MONDAY'S SCRIPT TIP:
THE VILLAIN'S JOURNEY
Story is conflict.
Pick a genre, any genre.
Pick a story, any story.
Without a conflict, there is no story... nothing happens.
Boy meets Girl... and nothing comes between them, so Hugh Grant does not have to race to an airport or wedding to win back the woman he loves, because he never lost her.
FBI Profilers sit around the office eating donuts and drinking coffee and waiting for the phone to ring... and become as fat as I am.
Superheroes have nothing to do all day and become Walmart greeters just to stay busy.
Without a conflict, nothing happens.
So conflict is the most important part of story - without conflict there is no story.
Antagonists (or forces of antagonism), as the bringers of conflict, are the most important characters in any story - without them there is no story.
The Hero's Journey? Nothing without conflict and that antagonist or force of antagonism. I have never read a screenwriting book or seen a class or read many articles that focus on the importance of the antagonist or the importance of conflict. Your conflict is the key to your screenplay, and the antagonist (bringer of conflict) is the most important character in your screenplay because without them? No story. Your protagonist is sitting on the couch eating Cheetos and watching wrestling (which has both conflict and villains). And the woman he loves is watching with him... and she loves that he's fat and lazy and spends all day watching wrestling in his underpants... because this is a story without conflict. *She's* in her underpants eating Cheetos, too. That's what happens when you don't have conflict - your characters get fat and their fingers turn orange!
We don't need another hero, what we need is a villain! Someone to bring the conflict and give us a story. Without that conflict, we have no story.
Story = antagonist (or force of antagonism).
Hitchcock said, the better the villain, the better the movie. You don't want a 2 dimensional cardboard cut out antagonist. Those are not a threat, not a problem... not really human. Everything in your script (and real life) is cause and effect, so the antagonist has to be just as strong and just as well drawn and just as motivated as the protagonist, or you have effect with no cause... and everything stops moving. The weaker the antagonist and the weaker the antagonist's motivations, the weaker the protagonist. While the other books and classes start with the protagonist, the *story* starts with the antagonist, the *story* is driven by conflict, so let us look at the conflict and the bringer of conflict...
TWO SIDES OF THE COIN
One of the great things about the opening to RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK is the introduction of the antagonist Belloq. Not just a great villain, but a character who helps define Indiana Jones *and* sets up the script's theme. Belloq is the more successful version of Indy: suave, cultured, and ruthless...
I know you despise me. We always hate
in others that which we most fear in
ourselves. You and I are very much alike.
Now you're getting nasty.
Archeology is our religion, yet we have both
fallen from the pure faith. Our methods have not
differed as much as you pretend. I am but a shadowy
reflection of you. It would take only a nudge to
make you like me. To push you out of the light.
The rest of the story will compare Indy and Belloq in scene after scene - how far will Indy go to get the Ark? Indy fears that he is the same as Belloq ("It would take only a nudge") and Indy's underlying emotional struggle in every scene is that fear. Is he doing the right thing? Is he after the Ark for the right reasons? Without Belloq, Indy would never question himself and his own motives... and we would only have a surface story. What makes RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK the movie that resonates with the audience, the adventure movie that has stood the (short) test of time while the Alan Quartermain films made at the same time are not even a memory, is that relationship between Indy and Belloq - that duel that takes place not only for the Ark, but for Indy's soul. Though the emotional conflict Belloq brings to the story may be subtle and take place largely in the background of the story; it makes the story *personal*. It is not just a handful of great action set pieces linked together, Indianan Jones is a real person with doubts and fears and flaws... all brought to the story by the antagonist. And by the end, when Belloq will do anything to see what's inside the Ark, Indy is able to curtail his curiosity and close his eyes. He can give up the Ark and Belloq can not. Indy has *not* been pushed out of the light.
Without Belloq and his Nazi bosses, there is no story. Indiana Jones just gets the Ark and brings it back. Nothing to stop him or even slow him down. Sure, we could create a bunch of false conflict along the way - he gets the ark in the back of a truck and the motor won't start - but this is junk conflict, surface conflict. That sort of conflict doesn't make for a good story... and story is conflict. It's not the size of the conflict that matters, it is the *importance* of the conflict. Unimportant conflict, surface conflict, is junk that should be avoided. A truck motor that will not start isn't going to drive the story, and isn't going to drive a scene - unless there is a larger conflict involved like a bunch of people with weapons chasing you. Now having that truck not start has become very important. Look at each piece of conflict in your script, large and small - is it *important*?
You also do not want an antagonist who is all surface. The antagonist brings the story, and a weak 2 dimensional antagonist brings a weak 2 dimensional story. This is true no matter the genre.
