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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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Turning Pro

The follow-up to the bestseller The War of Art, Turning Pro navigates the passage from the amateur life to a professional practice.

You don’t need to take a course or buy a product. All you have to do is change your mind.
—Steven Pressfield

Turning Pro is the first official book released by Mr. Pressfield on his own publishing company, together with Shawn Coyne, Black Irish Books.

TURNING PRO IS FREE, BUT IT’S NOT EASY.

When we turn pro, we give up a life that we may have become extremely comfortable with. We give up a self that we have come to identify with and to call our own.

TURNING PRO IS FREE, BUT IT DEMANDS SACRIFICE.

The passage from amateur to professional is often achieved via an interior odyssey whose trials are survived only at great cost, emotionally, psychologically and spiritually. We pass through a membrane when we turn pro. It’s messy and it’s scary. We tread in blood when we turn pro.

WHAT WE GET WHEN WE TURN PRO.

What we get when we turn pro is we find our power. We find our will and our voice and we find our self-respect. We become who we always were but had, until then, been afraid to embrace and live out.

[The following are the first two chapters of Turning Pro:]

TURNING PRO

BOOK ONE THE AMATEUR LIFE

1. THE HUMAN CONDITION

The Daily Show reported recently that scientists in Japan had invented a robot that is capable of recognizing its own reflection in a mirror.

“When the robot learns to hate what it sees,” said Jon Stewart, “it will have achieved full humanity.”

2. THREE MODELS OF SELF-TRANSFORMATION

When we hate our lives and ourselves, two models present themselves as modes of salvation.

The first is the therapeutic model. In the therapeutic model, we are told (or we tell ourselves) that we are “sick.” What ails us is a “condition” or a “disease.”

A condition or a disease may be remedied by “treatment.”

Right now we are “ill.” After treatment, we will be “well.” Then we will be happy and will be able to function productively in society and in the world.

That’s one way of looking at our troubles.

The second way is the moralistic model. The moralistic model is about good and evil. The reason we are unhappy, we are told (or tell ourselves) is that we have done something “wrong.” We have committed a “crime” or a “sin.”

In some versions of the moralistic model, we don’t even have to have done anything wrong. The human being, we are told, was born wrong.

The answer to the condition of wrongness is punishment and penance. When we have “served our sentence” and “atoned for our sins,” we will be “pardoned” and “released.” Then we will be happy and will be able to function productively in society and in the world.

This book proposes a third model.

The model this book proposes is the model of the amateur and the professional.

The thesis of this book is that what ails you and me has nothing to do with being sick or being wrong. What ails us is that we are living our lives as amateurs.

The solution, this book suggests, is that we turn pro.

Turning pro is free, but it’s not easy. You don’t need to take a course or buy a product. All you have to do is change your mind.

Turning pro is free, but it’s not without cost. When we turn pro, we give up a life with which we may have become extremely comfortable. We give up a self that we have come to identify with and to call our own. We may have to give up friends, lovers, even spouses.

Turning pro is free, but it demands sacrifice. The passage is often accompanied by an interior odyssey whose trials are survived only at great cost, emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually. We pass through a membrane when we turn pro. It hurts. It’s messy and it’s scary. We tread in blood when we turn pro.

Turning pro is not for everyone. We have to be a little crazy to do it, or even to want to. In many ways the passage chooses us; we don’t choose it. We simply have no alternative.

What we get when we turn pro is, we find our power. We find our will and our voice and we find our self-respect. We become who we always were but had, until then, been afraid to embrace and to live out.

Do you remember where you were on 9/11? You’ll remember where you were when you turn pro.

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