THURSDAY'S SCRIPT TIP:
WHO'S YOUR ANTAGONIST?
One key to a focused script is to know who your antagonist
is, and what his objectives and plan of action are. Though your hero may have to
abandon her plan of action, the villain's plan of action will always remain an
unchanging constant. An out of control bus knocking over anything in its path.
In Graham Yost's SPEED Dennis Hopper is going to blow things up until he
gets his money. He starts with an elevator. When that doesn't work, he tries a city
bus or two. When they set a trap for him, he goes so far as to strap explosives to
HIMSELF in order to get the money he feels he deserves. The quest for the money
by using explosives is a constant for the villain. He never changes that plan, even
though Keanu Reeves' smart young bomb squad guy does everything possible to stop
him. The villain is focused to the point of tunnel vision, and the bomb squad cop must
force Hopper (and a subway car) out of that tunnel in order to stop him.
In my book Secrets Of
Action Screenwriting I note that the Villain's Plan is the most important part of any
action or thriller script... but it's really the most important part of ANY script. The
antagonist creates the story no matter what the genre. In a romantic comedy like MY
BEST FRIEND'S WEDDING Julia Roberts seems content to live her life as a single
woman until Cameron Diaz comes along and grabs her ace-in-the-hole potential
husband. If Dermott had never met Cameron, he'd still be available if Julia ever
decided to get married. The antagonist is the character that sets the plot in motion...
which makes the ANTAGONIST the most important character in your script, and their
plan is the action that your entire story is in reaction to. Antagonist is active, protagonist is
reactive. Note that "reactive" is not the same as passive... it's still active.
In Bruce Joel Rubin's GHOST Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore are living the
perfect life - they've just bought a loft apartment and remodeled it with their pal Tony
Goldwyn, Demi is creating some great pottery, Patrick is making money on Wall
Street... but when Tony Goldwyn begins using company accounts to launder drug
money and Patrick notices the irregularities, the story kicks into gear. Goldwyn has no
choice but to have his friend mugged to steal a notebook from him, and that mugging turns into a murder.
That action on the part of the antagonist is what
creates the plot - Swayze as a ghost trying to discover who killed him, why they killed
him, and protect Demi from danger. Without Goldwyn's money laundering scheme, no
story at all! Swayze and Demi would still be making pottery together and he would
NEVER have told her that he loves her (he would still be saying "Ditto"). Comedy,
thriller, love story, action flick, drama, rom-com... the antagonist is the character who
creates the story. No antagonist, no plan, no story!
DO YOU NEED AN ANTAGONIST?
Every *story* needs conflict, and filmed stories need conflicts that we can *see*...
and that usually means an antagonist. In SAVING PRIVATE RYAN we don't have a single
antagonist - we have an ARMY. The German Army. Our team of protags are behind enemy
lines - trying to avoid the enemy - as they make it to the place they believe Ryan
parachuted to. No shortage of conflict, and we can SEE all of that conflict. Tanks and bombs dropping and an entire army firing guns at them! Even
then we have "Mickey Mouse" - the German officer who they spare at one point
who eventually kills some of them. That's the "face of the German army" - a flesh and
blood person who symbolizes the army. Someone they can actually struggle with - so that
we can see the conflict. In a screenplay, we must have a visible conflict - and that
means a visible antagonist.
Movies like REQUIEM FOR A DREAM, FORREST GUMP, and THE GREEN MILE are all based on novels -
so they used whatever was in the books they were based on. REQUIEM is the ever-tough to pull
off addiction-as-antagonist. That works great on the page - where the struggle can be within
one's mind - but it doesn't translate well to the screen. We can't really see the struggle -
the conflict - we can only see the "symptoms" of the conflict. Though this film does one
heck of a job of making us feel the desperation of addiction and the rush of the high. We also get
conflict through characters trying to get the money together to buy their drugs...but the actual cravings for
drugs? That's internal and can not be seen - just the "symptoms" show up on film.
These films usually don't connect with mass audiences; and despite getting great reviews,
I don't think many people saw REQUIEM... probably a hundred times more people saw the SIMPSONS parody episode.
That doesn't make it a bad movie - I'm a big fan of the film - but it does make it a hard sell as a screenplay.
It *did* have a human antagonist, though - the drug dealer they are in debt to... The one Jennifer
Connelly sells her body to for the next fix. That guy is symbolic of her addiction - and
provides someone for them to struggle with... to have a physical conflict with... that way we can see the lengths to which they will go
for their addiction. Again, we're "putting a face on it" so that we can see the conflict.
FORREST GUMP did connect with the mass audience - but it's a fluke. In a strange way, the whole world
is the force of antagonism in GUMP. Because he's a simple guy, and the world is complex. Again
and again, Forrest must struggle with the world around him - and we can see these struggles. They
tried to catch the same lightning in a bottle with BENJAMIN BUTTON and did not succeed. GUMP is one of those
movies that works... but shouldn't work. Like those strange birds that should not be able to fly, but that doesn't stop them.