In TEMPLE OF DOOM we get a cardboard villain - the head Thugee, but in LAST CRUSADE we get something different - a femme fatale. She uses her wiles to lure Indy into solving the riddle of the Grail's location... then does a great double cross where she pretends to be in danger, but is really faking it to get Dr. Jones (sr)'s book. What's interesting about this character is that she begins as a villain, realizes she is just a tool of the Nazis, and *doesn't* scream for help when Indy confronts her at the Nazi rally. She ends up playing one side against the other to get what *she* wants - the Grail. Her character pulls drama and emotional conflict to the surface in Indy's character. When the antagonist brings the conflict, that conflict works as a trigger for the protagonist's emotional conflict. A weak or two dimensional antagonist creates no emotional conflict for the protagonist, and we end up with a flat undramatic story and a two dimensional protagonist. The deeper we explore our villain, the deeper we can explore our hero. If the villain is all surface, the hero will be all surface.
Behind that femme fatale in LAST CRUSADE we have some evil Nazis and a Howard Hughes-like millionaire who also plays each side against the other so that he can get his hands on the Grail. The theme in LAST CRUSADE is faith and belief - it opens with Indy saying that the only thing that matters are *facts* and by the end he must make a literal *leap of faith* to get the grail. So having a villain who you don't know whether you can believe or not isn't just a great way to give Indy an emotional conflict - it's a way to demonstrate theme through character. The antagonist brings the theme, because they bring the conflict. We can't really explore the protagonist's character, the protagonist's emotional problem, or the theme without a great antagonist (or force of antagonism). The antagonist is the most important character in your story.
THE VILLAIN'S GOAL
All of those classes and books focus on making sure your protagonist is well motivated and has a clear-cut goal in the story. But the protagonist isn't the bringer of conflict - the protagonist usually isn't the character who creates the conflict and the story. So shouldn't we be careful to make sure the character who creates the story is well motivated and has a clear-cut goal?
Just as the better the villain, the better the movie... the better the villain's goal the better the movie. The antagonist brings the conflict, and what that conflict *is* will make or break your story. The villain's goal needs to make sense and be well motivated... a silly conflict makes for a silly screenplay. Want proof? Woody Allen took a serious Japanese James Bond knock off and turned it into a comedy by changing the villain's goal from stealing top secret microfilm to stealing an egg salad recipe. Now, the same car chases and shoot outs and fight scenes that were exciting in the original film became silly. Same scenes - just a different villain's goal. This shows you that the goal of the antagonist is *critical* to your story.
In INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL, we get a cardboard 2 dimensional antagonist - a Russian scientist played by Cate Blanchett in a black wig. She wants the Crystal Skull for... what? So that she can read people's minds... which may come in handy if you're playing poker or on a first date, but how exactly does that matter to anyone in the audience? We must stop her before she finds out everyone thinks her wig looks silly! Even if she could *control* our minds - which we don't really get any proof of - how would that help her control the world? I mean, what's the plan? What is her *goal*? She runs around the USA forcing people to look into the skull's eye sockets until she has all of us under her control, then she makes us communists? This isn't a very good plan. It does not make sense.
Compare that to RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, where an army that leads with the Ark is *unconquerable*. The danged thing shoots bolts of lightning that fry anyone in front of it! Hey, if that fell into the hands of the Nazis, they could win WW2 and we'd all be eating bratwurst. LAST CRUSADE gives eternal life to anyone who drinks from the cup - which means Hitler can not be killed if he gets his hands on the Grail. Again, we'll be eating bratwurst if Indy fails. These are goals that make sense, and plans that make sense... and antagonists that make sense.
When CRYSTAL SKULL was released, the Russians wanted to ban it... because of the endless speeches of how the Soviet era Russians were eeeeeevillll. The problem is, instead of some sort of actual demonstration of Soviet menace, we get a demonstration (people protesting) about Soviet menace - which means a whole lot of speechifying. All of these folks with signs saying the Soviets are evil and people making speeches that the Soviets are evil... and it's just this big lump of crap in the film. I suspect it's there to tell us who the enemy is in the film - but what it does is *tell* us. Instead of making the villain and the villain's plan the enemy - showing us.
The big problem is - cardboard villain and pointless villain's plan. The antagonist has a goal that makes no sense, and can not be used to illustrate the reasons why it must be stopped. So they use a bunch of script spackle to tell us that the Soviets are really really bad... but give us no reasons *why* they are bad. And we never really see them do anything bad. Sure, they kidnap Indy, but that's what happens to characters like Indy. It's expected. But no villain's plan - and no *stakes*. No "or else factor". If the Soviets get the crystal skull.... not much happens. They have no plans to use it in the cold war, nothing. Because the antagonist has a weak and silly goal, the script has to reinforce it with heavy-handed speeches that made the current Russian government a little angry. Hey, if you have to create straw arguments and demonize a people instead of *showing* the reasons why they are a threat and giving us visual proof, those folks are going to get mad. You substitute prejudice for evidence.
