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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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The Warrior Ethos

The Spartans do not ask how many are the enemy,
but where are they.
—Plutarch, Sayings of the Spartans

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?

From the Introduction by Steven Pressfield.

[The following is from chapter 12 of The Warrior Ethos:]

12. HOW THE SPARTANS BECAME THE SPARTANS

All warrior cultures start with a great man.

In ancient Sparta, that man was Lycurgus. He took the city from a normal society to a warrior culture.

So that no man would have grounds to feel superior to another, Lycurgus divided the country into 9000 equal plots of land. To each family he gave one plot. Further, he decreed that the men no longer be called "citizens," but "peers" or "equals."

So that no man might compete with another or put on airs over wealth, Lycurgus outlawed money. A coin sufficient to purchase a loaf of bread was made of iron, the size of a man's head and weighing over thirty pounds. So ridiculous was such coinage that men no longer coveted wealth but pursued virtue instead.

Lycurgus outlawed all occupations except warrior. He decreed that no name could be inscribed on a tombstone except that of a woman who died in childbirth or a man killed on the battlefield. A Spartan entered the army at eighteen and remained in service till he was sixty; he regarded all other occupations as unfitting for a man.

Once a Spartan was visiting Athens. His Athenian host threw a banquet in his honor. Wishing to show off for his guest, the Athenian indicated several illustrious personages around the table. "That man there is the greatest sculptor in Greece," he declared, "and that gentleman yonder is its finest architect." The Spartan indicated a servant from his own entourage. "Yes," he said, "and that man there makes a very tasty bowl of soup."

The Athenians, of course, were outstanding warriors in their own right. The great playwright Aeschylus, composing his own epitaph, mentioned nothing of his ninety plays or of any other civilian accomplishment.

Here lies Aeschylus the Athenian. Of his courage at the battle of Marathon, the long- haired Persian could speak much.

Lycurgus decreed that no man under thirty could eat dinner at home with his family. Instead, he instituted "common messes" of fourteen or fifteen men who were part of the same platoon or military unit. Above the threshold of each mess was a sign that said:

Out this door, nothing.

The point of the common mess was to bind the men together as friends. "Even horses and dogs who are fed together," observed Xenophon, "form bonds and become attached to one another."

The payoff came, of course, on the battlefield.

Here's how Spartans got married. Lycurgus wanted to encourage passion, because he felt that a child—a boy— conceived in heat would make a better warrior. So a young Spartan husband could not live with his bride (he spent all day training and slept in the common mess). If the young couple were to consummate their love, the husband had to sneak away from his messmates, then slip back before his absence was discovered.

It was not uncommon for a young husband to be married for four or five years and never see his bride in daylight, except during public events and religious festivals.

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