THE GREEN MILE had an innocent prisoner on death row... that's conflict. I haven't seen the
movie since it first came out - but isn't there a warden who is a force of antagonism? I know
there's a mean executioner's assistant. These are the "faces" of antagonism in the film, and
allow a physical struggle for our protagonist. Oh, and the guy who really did the killings is
also a prisoner - and he provides some physical conflict as well. It all comes down to the
physical conflict - that's the reason for antagonists. In a film we need a conflict we can see,
and struggling with an antagonist (or *physical* force of antagonism). We need a conflict, and a struggle with that conflict, that makes it from the page to that giant screen.
If we can't see the conflict, it doesn't exist - and our job as screenwriters is to make internal and emotional conflict visible. Sometimes that means we "put a face on it" and create a symbolic antagonist.
As always - consider the source. If your story is more like REQUIEM, GUMP, or GREEN MILE - those
began as books. A story with a more internal conflict would probably work better as a book - where
we can get into a character's mind and understand the internal conflict. Pulling them off on
screen is very, very, difficult. We need to externalize the conflict... and still hope that the
story is big enough for the screen. When a story begins in another medium, it brings the success
of that medium with it. The reason why the make the film is because somebody loved that book. THE GREEN MILE was a successful serialized novel, REQUIEM FOR A DREAM is a
classic and FORREST GUMP was a popular cult novel. If you're starting with an original screenplay,
it doesn't have the built-in track record that a novel has. As with anything else - if you just have
to write your addiction story, write it... just don't expect it to sell.
ANTAGONISTS IN DRAMA
But what if you are writing a small drama without a mega-villain out to destroy the world? TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD is a book you probably had to read in school and a movie you may have been
required to see. Maybe you haven't seen it since then...
The story is a classic coming of age story, and has two plot threads that are connected by theme,
which intersect again and again. Though tomboy Scout is the narrator, it's really her brother Jem's
story - and he gets all of the close ups. He's a 12 or 13 year old boy - and the story is about the
events that turn him from boy to man.
The "B story" is about Scout and Jem and the kid next door (forget his name) goofing off over
summer vacation. Doesn't sound like much, but there's an antagonist - Boo Radley. Boo is a maniac
who lives in the creepy old house down the street, and he once stabbed his father for no reason.
He's a monster. They once locked up Boo in the basement of the courthouse - because he's a monster -
but eventually they let him go back home.
Because Boo is a mostly unseen monster, the story creates two tangible "surrogates" for Boo.
One is the creepy old house itself - much of the summer is spent with the kids daring each other
to touch the front door of the Radley house. It's kind of like poking a sleeping lion with a stick
- the monster could wake up and eat you. Again and again they dare each other - until Jem works up
the nerve to crawl under the fence and look through the window. This is a big suspense scene -
because you just know Boo will come out of the shadows and grab him... and Boo's shadow *does*
creep up on him! It's like the shark fin in JAWS... you see Boo's shadow, you know you're in
The other surrogate for Boo is his father - who is very protective of Boo and actually fires
his shotgun at Jem in one scene. That's real danger - and an altercation that is tangible, not
The "A story" - which also kicks in during the first 15 minutes or so - is Jem and Scout's lawyer
dad, Atticus, being assigned the job of defending Robinson, a Black man accused of raping a young
woman. In this story, the antagonist is Bob Ewell, the girl's drunk, violent, bigoted father.
He's a great antagonist - and he seems to pop up every ten minutes, drunk and violent and threatening
Atticus (or the kids) because he's "siding with that n*gg*r". Ewell is a real monster. This story
is Atticus defending Robinson against the charges of rape - both in court and out. Ewell puts
together a lynch mob at one point and Atticus (and the kids!) must keep the *armed* mob from
snatching Robinson from the jail and hanging him. Ewell pops up at Robinson's wife's house and
threatens Atticus and the kids there, too. Ewell threatens them in the courthouse - and even
figures out how to make threats on the witness stand. Though there are great courtroom scenes
in this film, Ewell *physically* threatens Atticus and the kids again and again outside the
courtroom - where *most* of the story takes place.
Robinson is innocent. Ewell knows this. Atticus ends up not just defending a man, but defending
the idea that a Black man can be innocent and a white man can be guilty - the basic prejudice of
So we have *two* antagonists... and the two story threads that are connected by theme: there's a
great scene where Atticus tells Scout that you can't judge anyone until you've seen his POV and
walked in his shoes. Robinson is being judged by the color of his skin, and Boo Radley by his
creepy reputation. Scout - but mostly Jem - learns that you can't judge people from the outside.
There's a swell scene where Jem *insists* on coming with Atticus to do the right thing (which leads
to a confrontation with Ewell). Jem steps up and becomes a man in this film - and learns some hard
lessons that change him forever.
One of the things you always have to consider: is your story *big enough* for the screen?
TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD may seem like a small story - but it's about larger events... and there's
even a maniac with a knife! The conflict isn't just whether Jem & Scout will be killed by Ewell,
the conflict deals with the racial divisions of an entire nation... and the small town trial in
TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD is a microcosm of the civil rights issues in the United States. Even a small
story needs a big conflict. Racism is the force of antagonism, personified by Ewell. That's a big story,
and a major force of antagonism... even though this is a small coming of age story.
1) Who is your antagonist?
2) What is their plan?
3) How does your protagonist come in the way of them achieving that plan?
4) Remember: the stronger the antagonist, the stronger the
story. The antagonist is the most important character in any screenplay!
They bring the conflict - and story *is* conflict.
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