In CRYSTAL SKULL if black-wigged Blanchett gets her hands on that skull, what the heck can she possibly do with it that poses some sensible threat? Why must Indy stop her? Because her goal is sketchy, the whole story becomes sketchy.
One of my favorite films is THE IPCRESS FILE - a Cold War spy movie like CRYSTAL SKULL. The antagonist is kidnaping our top scientists... and erasing their brains. When we pay a bunch of ransom money to get these scientists back, they can no longer function as scientists. "The brain drain" they call it. The Soviets can make all kinds of scientific advances - all kinds of high tech weapons advances - and our scientists can no longer *think*. At a time when the arms race was big news, the idea that they could incapacitate our scientists... after finding out everything they knew... was scary. If CRYSTAL SKULL had just had some sort of similar goal for the antagonist, some stakes, an "or else factor", we would have known why Indy had to stop the Soviets and wouldn't have needed a bunch of speeches about how evil the Soviets are.
You know, it's not that the villain is evil, it's that they want to do something that will harm us, so our hero must stop them. The key to a great antagonist is to realize that they are the hero if the story is told from their point of view. They have goals that make sense and are "right" and "just" from their standpoint. CRYSTAL SKULL has to make the Russians evil because the antagonist's goal makes no sense at all. What is your antagonist's goal? Does it make sense? Does each step of their plan to achieve that goal make sense? If the protagonist had not stopped the antagonist, would their plan have worked?
That last question is critical to your story - if the antagonist's plan only works up until that point where the protagonist stops them, it's a defective plan... and you end up with a defective story. The antagonist has no idea that the protagonist will stop them, nor do they know *when* the protagonist will stop them - so their plan must be thought out, planned out, and actually *work* successfully if the protagonist hadn't gotten in the way. You need to think *beyond* the end of your screenplay to the future that does not happen. Could it have happened? Do those scenes that would have happened after your screenplay make sense?
An important thing with any script in any genre is that the characters be well rounded. You should know why your protagonist is *wrong* and why your antagonist is *right*. Look at the story from your antagonist's perspective and make sure it makes sense. A stupid villain's plan results in a stupid movie... a "bad brain" conflict that creates a "bad brain" screenplay.
ACTIVE PLOT & PASSIVE PLOT
Just as we don't want our protagonists sitting on the sofa in their underpants eating Cheetos and watching television, we don't want our antagonists doing that either. All of those books and classes talk about the dangers of the passive protagonist, but do any of them ever mention the passive antagonist? If the antagonist brings the conflict and story is conflict, we need to make sure that antagonist brings an *active* conflict. It's not enough for the antagonist to have a goal, they must be *pursuing it* - doing something!
If the hero must stop the villain from doing something, we have an active plot. Our characters must do something. RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK and LAST CRUSADE had active plots. But CRYSTAL SKULL seems to have lifted the defective plot from TEMPLE OF DOOM. One of the basic elements of an adventure story is a quest - a search. Whether we are looking for King Solomon's Mines or the Elephant Burial Grounds, characters in adventure stories are *searching* for something. This is a basic of adventure stories. Heck, even the T&A knock-off PERILS OF GWENDOLINE had the busty leading lady searching for a rare butterfly in a jungle filled with topless Amazons. Adventure is about the quest, the search... and yet in TEMPLE OF DOOM there is no quest! They literally crash-land into a story where the plot is to return a sacred stone to a village. In CRYSTAL SKULL they get the skull in the opening scene - and the story is about returning it... the same danged plot with the same danged problems as TEMPLE OF DOOM! You would have thought Lucas would have learned from his past mistakes.
Because the villain has no plan or goal, and there is no quest in the story, we end up with a kind of mystery style story about what the Crystal Skull really is. The problem here is that if we don't know what the powers of the skull are, there is no threat of those powers - no or else factor. And that kills the story. The mystery has no real reason to be solved. Doesn't matter what the skull is - we have the same results no matter what it is. We end up with a pointless story because as far as we know the crystal skull is pointless. It is an excuse for a story instead of something that drives the story. An excuse for conflict instead of something that is driving the conflict.
And by using a mystery format in CRYSTAL SKULL it means people are always explaining things - exposition city! You can have a mystery that uses visual instead of verbal exposition. In fact, LAST CRUSADE has a swell scene where they are looking for Roman numerals in a church, and the number ten is the key to the mystery. They search - and we see many parts of the church - but no number ten. Then Indy climbs a stairway and looks down - and the light through the window has formed an X on the floor - the number 10. No one has to say it, we *see* it. That is the way to handle clues and mystery in a screenplay - make them visual instead of expositional. But CRYSTAL SKULL gives us only people explaining things endlessly... which kind of brings the story to a dead stop (not a good thing for an adventure film). Because there is no conflict, no "or else factor", behind the mystery, driving the mystery, the story stalls out again and again. The *threat* of the crystal skull is the mystery, so there is no threat (and no conflict) until the very end. The story up until then is manufactured conflict without a clear motive because our antagonist doesn't have a plan that we understand.
