attacks. The hero should have to react and react and react again.

    I wrote a screenplay once for a producer who called these incursions of the villain “bumps.”

    “We need more bumps,” he would tell me. “Gimme a bump here on page 41 and another on page 48. Never let ten pages go by without a bump.”

    He was right.

    When you and I find ourselves struggling in the middle section of our story, we could do worse than to take a cue from this producer and from Steve Cannell.

    Give us some bumps.

    The Second Act Belongs to the Villain.



Posted in Writing Wednesdays
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