One of the great things in both LAST CRUSADE and RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK is that we get a legend up front, then we never have to explain anything. In RAIDERS we get the legend of the Ark... "The Bible speaks of the Ark leveling mountains and laying waste to entire regions. An army which carries the Ark before it... is invincible." What's more - we get *pictures*! They *show* us what the Ark can do! Once we have that legend, we don't need to be told anything else. Same with the Grail - once we know the legend, we need no further exposition. Legends may be expositional, but they are designed to be fascinating. LAST CRUSADE gives us the legend of the Three Knights... and that's a very entertaining story, *plus* it gives us all of the information we need about the Grail for the rest of the film. When Indy gets to the "Grail chamber" and there's a knight in there - we know exactly who he is. No need for a couple of pages of exposition at that point, we can go straight to the fun stuff.
A *huge* problem with CRYSTAL SKULL is that it's filled with huge chunks of exposition... and the exposition just keeps coming! They keep telling us stuff! Instead of giving us one fascinating legend in the beginning, they keep having to tell us why the skull is important every few minutes - because there is nothing in the story that shows us why the crystal skull is important. We see no goal for the antagonist other that having this danged crystal skull - maybe it would look cool on their mantle? Maybe they need a good paperweight? Just having the skull isn't a good goal, and by hiding the antagonist's motivations in a mystery that is not solved until the end, we have a weak and silly antagonist in a bad black wig. Because we do not know *why* the skull is important, it is unimportant... and the film is just an endless game of "keep away". No one thought about the antagonist, no one thought about the antagonist's goal or their plan to achieve that goal. They did not realize that the antagonist is the most important character in the story because they bring the conflict.
The key to a well motivated protagonist, a protagonist who must wrestle with emotional conflict, and active protagonist, a protagonist who deals with dramatic situations, a protagonist we care about... is an active, goal oriented, three dimensional antagonist with a plan that makes sense. The antagonist brings the conflict, story *is* conflict, so your antagonist is the most important character in your story.
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Show Don't Tell - but *how* do you do that? Here are techniques to tell stories visually! Using Oscar Winning Films and Oscar Nominated Films as our primary examples: from the first Best Picture Winner "Sunrise" (1927) to the Oscar Nominated "The Artist" (which takes place in 1927) with stops along the way Pixar's "Up" and Best Original Screenplay Winner "Breaking Away" (a small indie style drama - told visually) as well as "Witness" and other Oscar Winners as examples... plus RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES. Print version is 48 pages, Kindle version is over 200 pages!
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*** YOUR IDEA MACHINE *** - For Kindle!
*** YOUR IDEA MACHINE *** - For Nook!
Expanded version with more ways to find great ideas! Your screenplay is going to begin with an idea. There are good ideas and bad ideas and commercial ideas and personal ideas. But where do you find ideas in the first place? This handbook explores different methods for finding or generating ideas, and combining those ideas into concepts that sell. The Idea Bank, Fifteen Places To Find Ideas, Good Ideas And Bad Ideas, Ideas From Locations And Elements, Keeping Track Of Your Ideas, Idea Theft - What Can You Do? Weird Ways To Connect Ideas, Combing Ideas To Create Concepts, High Concepts - What Are They? Creating The Killer Concept, Substitution - Lion Tamers & Hitmen, Creating Blockbuster Concepts, Magnification And The Matrix, Conflict Within Concept, Concepts With Visual Conflict, Avoiding Episodic Concepts, much more! Print version is 48 pages, Kindle version is over 175 pages!
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PRO DIALOGUE TECHNIQUES!
*** DIALOGUE SECRETS *** - For Kindle!
*** DIALOGUE SECRETS *** - For Nook!
Expanded version with more ways to create interesting dialogue! How to remove bad dialogue (and what *is* bad dialogue), First Hand Dialogue, Awful Exposition, Realism, 50 Professional Dialogue Techniques you can use *today*, Subtext, Subtitles, Humor, Sizzling Banter, *Anti-Dialogue*, Speeches, and more. Tools you can use to make your dialogue sizzle! Special sections that use dialogue examples from movies as diverse as "Bringing Up Baby", "Psycho", "Double Indemnity", "Notorious", the Oscar nominated "You Can Count On Me", "His Girl Friday", and many more! Print version is 48 pages, Kindle version is over 175 pages!
Only $4.99 - and no postage!
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